Gender is messy, get used to it. (part 1)

Have you heard that trans is the new gay?  Apparently gay is blasé. Everyone, from NBA stars to politicians are gay or outspoken LGB allies.  Country by country (France, Uruguay…), state by state (Minnesota, the 12th state, which one is next?), GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) to Anti-homophobia Day, we are breaking down the walls of LGB oppression and ensuring laws treat people equally regardless of who they are attracted to, have sex with or love.

But the T part of LGBT, is the left-out sibling in the equation.  This still misunderstood, vilified, pathologized and shamed part of the LGBT community needs some lovin’.

I think my parents generation worried about their kids being gay.  Worried that life would be hard (‘cause it’s not hard for straight people), worried that their kids would feel like outsiders, different than the rest of ‘us’.  Lots of parents today say they’re fine if their kid identifies as gay.  Their children would not merely be tolerated but loved, respected and appreciated; The differences would be celebrated and the similarities would be glaringly obvious.  It’s pretty awesome that as a progressive society we are ‘getting’ sexual orientation.

Sam Kellerman's Genderbread Person has been through several versions.  This one's the most recent but ideas about gender and how it fits into the concept of 'self' is continuously expanding.

Sam Kellermann’s Genderbread Person has been through several versions. This one’s the most recent but ideas about gender and how it fits into the concept of ‘self’ is continuously expanding.


Sex and Gender: Understanding the Difference and Seeing the Connection

Biological sex, gender identity and gender expression seem pretty important from the get-go and are often mashed together as though they are one thing.  Sure they’re important, but they are not the same thing.  The first question we’re asked when our babies are born?  ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ which is to say people want to know the assigned sex of the kid. With that answered, ideas about the roles, behaviour, activities and attributes that are considered appropriate for that brand new human are imposed.  That’s gender in action.   We sometimes start to prescribe ideas of gender even before babes are born.  In my first pregnancy, we didn’t find out the baby’s sex because we didn’t care.  Which is the truth.  But when I was pregnant the second time, I cared because I had always pictured myself with a daughter.  I think I imagined dressing her in dolka dots and teaching her to skip. [Because, sigh, of course these are expressions of girliness only....] I didn’t want to meet a boy babe and feel disappointment.  That’s right, another boy and I anticipated feeling disappointed.

I’m not sure how many parents distinguish biological sex from gender when raising their littles.  For some of us, issues of gender expression might come up when we lament that everything is pink for the girl babies and vehicle motif laden for the boy babies.  But we might not visualize our sons preferring frills to stripes and it may seem an unimaginable head trip to contempate that our child has a different gender identity than what we’ve been taught it appropriate and right given specific genitalia.  And if we do imagine it, in our heads and our hearts, I think most of us would worry that life will be hard (‘cause it’s not hard for cisgendered people), worry that our kids will feel like outsiders, different than the rest of ‘us’.  Sounds familiar, hey?

People generally like to keep things simple but truth is nature is messy and cultural norms are ever shifting.  Maybe, in part, because of the amazing normalizing done by our LGB siblings, more and more people are expressing their dissatisfaction with what feels like limiting ideas of man/woman and masculine/feminine. More young people feel safe to communicate their discomfort with the binary gender roles that are offered by our culture and expected of them.  Some kids can express their knowingness of being born a biological sex that does not match their gender perception while others can report that boy doesn’t quite cut it or that the ‘girl’ messages don’t fit their idea of who they are. Parents willing to really see their children (and fight to have their children seen,) deserve a huge shout out for helping lead our societal shift toward full inclusion and uncompromised acceptance of gender non-conforming, gender diverse and transgendered people.

You might think that 8 or 10 year olds couldn’t possibly know this about themselves, let alone 3 or 4 year olds. Maybe because your gender identity has always matched your assigned and biological sex (ie. you presented as male, felt like a boy and now feel like a man) or your gender expression didn’t quite match your biology but you never thought your body was misrepresenting who you are (ie. at home in the body of a girl and woman but a tomboy that never wears dresses). Those are reasonable ways to feel but aren’t the only ‘normal’ ones.

Some of us are blessed with children who express gender in a way that matches their biology.  Some of us are graced with kids who have a gender sense that is not aligned with their biology and assigned gender, while others have the honour to parent children who are more fluid in their gender identity and expression. Each of these (healthy) realities can be full of questions about and concern for our child. Luckily, in North America, our values and perspectives are changing and we live with incredible access to resources.  Responsible parenting requires us to do our homework. In part, that means thinking about how we can create space so our kids can wander from social constructs like gender if it feels right to do so.  Hell, I’d argue that responsible parenting means challenging gender constructs for all our kids. That means having a response for 5 year olds when they come home and report that ‘Billy wore a dress today’ or when an 8 year old asks why a classmate, Betsy, ‘looks like a boy, dresses like a boy and acts like a boy’.  How we respond will inform how our kids think about and manage themselves and how they think about and treat others in a dynamic and complex world.

[This is a big topic.  Stay tuned for part 2 in the next week]

This article has 1 comment

  1. This is very complex and challenging. I tend do think I am open minded and have a broad perspective but certain proclivities make me anxious.
    I need more education and have not had much exposure (that I know of) to stretch my comfort zone.

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