Coloring outside the gender lines.
Words by Cortney Thekan | Artwork by Erin Stork
When my first child was born, I didn’t give gender much thought. He was a boy, and it was the late ’90s, so I dressed him in a hideous navy onesie emblazoned with “Little Slugger” or something equally conventional. I painted his room blue. I bought him Thomas the Tank Engine toys. A few years later, my second child was born. She was a girl, so I dressed her in lavender seersucker sundresses. I painted her room pink and bought her Care Bears toys.
As it turned out, my daughter loved her Care Bears toys. But by age 3, she was dead set against seersucker sundresses, bellowing, “But I feel so uncomfortable!” while stomping around that pink room with her arms crossed defensively. For nearly a year, she insisted on wearing a baseball cap and a tie wherever she went. My son loved those Thomas the Tank Engine toys with a passion; he memorized the entire catalog at age 2. As a preschooler, he had an equal fervor for The Little Mermaid and Star Wars, running through the house wielding a lightsaber with a red scarf tied around his head (Ariel’s hair, of course). A few years after that, he was Hannah Montana’s biggest fan.
Gender is far more complex than toys and clothes (although that’s part of it), but neither of my kids fit neatly into society’s expectations of what it means to be a boy or a girl. Family members asked questions like, “She won’t wear a dress? Who’s the boss — you or her?” or, “Do you really think you should let him wear that? It’s for girls!” I worried about my kids being teased, or worse, harmed for not following society’s gender rules. I wondered: What does this mean? What will people think? What should I do? What if my child colors outside the gender lines?
First, it’s important to understand the distinction between sex and gender. According to Gender Spectrum (genderspectrum.org), a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a gender sensitive and inclusive environment for all children and teens, sex refers to the physical and biological sex characteristics a person is born with, including genitalia, chromosomes and hormones. Gender is the intricate web that weaves together a person’s biological sex (gender biology); a person’s sense of themselves as being male, female, both or neither (gender identity); and a person’s expressions to the outside world related to their perception of themselves (gender expression).
Most of the time, things work out as we expect. This is a simplification, but it usually works like this: A baby is born. The baby’s sex is determined based on the baby’s external genitals, the world assigns the corresponding gender, and the baby is raised as that gender. So, if a baby is born with a penis, the birth certificate is marked male, the parents raise the baby as a boy, their extended circles of family and friends treat the child as a boy, and most importantly, the child thinks of himself as a boy. He expresses himself (behaviors, clothing, preferences, etc.) the way society expects boys to express themselves. That’s that, right? Not for everyone.
We usually don’t even notice, but society’s gender messages and expectations bombard us constantly. Almost everything in our society is slapped with either a pink or blue sticker — clothes, toys, colors, behaviors — even toilets in some states. Society tells us that we have two choices: You can be a boy, or you can be a girl. This is the binary gender construct. Within this construct, society has specific expectations of how to be a boy or a girl. To be a boy means A, B and C, but never X, Y or Z. If a person strays from these expectations, other people may become uncomfortable or even afraid.
So what if a child doesn’t fit into society’s defined gender boxes? What about the boy with a passion for princesses? Or the girl who insists on wearing a Batman costume wherever she goes? What about the child whose biological sex is female but who has insisted since she could talk that the world has it all wrong, and she is actually a boy?
Dr. Diane Ehrensaft, a developmental and clinical psychologist and an expert on children and gender, invented a term to describe such children that I think is perfect: gender creative (similar terms include gender nonconforming, gender expansive and gender variant). In her book, Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender Non-Conforming Children, Ehrensaft explains gender creative as, “a developmental position in which the child transcends the culture’s normative definitions of male/female to creatively interweave a sense of gender that comes neither totally from the inside (the body, the psyche), nor totally from the outside (culture, others’ perceptions), but resides somewhere in between.” These kids skip over being squished into society’s defined male or female boxes and instead invent their own sense of gender that comes from their bodies, their minds, and the world they live in.
