"The most wasted of all days is one without laughter." ~e e cummings

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Gender-Nonconformity: It's about Identity

I want to send out a thank you to the Universe. Well, at least to the media, who seem obsessed with the topic of gender and gender identity lately.

You can't listen to the news or click on your social media feeds without being bombarded by images and stories relating to gender, gender identity, the LGBT community, or little boys wearing princess gowns.

Thank you, Universe, for shining a light on this issue, one that is near and dear to my heart. Max is growing up in a world that isn't perfect (North Carolina's HB2 and other so-called "Bathroom Bills" are proof of the fact that we still have a long way to go). The fact that we are even having this conversation, though, is progress.

These stories and images and memes are providing us with a necessary vocabulary. Three years ago, despite having been so my entire life, I didn't know what the word cisgender meant. Cisgender refers to a person whose gender identity matches the "gender" they were assigned at birth. In actuality, it is a person's sex that is determined at birth (or via ultrasound), not gender. Sex is anatomical, gender lives in the brain. (Sidenote: I think "gender reveal" parties are pretty ridiculous for a number of reasons but, in recent years, it's become clear to me that, if you must throw one, you should at least call it a "sex reveal" party or a "gender assigned at birth reveal" party. Kinda loses something in translation, doesn't it?)

Just last week, Merriam-Webster added the terms genderqueer and gender-fluid to the dictionary (and then brilliantly tweeted: "People keep 1) saying they don't know what 'genderqueer' means then 2) asking why we added it to the dictionary"). This conversation is giving the T portion of the LGBT community the visibility and acknowledgement they deserve. Finally, we all know the words to use so individuals at all points along the gender spectrum no longer need to remain silent.

At the same time, I feel as though all of these HuffPost Parents articles, all of these images-turned-memes, all of this buzz, is creating an issue where there doesn't need to be one. It's creating a bandwagon on which, in the spirit of acceptance and understanding, people who don't need to are trying to jump. In particular, people whose cisgender child likes to play with toys typically associated with the other gender. Toy preference does not indicate gender-nonconformity.

Here's the thing: Kids like fun toys. What constitutes a "fun" toy varies from kid to kid. Toys do not have genders.

Let me just be really clear here: Toys Do Not Have Genders. Neither do clothes nor TV shows nor hobbies.

If your little boy likes to dress up in his sister's princess gown, he's not necessarily gender-nonconforming. He may be, so be sure to support his right to wear that gown so he always feels comfortable in presenting his true self. But he may also just be playing copycat to his big sister. Or he's into shiny, sparkly things. Or his favorite color is pink. Or he loves Elsa because, let's face it, who doesn't?

Maybe you have a little girl who wants to be Batman, not Bat Girl, for Halloween. Let her. Wanting to be Batman for Halloween, though, doesn't make your little girl gender-nonconforming. It just means that she likes the idea of dressing up like a super hero. Super heroes are cool. (And we can all agree that Batman costumes are way cooler than any Bat Girl costume you've seen.) Halloween is a great time for a gender-nonconforming kid to fully and safely express him or herself...it's also a great time for all kids to try on a new persona...so don't read too much into it.

The thing I want you to know about having a gender-nonconforming kid is that there's more to our story than what you can see from the outside. It's not about the clothes he wears or the games he plays. Gender-nonconformity is not about preference, it's about identity. It's not about what a child likes, it's about who a child IS.

Please know that, in our family, we're fielding hard questions and facing hard situations that families of cisgender kids aren't facing...even if your little boy loves tiaras or your little girl loves Star Wars.

Forgive me if I bristle a bit when you tell me about your daughter's Bob the Builder Halloween costume. It isn't that I don't appreciate your attempt to relate to me, I honestly do, it's just that dressing up for Halloween doesn't necessarily have anything to do with one's gender identity. Let me say it again: Max is not playing dress-up. Max is expressing who he is through his wardrobe.

He's expressing his identity. He is coming up with words like "goy" and "birl" to label himself because he knows he doesn't fit into the tiny little box that society has deemed to mean "Boy" (and he knows that the tiny little "Girl" box doesn't fit him either).

We're dealing with questions of inclusion and exclusion. Your little boy, even if he knows every single word to every single song from Frozen, probably isn't wondering why he wasn't invited to his (girl) friend's birthday party even though all of the girls in the class were (even the ones who aren't as close of friends with the birthday girl as he is).

He probably doesn't think twice about the fact that he's not allowed to join the Girl Scouts with the rest of the girls whom he considers his peers. (Transgender girls can, for the record, join the Girl Scouts. Gender-nonconforming boys can't, apparently. Therein lies the difference...therein lies the importance of this new Gender Spectrum Conversation.)

