Supporting Gender Non-Conforming Children
What if, when a child is born, you heard the words, “It’s a baby!” Full stop. Would you find something amiss? Do you know why? Most people conventionally equate “penis-bearing biological male” with “boy”, “vulva-sporting biological female” with “girl”, and being identified as boy or girl is habitually, and crucially, concluded at that moment. But would it be strange to avoid this declaration? Let’s revisit the question later. If you’re reading this, you may already be aware of the current discussion around gender issues. Or maybe not. Possibly this piece will make you angry. Possibly it will be confusing or a relief. Possibly you will not know how to feel or what to think. Be warned: we are in relatively novel territory and it’s a brave new world.
Full disclosure: I have a now-grown daughter, Molly, who agrees she is anatomically female, and as far as I know has no plans to change that at the time of this writing. When I asked her if she would call herself a “girl", she paused (oh that pause!) for a moment...and answered, “Yes.” Other days she feels like “not a girl”. She defines herself as “gender fluid”, so any day her gender is up for redefining. When I described this exchange with my super-cool, grown-up nibling (a gender-neutral word for niece/nephew), they offered this succinct little gem: “Are you a girl or a boy?...No.”
In 2014, Molly came out, at Thanksgiving dinner no less, as bisexual. (Yes, I have her permission to tell this.) I told her I knew already. She cried, her sister cried, I cried. I asked her sister, “Why are you crying?” She answered, “Because it’s so touching.” Why did I cry? Because – and I am clear about this – my beautiful, fierce, ginger baby, whom I cherish and support with no conditions, clearly had a moment where she felt afraid to announce this fact. I cried because I knew that despite the liberal household she grew up in, she still worried that she might not be completely accepted because of who she liked. That made me cry. She is utterly, unconditionally, acceptable.
Since then, much has evolved. Having got that little thing out of the way, my daughter has found the freedom and support among her family and friends to go further. I remember her coming home one day and telling me she had discovered a new word: androgynous. She was feeling that word. She has also made it known that she sometimes enjoys being more like a conventional “girl” (though nothing about her is conventional), and wears makeup, high heels and skirts; but sometimes she prefers being more like a “boy” with cargo pants, a ball cap and a swagger; and sometimes, something without a label, articulating that in a crop top, baggy overalls, mascara and high-tops. It’s all an outward expression of whom she feels like that day and she is an original, which is very hard to label. So I don’t. And this is the perspective I come to you with.
“Gender” does not mean the same thing to all people, but there is emerging usage that distinguishes it from other related concepts (and which themselves are subject to varying definitions and designations).
Sexuality – A person's sexual orientation or preference in romantic partners.
Sex – Either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and most other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions. (However, one study that tells us that the number of people born with intersex characteristics, physically or hormonally, may be as high as 2% of live births.)
Gender – The word gender is rooted in the Latin word genus, meaning “birth, family, nation” (think: generation). The earliest forms referred to a kind, sort, or type of thing (think: genre, genus/species). Interestingly, the below definition came from The Oxford Dictionary of Difficult Words (though of course it has an entry in the regular OED!):
The word gender has been used since the 14th century primarily as a grammatical term, referring to classes of noun in Latin, Greek, German and other languages designated as masculine, feminine, or neuter. It has also been used since the 14th century in the sense ‘the state of being male or female’, but this did not become a standard use until the mid 20th century. Although the words gender and sex both have the sense ‘the state of being male or female’, they are typically used in slightly different ways: sex tends to refer to biological differences, while gender refers to cultural or social ones.
Traditionally thought to be a reflection of, and, more to the point, defined by, our anatomy, gender can more thoroughly be considered the interrelationship between body, identity, and expression. The categories of gender can be girl/woman, boy/man, both or neither, or somewhere in-between.
Thinking of gender as a social construct: some would argue it’s an inadequate one, given its traditionally binary limits. If it’s assumed that one’s gender must “agree” with one’s sexual characteristics, it’s like saying you can’t have pizza for breakfast – only bacon, eggs and/or toast, because those are the foods eaten at breakfast. Moreover, saying there is only breakfast, lunch, and supper as meal categories disregards teatime, snack time, brunch, grazing – you get the picture. That girl/boy or man/woman have clear and immutable definitions and expressions simply doesn’t account for individuals who do not feel they fit into those limited terms, nor those who have been assigned one gender while knowing they belong to another, nor those who transition between one, or another, or some, or none that they can, will, or want to label.
