My 14-year-old daughter and I were chatting at dinner the other night, and I was getting my daily news roundup about her day: school, friends, teachers, whatnot. In the course of our conversation, I asked how her friend Abby was doing. When I did, my daughter leveled me with a stern, reprimanding look.
Now that we’re into the teen years, I get that look a lot. It usually means I’ve said or done something irretrievably dumb.
“What?” I asked.
“Do you realize what you just said?” she asked with a frown.
“What? What did I say?”
“You referred to them as ‘she.’”
“Them who? I was asking about Abby. Who are you talking about?” I was clearly confused.
She then explained to me with moderate patience and only minimal eye rolling that although the friend I was asking about was biologically female, she had recently started identifying as trans. Turns out referring to this friend as “she” was a violation of said friend’s gender freedom.
“Ah,” I said, trying to keep up. “So if Abby is trans, does that mean Abby identifies as ‘he’ now?”
That got me a double combo Exasperated Sigh and Eye Roll.
“No. Abby is gender fluid. You don’t say ‘she’ or ‘he.’ You have to say ‘they.’”
“But,” I said, feeling even more obtuse, “that’s not grammatically correct. ‘They’ is plural. Abby’s one person. She’s not a group.” (Did I mention that I teach writing at a college? There. I did.)
“Dad! You just said ‘she’ again!”
“Oh, sorry. But — ”
“That’s not appropriate! You have to say ‘they’ or ‘them’ if you talk about a trans person who’s Gender Fluid.”
I couldn’t let it go. “But you can’t use ‘they’ for one person! It makes no sense and it causes confusion.”
All she could do was shake her head. The girl clearly felt sorry for me. Poor, dimwitted Daddy, her expression seemed to say.
Color me chastised.
The gender labels, they are a-changing
I finally just nodded and said OK. Our dinner chat continued, during which I proceeded to misidentify the genders of at least three more of her friends. I accidentally referred to her friend Gina as “she,” her friend Tyler as “he,” and her friend Alex as “he or she” in an attempt to avoid mistakes and cover all my bases. My daughter corrected me every time, saying “Not ‘he’ or ‘she’! ‘They’!” I got confused each time. I kept asking who’s they?, and she kept rolling her eyes so hard I started to worry she was going to detach a retina.
“God, Dad, it’s not that hard,” she said, standing up to clear the dishes. “I can’t believe you’re being so binary.”
I’ve been called a lot of things. But that was new.
I’m a strong advocate of rejecting labels — gender labels or otherwise. I subscribe to the Sexuality-As-Spectrum philosophy. But I’m now being schooled by my daughter on the notion that gender itself is subject to a broader bandwidth as well.
Here’s a fun fact: on Facebook, users have 58 options for defining their own gender, including:
- Gender Fluid
- Gender Variant
- Gender Nonconforming
As a culture, we still get uncomfortable at the idea of non-traditional genders. In fact, we get more freaked out by gender fluidity than by sexual orientation. Especially when it comes to our own children. Your kid sits down with you and tells you he’s gay? All good. Gay is cool now. We know how to deal with gay. Your kid sits you down and informs you that he thinks he’s Gender-Nonconforming-Leaning-Towards-Intersex? We don’t know what to do with that.
Gender flexibility seems to be the new thing. It’s the way many kids are now striking out to establish their identities and be different. Some kids are redefining their gender today because it’s the cool, edgy thing to do, and because it’ll make their parents wig.
But: other times, it’s because those kids are smarter than the rest of us, and are realizing that when we limit the world to two genders, we may be doing some damage to people who simply don’t fit into old molds. They’re on their own search for authenticity — they’re just starting their search younger than we did. And in doing so, they may save themselves a lifetime of feeling out of place, isolated, depressed and scared.
Let me say this officially: I think it’s all good, all 58-plus identifiers. I think in the midst of all the new gender definitions, there’s a landscape emerging where kids will be able to decide exactly who they are, and who they aren’t. And as a result, they’ll be healthier, more confident humans. If that’s the end result, I’m happy with a gender list twice as long.
As for my daughter herself, how does she identify? She currently checks the box marked “Female.” For now. But that may change. If it does, she’ll tell me when she’s ready. The only identity box I want her to check is “Happy.”