Unchecking the box

Deb VanderGaast is a registered nurse and child care advocate seeking to advance state and national child care and disability policy, inclusive child care practices and improve access to quality, affordable child care for working parents. She was the 2022 Democratic nominee in Iowa Senate district 41.

The LGBTQ+ community in Iowa is under attack, and so are our schools. Many people think the acceptance of queer people in our culture is causing an increase in transgender and queer kids. They think exposure to transgender and queer people in education, books, movies, music, and the community is “grooming” kids to question their gender and sexual identity.

They are completely wrong.

Adolescence is a time when kids form their identities and “try on” various roles as they explore who they are and who they want to be. Our society now allows many more options as acceptable choices for youth to consider, but this increased acceptance has not changed who kids are becoming. Rather, it has allowed adolescents to safely express who they already are. They are no longer constrained by social biases against gay and transgender people.

I defend the LGBTQ+ community, and especially transgender kids and kids who are questioning their gender identity, for a very personal reason. When I was an adolescent, society was not as accepting of those who were different. Those who did not conform to what was considered “normal” were not just marginalized, they were persecuted.

If you were queer in any way, you had to keep it hidden. It was not safe, especially in high school, to be yourself. In fact, it could be literally dangerous. And that danger continued into adulthood, because there were no civil rights for gay or transgender people.


I grew up with two close family members who were gay. They were openly gay among close friends and family, but we all had to hide their secret. If the community found out, there could be serious consequences for them. They could lose their job, be evicted from apartments, be denied loans, or worse yet, be physically assaulted or even killed by hateful people who regarded them as abominations against God. (A big source of personal conflict was caused by going to church and hearing sermons saying “Love they neighbor as thyself.” Apparently that only applies to some neighbors.)

Imagine being a kid having to carry this burden and fear. I also feared that if the community found out, they would consider our entire family defective, or even evil. I had certainly heard horrible things said about gay people in church and in the media. The entire AIDS epidemic was being blamed on people like my relatives. Because of that, I also feared they might die from AIDS.

I did not, however, resent my family members for being gay. They were the kindest, and most normal people I know. I loved them, and was confused about why society hated them. Their being gay had no direct effect on our relationship or what kind of people they were. They just happened to to love people we called their partners, or in public, their room mates. Their partners were our family, too. We referred to them with family titles, like uncle or sister-in-law…just not in public.

Society’s non-acceptance of queer people had an even deeper effect on me as I matured and struggled to find my own identity. I was born female, and I consider myself female. I have always checked that box, but I never fit into that box.


When I started into puberty younger than my peers, I was too tall and too stocky. I was not personally aware of it, but my friends and family started noticing that I was increasingly not looking, sounding or acting like a girl. I was muscular, athletic, and I had a deep voice. I really didn’t like doing hair and makeup or shopping with the other girls. I liked hanging out with my brothers and playing sports, and I was good at them.

My mom noticed other kids treating me differently, and enrolled me in modeling classes to help me walk and act more like a girl. It did not help at all. My peers started calling me names like “tomboy” and “butch.” Over time, the names grew more cruel, and I became more shy and withdrawn. I found myself sitting on the bench at recess with the other kids that didn’t fit in, though I didn’t understand why I didn’t fit in.

Unfortunately, some kids viewed me as the Goliath to be conquered as the ultimate test of their own toughness. This meant that at times the bullying was physical as they attempted to make me fight them. The laughter and taunting was painful as I passively extracted myself from fights I didn’t want to be in.


By high school, I had dropped out of school sports and choir. I just wanted to blend in, and I desperately wanted to prove I was a girl. This led me to date a varsity football player who was not always kind to me. But dating him validated to my peers that I was not a “Bull Dyke,” as I had been called many times. Sadly, I also felt the need to prove to that boyfriend that I was a woman, and therefore became sexually active far too young.

While dating that guy, I joined the community judo club he was in. There, my strength and masculine build was something I could be proud of. I enjoyed being in a place where I did not have to be ashamed of being athletic. I was proud of who I was, and I felt accepted. 

My parents completely disapproved of my joining the judo club, so I had to hide it from them at first. The instructor, however, saw my potential and allowed me to stay in the club despite my parents not paying for the classes. Eventually, my parents saw how well I was doing and how much I was enjoying it, and they became supportive and paid my fees. Sadly, that same instructor shamed me and shoved me back into the “female” box when my strength threatened his masculinity. 

I had been lifting weights and working out during PE with the football players, and was by then stronger than the boys in my freshmen class. I had asked if I could join the football team, and was told by the coach that girls could not be on the football team. My mother got a call from the football coach because I had threatened to sue him for sex discrimination. That was my first spark of social activism. Rather than standing up for me, my mother put a damper on that idea by informing me that I did not have enough money to hire an attorney. My mom meant well, but she and the coach shoved me back into the female box.

My judo coach liked that my strength gave me an advantage in competitions, but he did not like when it made him look weak. He was demonstrating a hold to the class and pinned me to the mat on my back. When done correctly, I should not have been able to get out of that hold, and it was done correctly. I got out of it with ease. I imitated the football players’ neck exercises by grabbing my instructor around his torso, arching up onto my head and feet, flipping both our bodies over my head, then landing so that I was laying across his chest and pinned him to the mat. He was completely dumbstruck, and I felt like a champion.