Gender terms to know
You might be happy (or frustrated) to know there are some terms you can hang your hat on. Not just some, but LOTS!
I asked Molly, who unsurprisingly verses herself thoroughly on the subject, what are some common terms used in gender “definition”. She replied, “These are the most commonly used terms. There are also a ton of abstract and confusing ones that are much less common.”
Here is the list she provided me with – hang on to your lexicon:
- Gender neutral
- Two-spirited (a Native American term)
- Trans masculine/feminine
Got it? There’s a test at the end. But seriously, it is no surprise that at a time when we are newly imagining the previously unthinkable concept that one might not necessarily slip handily into traditional, binary gender roles, we are producing a spectrum’s-worth of nuanced definitions. Don’t despair. Even non-binary people don’t have it all nailed down. This is merely to lay bare the goings-on in the newly (openly) multigendered world. If your gender “matches” your anatomy, traditionally speaking, also don’t despair. You have a name too: cisgendered. And you’re still OK, just the way you are. Words are useful, but they are also fluid (ever has it been thus). This vocabulary can, and probably will, tend to change. Just understand that they are helpful right now for describing these newly emerging iterations of identity. You don’t have to be a scholar. Just a thoughtful speaker – and listener.
How do you know if your child is gender-questioning?
Because this is new territory, even hip young parents still feel comfortable falling back on traditional activities, toys, and expectations. The bolder among them may opt to go for green or yellow decor in an attempt to declare that they do not adhere to the pink-and-blueness of days gone by. But one set of parents opted to withhold the sex of their child from the world until the child was ready to declare it themself (not a typo). Once little ones become self-aware and recognize that they can make choices, you may begin to see anything from unexamined or zealous conformity, to determined and outright rejection of gender norms (as with any norms foisted on children). This can happen anytime from toddlerhood to adulthood. What does it mean when your male four-year-old wants to wear nail polish? Or your female child likes monster truck rallies? First, it means that they are curious and it’s their personalities that decide to explore, or not, outside the dollhouse. At this age, they don’t give a flying fig about the depth or implications of social constructs, but they do notice and want things that appeal to them. However tempting it is to think that dolls or the name Edward are inherently gendered, they are not. They have simply been assigned that property by a culture, and the logic of a young child is unfettered by such arbitrariness.
By age four, children often begin to have a sense of their gender identity, which may remain stable or may begin to evolve. It is generally agreed nowadays that if gender questioning is something your child is preoccupied with, you should start to pay close attention when “insistence, consistence and persistence” start to become apparent. Questioning can emerge as early as two years old but is often not evident until – OMG! – adolescence, which causes them to question anything and everything about themselves (believe me!).
Being a gender ally to your child
What should you do if you suspect your child may sport a gender that is not so traditional and/or is "inconsistent" with their anatomy? Nothing. Well, something. You can’t do anything about it, per se. But, you can be an ally – and trust me, baby, they’re going to need one. As I mentioned, I was surprised and saddened that, despite my kid’s lifetime of listening to my freewheeling, feminist-killjoy, humanistic ramblings, she still suffered the fear that she might be alone in this. What you can do as a parent is to practice that old parental saw: love them unconditionally. Respect, love, support, and honest communication about sexuality and everything else are critical. Preach it, practice it, live it. Repeat.
- Do not make homophobic jokes or laugh at others’.
- Do not make asides about so-and-so’s “orientation”.
- Do not say things like “You ______ like a girl”, “That’s not very ladylike” or “Be a man!”
These are messages that proclaim your sexism, spell out your expectations, and declare that to be otherwise is condemnable. I implore you to remember that gender non-conforming children are highly vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and suicide. I also implore you to remember that to have a child who is “otherwise” is no reflection of your parenting, good or bad, should not be assumed to be a “phase” (though it could be fluid and evolving), and finally, it does not tell us anything about the goodness or “rightness” of that person.
