8-Year-Old Sunnie Kahle Deemed Not "Feminine" Enough For Her Christian School -- Why Can't We Just Let Kids Explore Gender In Their Own Way?

When I was 8, I "confused" people with my gender too. Fortunately I didn't go to a school bent on forcing me to fit a narrow definition of acceptable girliness.
Publish date:
March 27, 2014
kids, gender, M

Content warning: This piece contains slurs.

8-year-old Sunnie Kahle doesn’t look or act enough like a girl for her private Christian school. At least not according to the school’s principal, who sent a letter home alerting Sunnie’s great-grandparents (and legal guardians) that Sunnie was in danger of being refused enrollment for next year -- unless, of course, she cleans up her act and embraces a more conventionally feminine style.

“You’re probably aware that Timberlake Christian School is a religious, Bible believing institution providing education in a distinctly Christian environment,” a letter from Timberlake Christian School’s principal said.According to WSET, the letter said that school rules said that students could be banned for “condoning sexual immorality, practicing a homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.”“We believe that unless Sunnie as well as her family clearly understand that God has made her female and her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God-ordained identity, that TCS is not the best place for her future education,” the principal wrote.

According to Sunnie’s great-grandmother, Sunnie identifies as a girl, but she also enjoys some typically boy-associated hobbies, and in the last couple years has come to prefer jeans and T-shirts to dresses:

When Kahle turned five, she asked for a short hair cut. “She had hair down to her waist and she wanted to give it to a child with cancer,” said [Doris Thompson, Sunnie’s great-grandmother]. “After we cut her hair she started wanting to wear jeans and a T-shirt. She didn’t want to wear her frilly dresses anymore.” Classmates began to ask Kahle if she was a boy or a girl, and Kahle says she responded to questions politely and was not offended by them.

Sunnie’s family responded to the principal's letter by removing Sunnie from the Lynchburg, VA Timberlake Christian School, and putting her in public school, unfortunately separating her from her friends. Changing schools is a difficult transition for a kid in the best of circumstances, but this situation must be particularly complex given that Sunnie and her family have also been making their story public.

While Timberlake Christian School, being a private school, has the right to deny enrollment to any child for any reason, the administration has not come through this story looking particularly good. The school has released a follow-up statement that makes ominous and vague statements about there being “more to the story” in relation to Sunnie’s effect on the classroom environment, and claiming that they have “cared for Sunnie and worked with her grandparents for several years to assist them. Our TCS teachers and administrators love Sunnie and we can assure everyone that this has never been an issue of hair length or boots as it has been portrayed. It has been our constant desire over the last several years to work with this family and to shepherd this precious little girl in a way consistent with traditional values.”

The school has declined to go into details, citing confidentiality, and has only publicly referenced the apparent fact that Sunnie’s lack of girlyness has been “confusing” to her classmates. (According to Thompson, there was an incident earlier in the school year in whichsome boys tried to pull second-grader Sunnie into the boys' restroom, which seems to have precipitated the letter.) Are school administrators concerned that an 8-year-old may be growing up gay, trans, or otherwise queerified, and that her rejection of allegedly "Biblical" gender expectations is going to spread through her classmates like a big flamboyant virus? Who can say. The school's response is easily read as implying that something sinister is going on.

Sunnie, for her part, is upset at being separated from her friends and familiar school, but otherwise she seems comfortable in her skin, and more than a little perplexed at Timberlake Christian School’s refusal to let her be herself. Whether Sunnie’s ungirlyness is a childhood phase or a more permanent preference, she’s got my admiration, as I went through a phase around the same age in which I was constantly mistaken for a boy, and I didn’t handle it nearly as well.

As a kid, I always blamed my parents’ divorce -- I assumed that my mother’s sudden absence and my father’s taking on the typical mom duties with minimal preparation meant that I no longer had the feminine influence and training other girls were exposed to. But today, I doubt that was really the case. It’s true that my father had little patience for brushing the snarled and knotted hair of a squirming eight-year-old -- so it was cut -- but kids have pretty firm preferences and personalities, and I’m quite sure that if I had WANTED to wear dresses and long bouncing curls, I would have made my intentions known.

As it was, I didn’t care. Or rather, I didn't know how to care. I didn’t know how to care about my clothes, or my hair, and as much as I loved dragging my Barbies through elaborate and deranged mud-caked backyard capers, I ached for the He-Man and Hot Wheels playsets of the boys I knew. (Castle Greyskull was AMAZING. It’s STILL AMAZING.) So in the space of a couple years I went from this:

To this:

And finally to this:

By age 8, if I wasn’t wearing a lot of pink or some otherwise girl-clue-laden clothing, I could rely on being mistaken for a boy -- shoulder-length hair notwithstanding (it was the 80s, after all). And unlike Sunnie, it bothered the HELL out of me, and I didn’t always speak up. I remember kids asking me point-blank if I was a boy or a girl, but my impression was not that they were legitimately confused, and rather that they were trying to make me uncomfortable, and/or bully me into trying to meet the girl code.

There was no correct answer I could give; that the question can be asked at all is answer enough.

