Gender is messy, get used to it. (part 2)

In my last post I tried to break down sex and gender into simple and understandable parts.  I’m sure it could be clearer.  In this post I offer real life examples that I hope provide some of that clarity since stories can make things real and contexualize theory.

Quick review: If gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviour, activities and attributes that a particular society considers appropriate for men and women, then messages about gender conformity are pervasive.  We often integrate them without noticing. People who don’t fit in that construct notice gender messages and need champions. Luckily, the number of champions is growing. Maybe one day our society’s ideas of gender will be much more fluid and variable. That would take pressure off of everyone and would help ensure the safety of those who are most threatened by being non-conforming.

gender neutral bathrooms

My mom found this at George Brown College in Toronto.
Lesson #1 – Always assume people know what bathroom they’re in.

A friend of mine  removed her child from a school because the kid couldn’t find a safe place to go to the washroom.  When her kid went to the girls bathroom, other girls made a fuss saying she was a boy.  When she started to use the boys bathroom, a teacher ‘caught’ her, shamed her, and forbid her from doing so again. So in grade 1, she started having accidents.  Who wouldn’t?  They investigated a new school, found a single stall bathroom, and knew where grade 2 would begin.

Not too long ago, a Vancouver couple was interviewed about their daughter.  I’m sure their kid is something special for a bunch of reasons, but in this case it was the fact that at birth they had a son.  The parents told their story (filled with confusion, fear, discomfort and worry) with grace and pride.  And their 10 year old daughter spoke so comfortably about who she is and what changes were necessary for her to live the way she wished to live.  The way she needs to live.  You can watch the interview here and visit a blog of this family’s journey here.

Several weeks ago my neighbour and friend, who is almost 11, participated in an igirl program and came home to tell her mom that there was a trans girl in her group who outed herself during the workshop.  My young neighbour was entirely relaxed about it while her mom and I privately marveled at how amazing our community is and how different things are from when we were 11.

A week later, my 6 year old, out of the blue, asks me ‘Can boys turn into girls?’ I answered yes and then explained it in a simple (and likely bumbly) way.  He referenced our neighbour’s experience (I hadn’t realized that he had been privy to the information) and then he said that maybe he was a girl on the inside.  I said ‘Yah, maybe’ and then we spent a few minutes talking about being ourselves, maybe sometimes in ways that felt ‘like a boy’ and sometimes in ways that felt ‘like a girl’, or neither, or both.

My heart swelled at the idea that my child could express this possibility, that there are role models, safe conversations and ways for him to figure out and integrate his own gender identity and expression and at the same time make sense of all the diversity  in the world.  I didn’t leap to fears that my kid is trans – that surgeries and hormone therapies are going to be issues of imminent concern – because it’s no more possible than it was before our conversation. My child was only saying ‘its not so clear cut, is it?’ and all I tried to say was ‘no, but you get to be you and you have lots of time to figure it all out’. Through all of the (beautiful) mess and complexity of sex and gender, I want my kids to know that I’ve got their backs, no matter who they are, what they wear and where they skip in the world.

For some parents, by 6, their children are articulating with incredible clarity and insight their gender and how it doesn’t match with their assigned sex. Their task to deconstruct gender is more pressing than mine and they are required to think and plan and act in ways that best support their child. I hope that in raising my kids, I am creating allies for them and their children.  That means talking, challenging, questioning, learning together about issues that are shifting beneath us.

Using age-appropriate language, consider explaining to your kids that:

  • Every culture and society has people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, gender-variant and transgender.
  • People’s beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity usually come from their religious, cultural, family and societal values.
  • A persons body parts do not tell us how they feel or what’s important to them.
  • Some people are afraid to share that they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender because they fear they will be mistreated or misunderstood. They usually have good reason to fear these things.
  • Most people who are LGBT have relationships and engage in sexual activity just like most heterosexual and cisgender people. The sexual activity they engage in is as diverse as any other person or group.  Most important is that the sex is rooted in trust, respect and joy.
  • LGBT people can establish long committed relationships, can adopt children or have their own children.

Questions to pose and consider with your kids:

  • What does being  a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ mean?
  • What does it mean to feel like a boy?  Or act like a boy?
  • Do boys/men have to act and look a certain way?  Do girls/women?
  • Are dresses (makeup, long hair) only for girls?  Why?
  • Does it matter if a girl looks and acts like a boy?
  • Can the way someone looks be different than how they feel?
  • How can we make people feel safe and loved no matter what they look like or  how they dress?
  • What can we say to people if they make someone else feel bad about what they look like or how they dress?

Over the last few years, amazing resources have become available on the interweb to gain understanding, develop compassion and get comfortable with gender in all of its forms and expressions. There are so so many stories.

Here’s a TedX talk by Sam Killermann.  He’s the ‘metrosexual’ comedian with a strong focus on gender and created the Genderbread Person that was in my last post. It breaks down a bunch of stuff though it is old at this point and loads of learning has come since.

This lovely podcast, will offer incredible insights from a mom doing her best to support her (trans) daughter.

And here’s an article about talking to kids about gender diveristy that goes much further than I have in this blog post.

This article has 3 comments

  1. Excellent! Looking forward to part 3!

  2. “you get to be you” …. the hardest, greyest, and best answer a parent can give to a kid who asks questions about their gender. imho. Thanks for the dialogue MG.

  3. Great real-life conversations and questions to open up the thinking in young ones. Loving the articles.

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