At the end of the class, my instructor pulled me aside and told me that I need to knock off the neck exercises because “You don’t look like a girl anymore.” By the end of my sophomore year, I had stopped going to judo. My spirit was crushed. I was no longer proud of my strength and athleticism. I crawled back into the gender box and pulled the lid shut.


Fortunately, a great teacher helped me to be proud of one of my other masculine traits; my voice. I finally joined the choir my junior year because some of my friends from band were also in choir. The choir teacher didn’t see me as an alto who couldn’t hit the high notes. She saw what I couldn’t: my rare genetic gift. I am a contralto. I later learned my grandmother and great-grandmother were both contraltos, and they sang professionally. My great-grandmother was locally famous as an opera singer.

My choir teacher nurtured my gift, rather than trying to shove me into the female box. I was allowed to sing in the tenor section in mixed choirs. In girls choirs, she wrote in extra notes below all the others to utilize my deep, strong voice to create complex chords that normally can’t be accomplished by a female choir.

The guys in the tenor section found my presence an amusing anomaly, but they never shamed me. I proved to them that I belonged in the tenor section, and they respected me as one of their own. I found another place of acceptance where I could be proud of my differences.

Sadly, a visiting choir teacher tried to shove me back in the gender box. He was from a nearby community college, and he would come occasionally to work with the male sections since our choir teacher was a woman. When we followed him to a separate practice room, I took my spot in the front row of the tenor section. The choir professor looked at me and said, “I really don’t think girls should sing with the men. They’re not real tenors.” He then had us sing our first song without saying anything more about it. 

Halfway through the song, he stopped us and put his baton down on his music stand. He turned to me and said, “I know men that can’t sing as low as you.” I beamed. He picked up his baton to continue the lesson. He met his first contralto that day, and I think my fellow tenors were proud to have me in their ranks. They sure made me feel that way.


As I moved into adulthood, blending in became easier. It also became easier to find people that accepted me for who I am, and who didn’t need me to fit every stereotype of a woman. I was a wife and a mom, and that was all the proof most people needed that I was a woman. When I did find opportunities to sing or do sports, my differences were obvious, but people were less judgemental because my titles of wife and mom took away any questions about my gender or sexual identity. I was not “queer.” I fit well enough into a gender box to not make them feel uncomfortable.

I have eight children, and I gave birth to five of them. I raised my daughters within society’s expectations for girls, but I tried to not let those expectations limit them. I encouraged them to explore math, science, and sports, and to not be ashamed of being smarter, faster or stronger than the boys. I told them about their great-great-grandmother and great-grandmother, and what a beautiful gift they also inherited from them.

I introduced them to our gay family members and told them how society treated gay people when I was young. I taught them to treat all people with respect, no matter what their differences are, and to help people that are less fortunate than themselves. I ensured they had playmates with different skin colors, different abilities, different economic circumstances, different religious beliefs and different family compositions. I wanted their normal to include a wide range of people. Most of all, I taught them to care about the people and the world around them.

Like me, my children don’t fit neatly into any gender and sexuality box prescribed by society. My children are straight and they are queer. Some have chosen to check a gender box, and some have chosen to uncheck the box and not be defined by any gender. Some have chosen to love men, some have chosen to love women, some have chosen to love both, and some have chosen to love a person for who they are rather than for which gender box they check. They all have friends and partners who are as unique as they are. My kids and their friends are all wonderful people who make our community and our society better.


I am so glad my children and their friends live in a world where they feel safe to be themselves, and where they don’t feel like they have to fit into a box just to please other people. I am grateful for teachers who have accepted my children’s differences and have encouraged other students to do the same. Because of those teachers, my children have not had to endure the bullying I suffered through. Because of them, school was a place where they felt safe and could focus on learning. School is where my children thrived and blossomed as unique individuals.

It saddens me to see Iowa, and many other states, trying to take away that sense of safety and acceptance at school for kids who are different in some way. Despite what those people claim, schools are not grooming kids to make them gay or trans. Those kids were already trans or gay inside, or feeling like they might be. What changed from forty years ago is that kids no longer have to be afraid of showing their true self at school. They are safe to explore their identity and interests without being shamed or harmed. 

Yes, some kids may change their minds later about who they are. Don’t we all? We change professions. We change who we love. We change how we dress. We change what social groups we identify with. We change what sports teams we cheer for. Change is normal. Gender, identity and sexuality are not black and white and are not set in stone. We all change how we see ourselves as we mature and as our lives take us in different directions. It does not mean the identity we adopted in our youth was wrong. It was part of our journey. 

It is a beautiful thing that children today have more freedom to make their own choices about who they are and how they want to live when they become adults. Taking that away from them would be wrong.

Please, don’t let your fear of differences force our youth into boxes they don’t fit in and don’t want to be in. Having grown up being repeatedly shoved into that box, I know how painful that can be, and how the pain never fully goes away.

Top image by alexskopje available via Shutterstock.

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  • Acceptance is the Point

    Someone tried to post on my FB page info for treatment of a hormonal disorder that causes high testosterone levels in women. Boy, they missed the point of the story, and they missed the parts where I found acceptance.

    And let me be clear about this. I don’t need to be fixed.