Spontaneously express tolerance for all things non-traditional, as acceptance for traditional norms is already out there in copious amounts. Tell them about your friend, Jane, who just married her long-time love, Sue (not their real names: their real names are Jeff and Paul), and gush over it as you would a traditional wedding. Compliment people you see on the street: “Did you see that guy’s purse? Jealous!” ASK your kids how they want their hair to be, long or short?
It might be difficult navigating this issue in your own home. Let’s assume that you believe yourself to be tolerant and open-minded. There are still real challenges to overcome. Though you may be a liberal thinker, not everyone else is. And the preponderance of messages out there still unquestioningly and effortlessly tout the binary and cisgendered standard, which children internalize as cultural ideals.
Challenging gendered media messages
Media relentlessly conveys these ideals, and friends and family are highly likely to do the same through speech, values, and their own physical presentation. How do you, as a lowly parent, mitigate such messages while still acknowledging that all presentations are valid? This is where support and communication are paramount. If you are to be an ally to your child, you will have to challenge the media and the people in your lives who, intentionally or unintentionally, denigrate your child’s identity and choices. There is nothing wrong with watching princess movies or teen soaps on Netflix, but make sure that you are having early conversations about what they are seeing. “I really liked it when that boy hugged the other boy who was crying.” “Why do they have women wake up with all their make-up perfectly intact?! Ridiculous!” These comments can be made whether your child is questioning their gender or not, by the way. Try to help them choose games, shows, or videos that show and embrace diversity and reflect a more realistic version of the population.
When friends and relations aren't allies
As for friends and family, they are not immune to bigotry and bullying. Do not tolerate it or expect your child to. Children look to caregivers first for validation. Whether or not your child is present, speak up in their defense, even if it means tension or alienation. Keeping the peace is not worth the grief and anxiety it will cause your child to know that you value others’ feelings above theirs, and they need to know that we do not support others’ ignorance toward them. You can try a gentle approach, “You’ve noticed that Charlie has not yet settled on what gender he identifies with, so please don’t say these things to him.” If that doesn’t result in an agreeable understanding, or at the very least a suspension of expressing their objections to Charlie’s wardrobe, you may have to suspend the relationship. Explain to your child, without insults, why they no longer see their aunt much.
Facing the objections of people near to us can also cause strain for not only your child, but for yourself, your partner and the rest of the family who loves them. To weather this storm, you will need to muster strength with consistency and a calm delivery – in order to be both persuasive (though that is ultimately out of your control) and to maintain the dignity that your child will deeply need to see in you and will hopefully emulate. Here are some “comebacks” distilled from research and experience (and Molly-approved):
- I know it’s hard to understand from your perspective – would you like to hear some of the things I’ve learned about it?
- It is not your place to pass judgment on my child’s identity.
- It might be helpful if you, yourself, did some research on the subject before you make such remarks.
- I have lived with this child since birth; you have not. I have confidence in what she knows about herself.
- You can’t tell me anything I don’t already know about my child.
Prepare kids for confrontation
You will need to prepare them for things that may happen outside of your safety net. Tell them that not everyone understands that it’s OK for a boy to wear barrettes and that they might say mean things. Offer them some choices: they are free to just walk away calmly or you can arm them with language if you can anticipate a confrontation. Help them take the air out of the insults. “Why are you wearing barrettes?” “Why not? They keep my hair out of my eyes when I’m playing sports.” “Barrettes are for girls.” “Says who?” “My Dad.” “My Dad says it’s fine.” It’s even harder if they’re older and by then they will already be exquisitely aware of that crappy fact. What I can say from experience is that my daughter gets surprisingly little backlash about her atypical appearance and actions and I honestly believe it’s at least in part due to the confidence she exudes about herself that keeps her better protected. Her failure to "look" vulnerable seems to be an invisible shield that gives her that Wonder Woman invincibility – Wonder Woman in camo khakis and 1/4” red hair. I wish that self-possession for all children.