Dr. Carol Mikulka, a board-certified psychiatrist and founder and director of the Walden Community School in Winter Park, explains, “As with most pioneers and explorers, it is only with time that the rest of the world accepts novel ideas, discoveries and facts that challenge their preconceptions of gender identity and expression. Gender creative children are breaking the bounds of convention, questioning the status quo and showing the determination and courage to experiment and explore all of who they are, want to be and decide to be.”
People who know gender creative children — the children’s parents included — have so many questions (I know I did!). Are these children transgender? Some are. And some children know this from a very young age; others discover this in time. Will these kids grow up to be gay? Some will. Gender identity and sexual identity are not the same thing, and like gender identity, sexual identity is far more complex than the binary construct of just straight or gay. What exactly is this child’s gender? Well, we have to wait and see. It’s our nature to want to classify people right away, but we have to give these children time to figure out who they are on their own.
As children often do, my kids challenged me to think differently and consider things I hadn’t before, including my ideas and misconceptions about gender and the prejudice and unfairness in the treatment of gender creative people — especially kids.
See, my daughter rejected most things our society labels “girl stuff.” But people think it’s cute to see a little girl in Vans sneakers and pigtails on a skateboard. Our culture is OK with tomboys — as long as they’re not too masculine, yet another of society’s unwritten gender rules. It was different for my son. People don’t think it’s so cute to see a 5-year-old boy playing dress-up. It was fine for my daughter to wear a tie — adorable, even! — but if my son tied a dishtowel around his waist to fashion a skirt? No way. This made many people uncomfortable. A family friend once chuckled, “What’s he got on? Must be a kilt, right?” My son spun around and responded unequivocally, “No. It’s not a kilt. It’s my skirt.” My friend looked shocked. I stumbled over what to say next, “Umm … yep. That’s his skirt.” But I learned so much watching my son at that moment.
Over time, from the things I got right and from the things I got so, so wrong, I learned the answers to my three biggest questions about raising gender creative kids:
- What does this mean? The only person who knows the answer to this question is your child. You may wonder if your child will grow up to identify as LGBTQ+. Maybe. You may wonder if your child is transgender. Maybe. But there is only one way to find the answers to your questions: Listen to your child. Your child is working on figuring out who they are. And if they feel your love and acceptance, they will show you in time.
- What will people think? The look of shock on my friend’s face when my son told him he was wearing a skirt and not a kilt? It was the look most people have when they first encounter a gender creative child. Parents of gender creative kids should remember that there was a time when they weren’t sure quite what to say or do either. Most people aren’t intentionally cruel or intolerant; they just don’t understand — at least not yet. Give them a chance. There are people in your child’s life who will do whatever they can to understand your child. Sadly, there will be others who will not, and you will have to accept that they may never change their perspective. You’ll have to decide whether to keep these people in your child’s life or walk away. But if you ask your child to to hide who they are — even if you think you’re protecting them — you perpetuate the message that you and your child have something to hide. You don’t.
- What should I do? Find support. Learn more. Speak up. Fear less. Listen closely. Love fiercely. It’s not easy to be a kid — heck, it’s not easy to be an adult. Sometimes it’s difficult to be yourself. Gender creative kids — they just want to be themselves — their true, individual, colorful, beautiful little selves. What should you do? You should help them.
- Gender Spectrum
- My Kid Is Gay
- Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)
- PFLAG Orlando/Central Florida
- You Are You Project
- Zebra Coalition
- The Gender Creative Child: Pathways for Supporting Children Who Live Outside Gender Boxes by Diane Ehrensaft, PhD
- Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender Non-Conforming Children by Diane Ehrensaft, PhD
- My Kid Is Gay: A Question and Answer Guide to Everyday Life by Dannielle Owens and Kristin Russo
- Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt
- Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Fabulous, Gender Creative Son by Lori Duron
Cortney Thekan lives in Orlando and is the mother of two brilliant, quirky teens. She is a professional writer and editor and serves as PLAYGROUND Magazine’s copy editor.