I am a gender non-conforming person. Although, I am comfortable in my skin as a cis-gendered woman– my values, my work and my hopes reflect a non-gendered position, as I hope that all people can be who they are and live into their potential in full inclusivity and acceptance. And alas, I know this is not the reality for many people in our society.
In terms of my work as a therapist and advocate this comes easy for me– it has been a completely different lesson where my personal life is concerned. This is where my confession really begins.
About 7-8 months ago, my child who was born biologically female asked me to call her Sam. This child of mine has always had a creative edge in constructing worlds and peering into realities that she was not necessarily born into. So when my kid came asking for me to call her Sam– well, I guess on some level I thought Sam was another part of this profound imaginative world.
But then shortly thereafter, she asked me to call her he (*this is where I’ll begin using male pronouns in this post, as this reflects his identity). He began expressing his desire to shop in the boy’s department. He picked out a picture of the next haircut he wanted– a very short haircut that he found in a boy’s clothing catalogue. He expressed the desire for his teacher and peers to call him Sam. He made it a point of asking us to share with family members and close friends that he was a boy and wanted to be referred to as Sam and him. The reality began to slowly sink in that: this went beyond a world of imagination and was a way of expressing how he sees himself.
I have truly witnessed him blossom right before my very eyes, but I didn’t want to always see it and I knew that it would require efforts and energies on my part to not succumb to the societal pressures, expectations and norms placed on him and on me as his parent.
The conversations with family and friends have been a mixture of responses. I am grateful for those who shared struggles and yet, went on to learn more (picked up books and resources) and ultimately accepted Sam, because well they always loved Sam and loving him meant more to them than being comfortable and understanding all of his exploration. Ultimately, they were willing to get uncomfortable and be challenged in their own notions of gender conformity.
Oh how I wish more responses were like those above. The other conversations were one’s filled with anger, fear and confusion. As a parent, the questions I’ve been met with range from, “is this happening because you’re allowing it to happen” to “why are you not creating stricter boundaries”? to “why are you not simply telling her– she can’t be a boy”? Sometimes there were no questions just judgements and accusations that we as parents were leading him astray. Scripture versus and religious rants were bashed over my head and claims were made that it would be better for me as a parent to be drown in an ocean than for my child to be led down this “dark path”. These comments were on the (obviously) other end of the spectrum of responses, but my point is I’ve had a myriad of conversations that have been painful and have required me to think about how to keep my child safe.
As a parent, (although I believe it to be complete bullshit) it is to be expected. I am the adult. I can engage these conversations to an extent and create the boundaries for the conversations I wish to not be a part of, but when they are directed at my child– whelp that’s a whole other thang.
And the thing is those comments directed at me are indirect messages to him to, “Get this kid in line– we don’t know what to do with him. He needs to be fixed”. When there is nothing broken with his identity at all.
This year Sam returned to school completely out about his identity. Friends, peers and teachers who had known him as ‘she’ sometimes didn’t know what to do with ‘him’. He faced many questions from his peers about whether or not he was a ‘real boy’ or a ‘real girl’. When Sam answered that he felt like he was both (a girl and a boy) kids laughed and said that wasn’t possible. Honestly, although these conversations have been difficult for Sam and have hurt his feelings I understand why these kinds of questions exist. The kids are trying to make sense of someone who doesn’t fit within the binary framework we’ve all been given at conception and birth. No one tells us that it’s completely fine and natural for there to be variations, diversity and difference when it comes to gender– that for some gender is fluid and their identification of their gender is somewhere on a spectrum.
Our society gives us a structure for gender. This binary gender structure gives us two choices, two boxes: boy or girl… this or that. What is problematic about this binary construct is that it assigns characteristics, qualities and values to external representations of human beings. In other words, if you have a penis then you are immediately assigned the qualities and characteristics that have been deemed to go with a penis. If you have a penis then you are viewed as an individual who likes, values and expresses oneself with qualities and characteristics that are assigned to people with penis’. We see this all the time. Couples find out the sex of their baby and they immediately connect characteristics and values that go along with the sex of their child (i.e. boys= blue, girls= pink, boys= trucks, girls=dolls). These qualities are assigned to you just based on the genitals you are born with. This social gender structure doesn’t take into account the internal– it is purely constructed on the external and the internal is supposed to just follow suit.