Kids do this, of course -- they’re often a lot smarter and more manipulative than we’re willing to give them credit for. But the worst was when adults called me “son” or “young man.” I could not bring myself to correct them, and it got to the point where I would count up what I considered "girl points" in whatever outfit I put on for a given day -- and this could be something as simple as my t-shirt screenprint having pink in it somewhere -- but even this didn't always work.

There was the camp counselor who evidently thought I was a boy for a whole week, until the day we went swimming and she saw me in a swimsuit. There were school officials who'd call me "son" in passing, and then awkwardly try to cover for it when they realized their error -- it was probably written all over my face.

There was the time the nice older guy who worked in the bakery in my local grocery store -- a person I saw a couple times a week, and whom I’d thought always recognized me -- kindly called me a “polite young man.” My heart sunk, and I remember looking down at my outfit in a panic. I was wearing a T-shirt and shorts, which were admittedly gender-neutral. But my sneakers have pink on them! I told myself with a potent mixture of rage and fear. Maybe he just couldn’t see my sneakers from behind the counter? Should I go back and show him my sneakers, and explain? What if he doesn’t believe me?

I hated being misunderstood, but I always thought that it was my own fault for doing it wrong. Other girls seemed to take to femininity so easy, it looked as though they just knew how to make their hair do things, what clothes to wear, how to walk and sit and stand and smile. Their faces were simply girl faces, in a way that I guessed my face was not. It was all girl-magic to me, and I couldn’t figure it out, couldn’t even begin to do so until middle school, when watching friends in bathroom mirrors and imitating their movements and conversation, I began to learn, very slowly, how to be a girl.

It still never felt “natural”; even today it doesn’t. Whenever I find myself in a space full of women for whom femininity seems to come as a matter of course, I always feel like a fraud. I know how to playact as a lady, but it’s always a performance. It’s always just a little too big, a little too self-aware, like a costume I am putting on.

For years I kept my hair absurdly long because I thought it helped “feminize” me. It wasn’t until college that I figured out makeup, and miniskirts, and how to swing my hips around on a dance floor. I made friends who didn’t see gender as a single choice between two options. Playing the girl still felt like a performance, but now it was fun -- now I was doing it as much to playfully interrogate feminine beauty standards, and not merely to comply with them out of fear. I was making the rules.

One night in my 20s, lavishly dressed and makeupped for the club, walking home through Cambridge around 3am, a car full of boys flew past, a voice screeching at me, “FUCKING T**NNY FAGGOT” and unbidden, wrenched from my former 8-year-old’s soul, I gasped out, “I’m a girl!” They were gone. They couldn’t hear me. I’m a girl.

I was humiliated, not because they called me a slur -- my anger over that would come later -- but because I still cared that they hadn't seen me as a girl. I cared, even against my will, even though I was sure those boys were assholes and I shouldn't care what they thought. It still hurt, even so many years later. Why did it hurt? Wasn’t I supposed to be stronger than that? Why couldn’t I be the kind of girl that DID come naturally to me? Why doesn’t my kind of girl count to boys like that?

My boyish phase turned out to be just that -- a phase. But that's not true of all kids. Sunnie Kahle lives in a different world than I did at her age, nearly 30 years ago. While conforming to a gender binary is still an all-consuming social pressure, today we have better language -- and in some schools, specific established procedures -- for acknowledging and supporting kids who don’t neatly fit a tidy two-choice social construction of gender, whether this is a passing phase or a lifelong truth (and honestly? It doesn’t matter, and shouldn’t matter, whether it's temporary or not, if we’re going to accept that gender is a fluid concept -- whatever a person's gender identity is in this moment is the one we ought to respect and abide by, even if it makes some people uncomfortable).

While I’ve known a handful of gay and trans folks who could identify themselves conclusively in early childhood, many cannot. Support is equally necessary for kids who are not in a place yet where they are can or want to openly assert their identity. Besides, not all kids who confound easy gender identification will turn out to be trans, or even queer. Some girls just like things our culture stubbornly associates with boys. Some girls will eventually grow out of it, and some won’t. Some boys were called girls at birth, but this was a mistake. Some kids never quite feel like they “belong” under a single category of either male or female.

Instead of trying to force children to comply with gender norms -- Biblical or otherwise -- we ought to be working to create a classroom environment that values all kids and all their individual varieties of gender identity and expression. Timberlake Christian School is obviously not a place where these values are likely to develop, and that's a real tragedy, because a religious education does not have to stand in opposition to respect for the magnificent and multifaceted diversity of humanity.

A Christian herself, Doris Thompson found the letter sent by Sunnie’s school to be downright offensive: “To claim that we are condoning sexual immorality in our home is nonsense. We are Christians. We understand the Bible, we know the Bible. Sunnie knows it very well.” Thompson believes that Sunnie is still too young to begin to understand or identify with a particular sexual orientation or gender identity, but she also says, very plainly:

“If my child grows up to be a homosexual, or transgender -- I’ll love that child that much more.”

More than Biblical guidance and social pressure to conform, I’d say what the world really needs is more parents -- and more adults in general -- who take Thompson’s attitude.