Penel Ghartey’s hair is closely shaved around his ears, morphing into a high-top fade with tight, brown coils enveloping the crown of his head — a trendy ’90s haircut that’s enjoying a revival among fashion-forward black boys. The 11-year-old loves karate, math and is a fiercely competitive board game aficionado.
Oware, a classic Ghanaian game reflecting the family’s roots, was the game of choice when I met Penel; his father, Joe; and two brothers, Cassius and Othello, at their expansive Brooklyn brownstone. Penel is a discerning middle child with a life full of joy, playdates and wrestling matches with his brothers. He’s also transgender.
Penel’s gender identity is an afterthought in their household. It never comes up in conversation or interferes with their day-to-day life as a family.
Joe, the father and former college track star at the helm of this all-male household, says he only thinks about Penel’s gender through the lens of athleticism.
“As he goes through puberty, he’s going to be competing in sports," Joe said. "He would do much better competing against girls just because of the obvious biological differences.”
Beyond contemplating his future as a sports dad, Joe treats Penel and the rest of his rambunctious boys all the same.
Outside the walls of their sunny Brooklyn home, transgender communities across the nation are fighting political abandonment of rights “to equal access to health care, to housing, to education, or to fair treatment under the law,” according to the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). School bathrooms, hospital delivery rooms and even funeral homes have become social battlegrounds, spotlighting glaring differences of opinion in how we define gender.
To Joe, our desire to label difference is the bigger battle. As a biracial child — the son of a white Canadian mother and a black Ghanaian father — he grew up in a world where his home life was constantly in conflict with the outside world’s perception of him. As a teen in Boston, he was black. Bullies hurled the n-word at him without hesitation.
“So many African Americans are lighter-skinned, so you wouldn’t necessarily even know that I was mixed unless you knew my family life,” Joe explains.
But when Joe’s parents sent him to Ghana for high school, his label changed. According to his classmates there, he was white. Joe went from being the darkest kid in class to the lightest. Nothing he said or did would change his peers' opinion of his race.
The experience taught him the limitations of labels. Just as neither “white” nor “black” could fully define Joe, neither “he” nor “she” adequately defines his son. Even describing Penel as “transgender” bothers him at times, because it’s still a label.
“I tend to believe in more fluidity,” he explains. When it comes to race, “it’s a huge spectrum of color, and there is a spectrum of gender identity, too.”
From time to time, Joe wonders if Penel would care about which pronouns were used to describe him if they weren’t gendered. Joe describes his own father as homophobic yet surprisingly unbothered by Penel’s gender identity because there are no gender pronouns in his native Ghanaian tongue, Twi.
Joe’s ideas have limits, however. He notes that labels such as “transgender” can be important for a social movement fighting for civil rights.
“I’m for the protection of the community and protection of my child, and I fully support using a single word,” he said.
It’s unclear how society will receive Penel in the years to come, when the innocent world of prepubescent joy comes to an end. For now, the Gharteys are enjoying the honeymoon phase of childhood, where family ranks highest in the social hierarchy and body parts are just body parts.
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