At a birthday party yesterday evening for a colleague, one that was attended by professors, neighbors, and parents with kids, I was having a lovely time meeting new people, feeling the breeze, and eating barbecue in their back yard. And in the middle of it all, this kid who’s blowing bubbles and carrying a water balloon comes over to me and asks, “Hey, are you a boy or a girl?”

“Why do you ask?”

“You look like a girl, but you talk like a boy.”

I was hearing the line from Lola, “Well I’m not dumb but I can’t understand why she walked like a woman and talked like a man, oh my Lola,” but was unable to come up with any suitable answer for the child. Having slept on it, and having my confidence rattled by it, here are some of the answers I could have used, each asking me to assume a different ontological stance and each treating my young interrogator in different ways.

Didactic, Completely Open. “I used to be a man, but now I’m a woman. Some people who change from boy to girl actually like their old voice and don’t make any changes at all. After all, why should you have to change every single facet of your being when you’re transgendered? I’m happy with who I’m becoming, and now that I think on it, I believe you’re an awfully lucky kid to actually know one of us.”

Lying, Complete Erasure. “I’m a girl, you silly child. There are women with low voices and men with high voices, and those voices really don’t have anything to do with being a boy or a girl.”

Condescension. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You have eyes, don’t you? What are you, learning impaired?”

Sophomoric Comeback. “I know what I am, but what are you?”

Creepy Funny. “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”

Intellectual. “What is sex? What is gender? There’s a theorist named Judith Butler who would tell you that it’s all just an act, that I might be a boy and I might be a girl, and both of those things can be true, depending on how I feel.”

Deflection. “Hey, what’s that over there? Is that a space ship?”

Too Much Information. “I’m kind of half boy and half girl. You see, Timmy, I’ve been taking hormones and getting my beard zapped off, but I’ve still got to get a boob job and have my willie turned inside out and shoved up into my body cavity to create what they call a neo-vagina. Couple all that with the legalities of name and sex changes and court orders, and I think it’s fair to say I’m perhaps only 40% girl. Does that answer your question?”

The Non-Answer. “Once upon a time, there were three goats who were brothers, and when they tried to cross this bridge, an ogre blocked their way and refused them passage….”

I think it all boils down to what I want my identity to be, whether a boy-changing-into-a-girl or a plain old woman, and depending on how I answer that question, my answer to little kids will follow. Intellectually, I’m believe I’m fine with having a complex past, as I wrote in my “Narrative Erasures” post a month ago. But it’s really telling that I could get so flummoxed yesterday by such a simple question, and it seems to me that this incident reveals the tension between what I know and believe intellectually and how I live in my daily world. Maybe the only way to know is to try some of these answers and see how I feel about myself.