My gender-nonconforming kid is wondering those things. He calls himself a boy. He wants his friends to know he's a boy...but he fits in with the girls just as easily as the boys. Sometimes more so. He's wondering where he fits when, so often, groups are divided along gender lines.

Gender-nonconformity isn't about Preference. It's not about Choice. It's different. Plain and simple. But some people in this world don't see this difference. They think that sex = gender and you're either a boy or a girl, determined forever and always at birth, and that's what's right and that's what's legal and that's the end of the story. So that's why I'm writing this. I'm writing this because of North Carolina's HB2. I'm writing this to explain why sometimes I find myself awake at 3 o'clock in the morning wondering if Max will someday have to learn that people don't understand him or call him names or want to hurt him because he likes to wear twirly skirts. I'm writing this to explain why I cry. It's not for Max. It's for this world that, for some reason, just still doesn't get it.

If that sounds melodramatic, it's because I am. I can't help it. I feel things deeply. My emotions run strong.

But, if you're reading this, I'm confident that you DO understand. You are what's right in this world. You can be the change. You can help us pave the way for a safe and accepting world for my little boy to grow up in. You're probably doing all of these things already, actually.

Please, keep posting photos of your little boy looking adorably fabulous in his big sister's princess gown or your little girl driving her 4-wheeler like a badass. Go ahead and hashtag those photos #likeaboy or #likeagirl to help change the collective image of what those labels can look like.

Keep buying your daughter that Batman or Bob the Builder or the Red (not Pink) Power Ranger Halloween costume and then parade her around the neighborhood the same way you would if she was dressed as Elsa, which is to say, like it's no big deal. Because it's not.

While toys and dress-up choices don't mean that your child's path is the same as my child's, it does normalize the fact that kids are kids, and toys are toys, and costumes are costumes, and clothes are clothes, and play is play. (And love is love, and acceptance is acceptance, and kindness is kindness, which, as we all know, always wins.)

The more we see these images and the more we talk about de-gendering inanimate objects, the less kids like mine stick out. It will become even more normal to see a boy in a dress on Halloween...and on any given Tuesday. By the time our kids are grown, "Bathroom Bills" like HB2 are going to seem even more archaic and ridiculous (not to mention damaging and discriminatory) than they do today.

Lesson Learned:

Thank you to those of you who let your kids be kids. (And to kids like Max, who is just being who he is.) Thank you for loving us.


  1. The bathroom bills are nothing to do with bathrooms. Let's get that established right from the outset. They are nothing to do with child safety either. They are just about discrimination against transwomen. I wonder how the proponents of such stupid legislation would feel sharing a women's toilet with a bearded muscly transman who is obliged to go there because his birth cert says F.

    Our D has not had a single birthday invitation this year, and it's breaking our hearts. He used to be invited to the girls' parties, but nothing at all this school year. He's happy, sociable and well-liked, but still has no invitations.

    In the UK, the Equality Act covers everyone who has the "protected characteristic" of "gender reassignment". This is a good thing, but D doesn't actually fit the definition because he's a boy and is not transgender: we have to stretch the point to claim protection under the law (not that we've had any specific problems). He uses whichever toilet he feels comfortable with.

    The Girl Scout issue is something we face here, too. I don't know if he'd feel happier with the Guides, but his Cub Scout pack has one girl in and they get along brilliantly. The Guides/Brownies won't have him because he identifies as a boy. I can see both sides of the argument: in a male-dominated society, it is important to provide an all-girl space for the Guides/Girl Scouts to practise speaking out and being heard. Personally, though, I do think that they could make exceptions for our pink boys who would benefit greatly from the opportunities provided within Scouting but would not feel like they fit in with the Boy Scouts (I'm not sure if Scouting in the USA makes a strict gender division; in the UK, girls can join Scouting but the Guides are girls only).

    The thing that we challenge, as parents of pink boys, is the gender binary. Transgender people don't really challenge the binary, as they assert that they belong on one side of the binary (which happens to be the other side to the birth certificate). People like certainty, and nonconformity threatens that.

    Personally, I think that gender-reveal parties should be renamed "genital reveal parties". It is, at least, honest, and also points out that the very nature of the party is to infringe on the privacy and autonomy of the individual being "celebrated". At the root, of course, their sole reason for existing is so that companies can sell us more crap.

    Stay awesome, Sarah. We're big fans.

    1. Yes! 100 times yes to everything you said. In some ways, gender-nonconformity is more challenging than trans BECAUSE it's nonbinary. That's it exactly. Thank you for being the only other family we know that truly does walk this path with us. I wish the pond that separates us were smaller. D would be getting at least 3 birthday invites a year. ❤️