But what if your internal experience varies or doesn’t match the external? What if your personal qualities, values and characteristics do not match those that you are supposed to have because you have a penis or a vagina? What if your personal values don’t fit the genitalia-specific assignment that you were given at birth?
This is just the tip of the iceberg, folks. The more I get involved in these conversations the more I see just how much more we love our boxes than actual people. We love checking boxes and telling people, “you fit here and you belong there”. We are committed to maintaining norms that make sense to us and allow us to place value on the existence of others. We don’t even think twice about the boxes or the limitations the boxes present because these boxes afford us comfort and ease– a compass for how we are to navigate the world.
And then someone like Sam comes along and says, “the box is too tight– too restrictive– it’s not me”. We respond with, “Oh shit, what do we do”? Well typically we put pressure on the person to comply– conform. We yell, “just be NORMAL”!!!!! We may reject them… Displace them from family and community. Sometimes we bully– we beat up and we even kill.
- A staggering 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6% of the general population with rates rising for those who lost a job due to bias (55%), were harassed/bullied in school (51%), had low household income, or were the victim of physical assault (61%) or sexual assault (64%). (National Center for Transgender Equality, 2011).
Sam feels this pressure daily. He navigates this pressure daily. He has an incredible read on people. He knows who are safe harbors and who are uncomfortable, but trying to be polite and he veers clear of these people. He feels the difference between acceptance and tolerance and he’s learned that tolerance seriously sucks. He is learning to reject negativity and intolerance and he deflects with kindness and a sense of humor, but it still hurts.
This is just the tip of the iceberg– we’re just at the coming out phase with friends and family and it’s been hard. We still have much more to consider: bathrooms, healthcare, community and safety (to name a few).
For now I want to say something on behalf of our family. I hope other gender-non conforming families feel safe and will be able to share their experiences, too. For families and individuals out there needing support please feel free to contact me and reach out. We have to find ways to support each other.
To non-believers and the rest of society:
- It’s my child’s right to explore and figure out his gender identity. You don’t have the right to tell my kid who he is and/or who he can be. Any comments or confusion or fears you have regarding this– is your stuff– you get to deal with that on your own and not displace that on my kid. If you are an ally there are books and resources to help you in your own personal process. My kid has enough on his plate with just developing and growing and learning and he doesn’t need any additional pressure to conform to your comforts.
- It’s my right to parent, love, accept and support my kid. You don’t get to shame me or pressure me to do things the way you would. You see, I know my kid and I value him. I don’t have time to educate you and help you to see that gender diversity is healthy and natural. I don’t have time to answer questions about his/our process. This is not some freak show for you to gawk at and make judgements. This is our lives and my kid is someone of dignity and I won’t allow you to reduce him to anything less.
- We all have a lot to learn about gender. Here are some helpful definitions:
Gender Identity: what you know and feel to be true about your gender (Meet Polkadot)
Biological sex is defined as the parts a person’s body has: chromosomes, hormones, and physical body parts. Both gender identity and biological sex are “normal and great” no matter what they are. Sometimes gender identity and biological sex do not match 100% and that is normal and okay (Meet Polkadot)
Cisgender: A person whose gender identity is aligned to what they were designated at birth, based on their physical sex; 2) A non-trans* person.
Designated Sex (Designated Sex at Birth): The sex one is labeled at birth, generally by a medical or birthing professional, based on a cursory examination of external and/or physical sex characteristics such as genitalia and cultural concepts of male and female sexed bodies. Sex designation is used to label one’s gender identity prior to self-identification.
Fluid: A gender identity where a person identifies as 1) neither or both female and male; 2) Experiences a range of femaleness and maleness, with a denoted movement or flow between genders; 3) Consistently experiences their gender identity outside of the gender binary.
Gender Expression: How one chooses to express one’s gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, hairstyle, voice, body characteristics, etc. Gender expression may change over time and from day to day, and may or may not conform to an individual’s gender identity.
Trans*: Umbrella term, originated from Transgender (see below). Used to denote the increasingly wide spectrum of identities within the gender variant spectrum. The asterisk is representative of the widest notation of possible trans* identities. Aimed at promoting unification among gender variant communities by placing focus on gender transgression over specific identity labels, genders, or bodies.
Gender DiversityGender Diversity
Gender Definition & Terms
Injustice At Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (2011)
Meet Polkadot by: Talcott Broadhead
Trans Bodies, Trans Selves by Laura Erickson-Schroth