Lately there has been quite a bit of news and social media focused on gender diversity issues. I believe it’s because a lot of people in our society are changing the way that they look at this topic. Society is generally becoming more aware and accepting, at least in the larger cities, about issues that affect the LGBTQIA+ community. More specifically, with regards to gender roles…IT’S ABOUT TIME!
I say this with sassiness, because I have personally, in my 46 years of life, watched people in our society go from total shame talking about anything regarding this topic, to opening their minds and discussing that gender diversity actually exists. People are beginning to understand that the concept of only two binary gender labels (female and male) is a stereotypical view of gender in modern society, and that these identifications don’t necessarily apply to everyone. This progressive outlook is becoming more common with most people. We have come along way, but don’t stop yet-we still have mountains to move!
As a children’s author, I have written several books on or related to this topic and I admit, it is of great interest to me. I am an Ally of the LGBTQIA+ community, have many friends that are part of this family and I try to support their causes as frequently and as much as I can. I like to keep up to date on most social issues, especially ones that affect children. Currently, I continue to see far too many news items that pertain to hate and intolerance of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Like most writers, I am prompted to do research when I want to understand the specifics of a topic. The topic being- current trends in gender diversity and how our society perceives these changes. Well, I can admit that this is a challenging subject to physically ‘Google’. While researching, I was automatically confronted with articles about gender diversity, but they were heavily laden with politics and religion. These are two themes I try to avoid. I attempted to narrow my search down to gender diversity and children. Then I saw it…the perfect article! It was from Huffington Post, written by Brynn Tannehill, called: ‘Dispelling Myths, Misconceptions and Lies About Gender Nonconforming Children’.(1) Before you read on, I highly recommend you go and read this first. It’s not necessary in order to follow along here, but definitely worth the read!
What I noticed as I began to read the article were the words “Gender Noncomforming” in the title. I know I’ve heard these two words together, but they aren’t really typical when used to describe children. Instantly I looked this up too. According to genderdiversity.org, this also means Gender Variance, which refers to behaviours and interests that fit outside of what we consider ‘normal’ for a child or adult’s assigned biological sex.
This I knew! What I didn’t know was that some kids as young as 2 or 3 have already formed their Gender Identity. Here’s an excerpt from Tannehill’s article: “The consensus of the medical community is that sexual dimorphism of the brain occurs in utero as a result of exposure, or lack thereof, to androgens.” In other words, gender identity and expression are determined before a child is even born. It is only at 2 or 3 that they can express it. Cool!
Basically, every person has a certain SEX: this is our biological makeup that we are born with. No choice here, because our genes determine if we are going to be male, female or intersex (a person who is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.)(2) If our biological sex is determined by genes (which are chromosomes (XX for females; XY for males); hormones (estrogen/progesterone for females, testosterone for males); and internal and external genitalia (vulva, clitoris, vagina for assigned females, penis and testicles for assigned males) there are so many variations of all these biological factors to consider when defining someone’s gender. Binary labels don’t really exist here and therefore a person’s gender should be seen in more of a spectrum.(3)
What is GENDER then? The current definition by the American Psychological Association defines gender as: the attitudes, feelings and behaviors that society expects when being male or female. How we are seen by others, how we feel and behave as a boy or a girl. (4) This doesn’t seem broad enough though when considering the biological gender spectrum. Welcoming Schools (an organization that offers professional development tools, lessons aligned with the Common Core State Standards, and many additional resources for elementary schools about gender diversity) offers an alternative definition of gender: the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women. Gender varies between cultures and over time. There is broad variation in which individuals experience and express gender.(5)
As we grow and become more aware of who we are, and most important who we FEEL like, we start to develop a GENDER IDENTITY. This is the sense of “being” Male, Female, Agender, etc. For some people, gender identity matches their physical anatomy and this is referred to as being Cisgender. For someone who is Transgender, their gender identity may differ from physical anatomy or expected social rules. (6) So, according to the article by Huffington Post, this is already happening in some kids that are 2 and 3 years old. Interesting! Some of the nonconforming gender identities are:
AGENDER – a person that does not identify as a boy or a girl – they often prefer not to label their gender. Some actually view Agender as a label of its own, similar to Androgynes. GENDERQUEER – a person that expresses themselves as both a girl and a boy. TRANSGENDER – a person that does not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth. If born female, they don’t feel female, their gender expression is male. Some transgender people also identify as Genderqueer (they do not identify with their birth gender assignment, they express and sometimes even augment their bodies to appear more like the opposite gender from their sex). TRANSSEXUAL is a person whose biological sex at birth does not match their identity. (7) Some Transsexual people have or desire to have surgeries to change their sex. All transsexual people are transgender, but not all transgender people identify as transsexual. The terminology used to describe all these identities is vast and evolving. Gender nonconforming is a common term. Increasingly popular are also such phrases as gender independent, gender creative, gender expansive and gender diverse. (8) Each of us expresses gender every day – by the way we style our hair, select our clothing, or even the way we stand. Our appearance, speech, behaviour, movement, and other factors signal what we feel – and wish to be understood – as masculine or feminine, or as a boy or a girl or otherwise. This is called our GENDER EXPRESSION. (9) Someone who identifies as a particular gender may not look or act like that gender based on what society thinks is a normal way for that gender to look or be.