Yeah, I’m going there. Pronouns. Those tiny little grammatical words that cost so little, convey so much, and inflame the anti-politically-correct (see the reports about the University of Toronto prof, Jordan Peterson, who refused to use “they” instead of “he” or “she”). There are only a few pronouns for humans: he (male), she (female), and they (plural/neutral)...right? But wait! There’s more!...ze...co...ey...huh? I’m starting to think that this little nugget of linguistics is possibly more controversial than gender identity itself. This might be because some view it as infringing on their own personal use of language: “You can’t tell me what to say!” It may also stem from the fact that confusion ensues when you don’t have a rock-solid set of agreed-upon usage rules to apply to someone whose gender is unknown (to you). It is sometimes a choice that must be made by the addressee and this must then be communicated after an awkward addressing. People also resent it when others use, as they call it, “made up words” (but let's see...all words are made up, soooo....). Just because it sounds like a word, doesn’t mean it is a word. But for now, we have placeholders until the “real” (conventional) words settle in, and it's preferable to respect the addressee’s expressed wishes than to crankily disregard them: I think I’ll refer to you as “Pat” even though you said your name is “Kris”. It makes no sense. If it’s your child asking for pronoun respect, turn it into a fun grammar lesson! What is the object form of ze? (Answer: it’s zir.)
Gender and the psychological profession
In December 2015, Dr. Ken Zucker, a psychologist in Toronto, was removed from his position as head of the Gender Identity Clinic (GIC) he had run for over 30 years when the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health closed it. His dismissal, hailed by many transgender advocates, was for not keeping in step with the current thinking of treating young transgender kids with affirmation (i.e. simply going along with their wishes) but for choosing the seemingly more moderate path of encouraging parents to “...'help children feel comfortable in their own bodies,' as they [the GIC] often put it, since in the GIC’s view gender is quite malleable at a young age and gender dysphoria will likely resolve itself with time.” Often he would reach the conclusion that the child was simply destined to be gay. In some instances, this turned out to be the case and the child did not seem to suffer grievous effects from the gradual withdrawal of gender-typical toys or the nudging to make same-sex friends. At other times, though, the patient simply went “underground” and hid their “crimes” and grew to suffer anxiety and other ill-effects.
Generally, clinicians agree that by adolescence, children are in a better position to make that call conclusively. The question still unanswered is how to make the distinction about very young children who may, indeed, be gender-questioning but may not, in fact, be profoundly or permanently at-odds with their anatomy and are simply playing with norms. The clinic preferred a “watchful waiting” approach, which meant not reinforcing the desires of the questioning child while still being supportive and non-judgmental until at puberty, the question would be more definitively resolved and they would then be helped to achieve their true identity. The treatment ran counter to the affirmation approach more frequently practiced currently and is what ultimately informed the decision to close the clinic.
Zucker tended towards resisting the gender-atypical route for young children for apparently honourable reasons – safety being one, his long experience with children who resolved their confusion later (either way) being another. But what is known about what Zucker et al. did with the young children who didn’t fall into the category of those who wanted a different definition but didn’t eventually pursue a medical transition? So, declaring that an atypical child is either gay or can simply behave their way back into their biological sex until they are adolescent assumes that there is a right way to be when you have certain anatomy. Zucker claims that science bears his approach out. But lest we forget it was science that once decreed homosexuality to be a mental disorder (until 1973). Not to debunk science at all, but in these matters, the speed of science has often been woefully behind the social times. Transgender is still commonly referred to as gender dysphoria or gender identity disorder, both of which imply an underlying condition of dysfunction that needs treatment, which, if you believe you were created with the wrong anatomy, it may; but if you believe you have been assigned the wrong gender (as we now define it), then what?
What if the thing that truly needs treatment is our own culture’s perception of what gender identity should be? Imagine if the norms of yesterday became simply antiquated notions of how a male or female should walk, talk, dress and behave? Consider biblical doctrine and how many things were forbidden in the Bible that are now laughable, even to the devout. Everything from divorcing to eating seafood. Rather than parrot the rhetoric that impedes her freedom to be what her brain tells her she is, what if I say to my child that she can feel comfortable in the body she was born with (or decide she isn’t), but also be comfortable defining herself and expressing that body in any way she sees fit?
What if I told people, the day she was born, “It’s a healthy baby!” and then let her go about the important business of growing up and figuring out who she is?