My mother was standing in the kitchen the first time I asked her if I was supposed to be a boy. I looked up at her from behind my glasses with my afro brushing against her arm.
"No baby, you weren't." She looked at me and smiled sweetly.
I asked my mother that question at least seven times as a child. My continuing question, however, did not come from my own perception of what my identity should be. I spent time with boys, who wore muscle shirts to school, and khaki pants and sweaters to church. Instead of hanging out with girls on the playground, I outshot the boys on the blacktop or ran over them in football. I had short hair like a boy, and did "boy" things like playing with action figures, but I never felt like a boy and didn't want to be a boy.
The truth is that having short hair, wearing baggy clothes, and playing with action figures is no more of an indication of gender than the opposite of those things. They only matter because we say they do.
No more is that truth evident than in the case of Mili Hernandez, the 8-year-old from Nebraska who was mistaken for a boy at a recent soccer tournament. Though additional reporting revealed a typo added to the confusion around her gender, the fact that her short hair was perceived to be the reason for her team's disqualification points to the fact that gender-expression policing is a core part of the women's sports experience.
When I was a child struggling with gender expression, sports were a refuge. Basketball and soccer provided necessary cover for me to express myself in a traditionally masculine way, not because sports are inherently masculine, but because society normalizes masculine expression for women in the context of sports. While I could not articulate that fact as a child, I was happy to play basketball and soccer in my baggy shorts.
There is this undercurrent of gender-expression policing that exists within women's sports -- that women who play sports are masculine. To fight back against this idea, it is not uncommon to see overt displays of femininity on the field at every level of women's sports. One of the reasons more girls play volleyball than basketball is because volleyball is perceived as being more feminine.
It is not only essential to talk about gender-expression policing in sports, but also in our daily language. The way we attach "man" to things as descriptive factors says a lot about how we view handbags, hairstyles, and sexual activity. If we're getting rid of "lady" sports teams, might as well throw the "man bun" in the garbage as well.
This thing we do -- ascribing gender to behaviors and clothes and hairstyles, and policing one another with those completely made up standards -- only creates more anxiety for our children and in our interactions with one another. The only reason these gender norms continue to exist is because we allow them to.