In essence, if a child is already born with their gender identity as well as their sex, and they can express it as young as two years old, it’s important to better understand these children by listening to their feelings about their gender, regardless if these may go against societal norms or not. Who wants to grow up with restrictions on what they should and shouldn’t look like, feel like, act like or be?
We need to be more sensitive to all children and adults with regards to what gender markers we label them with and be conscious of what they prefer to be identified as. There are certain terms and Preferred Personal Pronouns that are currently expected when referring to someone’s gender, gender identity and gender expression. In addition to the traditional pronouns (he/him, she/her, they), some people prefer to use gender-neutral pronouns, such as they/them, ne, ve, ze/zie and xe. If you don’t know a person’s preferred personal pronoun, it’s always best to ask what they feel comfortable with. (10)
So… is society generally becoming more aware and accepting of nonconforming gender roles? If so, is this because my parent’s generation and the generation before that simply ignore the conflicted feelings that children and adults may have been trying to express years ago? Or, is it just that current society has gained an ability to be more understanding of change primarily because of all the scientific research that has been done about gender. Finally, are people more compassionate and aware of others solely because people and their families are becoming more diverse? Is this in turn causing society to naturally respect the need to make changes in order to nurture itself?
It’s important to understand what our current social norms are and how we arrived here. The most important question we need to ask ourselves at this point, however, is what are we going to do as a society to change our attitudes even more, now that we are here? How many more gender nonconforming children and adults do we need to hear about, that have been isolated, bullied or even killed when expressing themselves as WHO they rightfully and naturally are. The hate and intolerance has got to stop!
On Aug. 14, 2015, the number of transgender people murdered in America this year hit a historic high of 15, according to advocacy organizations like the National Center for Transgender Equality.(11) Transgender and Gender Nonconforming youth face challenges at home, at school, in foster care, and in juvenile justice systems. A national survey by GLSEN has found that 75% of transgender youth feel unsafe at school, and those who are able to persevere had significantly lower GPAs, were more likely to miss school out of concern for their safety, and were less likely to plan on continuing their education.(12)
The mountain that needs moving seems so heavy, but there are many good people in our society who are strong and will help those that can’t. I like to think that most people will naturally grab the hand of their fellow human if they are struggling or having difficulty fitting in. I think that society will continue to gain awareness about it’s people – all of them eventually. And…at least I can hope that most people will stop to take notice of WHY we are moving the mountain in the first place! We are all in this together…you, me, he, she, they/them, ne, ve, ze/zie and xe!
Tracy Bryan is a self-published author for kids aged 2-11. She writes whimsical picture books about emotions, self-esteem, mindfulness and mental health. Tracy also likes to tackle social issues and speak directly to her readers about important topics that affect everyone. Please visit Tracy’s website tracybryan.com or email her at email@example.com
A Special Thank You to Jonah Eric Mosher for being an invaluable resource and inspiration for this article!
To My Daughter: You are one of my main sources of inspiration behind all my work! Without your continual love, validation, and infinite wisdom of Sexual Diversity Studies, my passion would not be as meaningful!
Thank you to the following websites that were used as resources:
For more information regarding these issues and more about Gender Diversity, please visit any one of these websites.