I thought about gender all day long during one period of my life. It was all-consuming. This is not how most people experience gender but for me, it kept me up at night.
That’s because I’m transgender and, prior to my transition, I presented in a very gender-ambiguous way. People saw me as a man or a woman depending on many factors such as context, social roles, and the person’s own viewpoint. In my experience, gender is an interaction and not just a self-identity.
Two deli clerks drove this last point home one day. While I waited at the counter for my sandwich, one clerk asked the other, “Did you take her order?” and the other replied, “Yeah, he’s all set.” When they realized the discrepancy, they looked to me for clarification.
My response? “Any idea when my sandwich will be ready?”
At the time, I was comfortable with my gender ambiguity and knew that some would use “he” and some “she” to describe me.
Fast forward more than 15 years. I’m now a dad of two little ones under age 3. I no longer spend endless hours wondering, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to see it, is there still gender?” I started taking hormones in 2004, and gender quickly became a quiet backdrop to life, just as it is for most people. This became possible because my gender expression is no longer ambiguous and I’m unquestionably seen as a man.
My wife and I, who both identify as queer, are trying to raise our children to have an appreciation for our diverse world. When our firstborn was still being carried around in a car seat, we realized gender is one of the first things strangers ask about a baby before they dare say something about the child. The few who ventured to say “she’s so darling” only to find out we have a son were briefly mortified and apologetic.
Broadening the gender experience
All of this swirls around my head when my 2-year-old tells me he’s a boy. He has also used the word “boy” to describe a figurine with a cowboy hat. “Where’s the boy?” he asks. He says the same thing when an older child he was playing with at the beach walks away: “Where’s the boy?” So he’s pretty clear who gets assigned this word and has not used it for anyone who identifies as a girl or woman.
When and how did my child get exposed to the idea of gender? Oh, right. From birth, he’s been assigned a “boy” gender and, even though my wife and I make sure his bookshelf features many stories about girls and women taking the lead, he’s gotten the message loud and clear that he’s a boy.
So he understands gender, right? Wrong. He doesn’t even know the half of it.
Gender diversity rarely entered the conversation when I grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s, but now the world is beginning to understand the vast variety of ways that exist for people to identify and express their gender.
To help you understand, let me introduce you to The Gender Unicorn:
The Gender Unicorn is one way we can discuss gender with children and give them some language to express their own gender experience.
Take a moment to plot your own gender experience. For instance, my gender identity is Man, My gender expression/presentation is Masculine, I was assigned Female at birth, I’m sexually attracted to Women and Men, I’m romantically/emotionally attracted to Women.
We all have a gender experience. Even cisgender people (whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth) have a gender experience. Some cisgender people’s expression/presentation doesn’t align with the sex they were assigned at birth. For instance, some cis women are more masculine, and some cis men are more feminine, in the ways they express their gender. This doesn’t mean they are transgender (or gay), but they may still face discrimination based on their gender expression/presentation.
So if defining gender strictly as girl/boy is too limiting and oversimplified, how do we share these complex concepts with children?
To start, forget what you were taught about a person’s genitals determining gender. This is definitely not a shortcut — especially since you don’t know what’s in someone’s pants when you first meet them.
So what does define a person’s gender? Their brain.
“Our brains know who we are,” writes Nadine Thornhill in her blog post “How To Talk To Young Children About Gender.” “You’re a boy because your brain tells you that you are. I’m a woman because my brain tells me that’s who I am.”
Tips, resources on talking gender
Rather than guess or assume a person’s gender when you don’t know how a person identifies, use gender-neutral language. For instance, use the word “parents” in place of “moms and dads” to be more inclusive of families with two moms, two dads or parents who are non-binary (people who may express a combination of masculinity and femininity, or neither, in their gender expression/presentation).
If you are going to use a person’s pronoun, asking what pronouns they use is the safest way to avoid making a mistake. Common pronouns are “he,” “she,” “they” (singular), and “ze” (a pronoun that might be used by a non-binary person who doesn’t identify with either man or woman). You may have learned in English class that “they” should only be used to describe people and not a person. The use of singular “they” has historical roots and has had a resurgence in the past few years. It was even voted “Word of the Year” in 2015 by the American Dialect Society. Using singular “they” or “she” to identify a character in a book is one way to expand the gender representation of characters in children’s books which are overwhelmingly male identified, even when they are animals or trucks.
My wife and I try to use a mix of gendered and gender-neutral language to refer to our children. For instance, we might say “our boys” or “our kiddos,” or “the book is in the boys’ room” or “the book is in the kids’ room.”
A resource I highly recommend is GenderJabber, a website that shares tips on talking to kids about gender. It makes the point that gendered language (e.g., “boys and girls”) has a direct impact on kids’ behaviors, citing a study where children behaved differently in a pre-school setting based on whether the teacher said “children” or “boys and girls.”
GenderJabber also emphasizes not being afraid to talk to your children about gender. From personal experience, I can tell you that children are much less uptight about the subject than adults. Twenty years ago, when I was presenting in a very gender ambiguous way and had not yet transitioned, I was sitting in a gynecologist’s waiting room when a young child asked her mom whether I was a boy or a girl. The mom looked at me apologetically and said, “girl.” The little girl looked up at me and said, “Oh, he’s a girl,” and continued to play. I sat there thinking, how perfectly her description fit me at that moment of my gender journey and how readily children accept non-binary ways of thinking.