Parents, We Need to Change the Way We Discuss Gender, Sexuality, and Identity

When we look beyond the construct of gender and sexuality, we can help our children explore their identity without limiting their interests, joys, curiosity, and self-expression.

An illustration of a person looking in a mirror.
Photo: Illustration: Julia Bohan-Upadhyay.

When I held my children for the first time after they were born, I was overwhelmed by the possibilities living inside of their tiny bodies. They were just lumps of baby flesh with no motive to be anything other than cared for. Who were these babies? What would their stories be? I would have to wait to find out.

However, as a parent, I had to make at least some decisions about who my newborn babies were. I had to fill out a birth certificate for my child that included listing their name, address, and birth sex, which is used to classify their gender. I knew society imposes certain expectations based on the M or F next to one's name, and I knew that if my ex-partner and I weren't careful, we would implicitly and explicitly expect our children to conform to gender stereotypes.

The gender binary hurts all of us because it keeps us locked into predetermined expectations and biases that limit our creativity, joy, curiosity, and core sense of self. We assume boys will be tough, physical, and stoic. We assume girls need to be protected while they are also expected to be soft and nurturing. We expect our children to be straight and cisgender. Unless we change attitudes, question the constraints, and fix errors around gender assumptions, people will maintain the status quo because "that's just how it's always been." We all deserve better than the status quo.

A Breakdown of What Is Assigned At Birth

From pink or blue cupcakes to fires and destruction, gender reveal parties are ignorant if not deadly examples of parents falling victim to the myth that a child's body parts are what determine their gender. But a sonogram and one's sexual anatomy do not determine gender.

A person's genitalia is often referred to as their biological sex. But a person's sex is also represented by hormones and chromosomes. One's biological sex is not simply defined by the presence of a vagina or penis. And sex is not binary in terms of being either male or female. There are so many variations in all of these factors that to simply say someone is either biologically female or male doesn't tell the whole story. Some people who have genetic variations may not realize the complexity and variation of their hormones and chromosomes without testing; for others, the ambiguity is visually present at birth. For every 100 people born in the United States, one to two are intersex. This is a general term given to people who are born with genitalia or sexual reproductive organs that do not align with what is considered "male" or "female" traits.

People use sex to determine gender, however. But that means we're using one varied and sometimes incorrect definition to explain another quality—gender—that is just as varied and also determined by a completely different set of criteria.

If a person's assigned gender at birth is the gender they identify with, that person is cisgender. When someone's gender does not align with the one they were assigned at birth, they are transgender.

Gender is not simply male or female, either. So, while some people transition from their assigned female gender at birth to their true male identity, gender is not binary. It's a spectrum, it's fluid, and for some, it's neither male nor female. I'm a nonbinary person who is not male or female; I'm a mix of both genders but on some days I don't feel any gender at all. I'm just me.

Someone once asked me how I knew I was nonbinary. When I asked how he knew he was a man he began to list traits that described himself. I pointed out that he was telling me the type of man he was, but I wanted to know what told him he was a man. He thought about it and then said he was told he was a boy when he was born. When I asked him if he felt like a boy then and a man now, he said yes. The label felt right, but he couldn't really describe why it was right. It's just who he is.

I explained that was how I feel too. Except I knew I wasn't female. But because I was told for so long that I was a girl, I struggled to feel like me. I was playing a part that was not right. The outfits, lines, and set design were all wrong. It wasn't until the evolution of language and the discovery of the word nonbinary that helped me realize my true gender. I learned that nonbinary, genderfluid, and agender identities have been recognized in several places, people, and cultures since we have been recording human behavior. In many places, people who embody multiple genders are celebrated.

Gender Expression Has a Spectrum of Options

Gender diversity has always existed; not seeing or believing in it doesn't mean people who live outside of the gender norms don't exist. Not only do genders fall outside of the binary, but gender expressions also bend the rules of what people think certain genders should wear.

Even within the labels of male and female, there are variations, a spectrum of options, but many people bristle at and resist variations that push the accepted limits of conformity. Boys can't wear nail polish. Girls shouldn't fight. Boys don't cry. Girls can't be engineers. What people see in others determines how they act, and that links back to power and control. Calling someone different or "wrong" gives people false authority to police people's gender and gender expression.

Men used to wear wigs, heels, and makeup. Little boys even wore pink! Women weren't allowed to wear pants, vote, or work. We used to greet each other with "How art thou?" but now find it acceptable to say, "Sup, bruh!" Wardrobes, rights, and language change, and we adjust. We unlearn what we once believed were universal truths. These "truths" are examples of ideas that have created normativity, or beliefs that set standards uphold structures of power.

Heteronormativity, for example, is the belief that all people are either male or female, are cisgender and straight, and should fall in line with gender stereotypes and expectations. Any deviation from this narrative is considered "not normal."

Claiming a gender identity is normal. Falling in love is normal. Expressing who we are with names, pronouns, and clothing is normal. When we uphold the normative over the normal, we are exerting power because we are prioritizing the majority over the minority. And this comes from a lack of understanding, fear, and insecurity. When someone with the same label as you looks, acts, and loves differently than you, it can make you question your own identity. You have used society as a mirror to define who you are, and now that mirror is offering a different reflection. This can feel like an insult to one's identity, and that can trigger fear, discrimination, and violence onto gender-nonconforming people.

But a man wearing a skirt can still be masculine. A person using they/them pronouns is still valid in their chosen gender. It hurts no one to acknowledge and respect variations in gender and gender expression.

Now Let's Look at Sexuality

People often confuse sexuality with gender identity, but the two are very different things. Transgender and gender-nonconforming people fall in love in a variety of ways. Being transgender does not automatically make you gay any more than being cisgender automatically makes you straight.

Sexualities are rooted in how we feel connected to another person based on both gender and the type of connection. We are attracted to people for emotional, romantic, and/or physical reasons. Some relationships are romantic but not sexual. Some are only sexual. Some relationships encompass layers of different types of attraction.

How we tie our hearts, minds, and sometimes bodies to another person can't always be distilled into simply saying someone is straight or gay. Those simple terms ignore the spectrums of gender diversity and the fluidity of sexuality. Who we love and how we define that love and attraction can change as well. Some folks know their sexuality very early in life. For others, it takes longer to figure out. This could be a slower journey of self-discovery or an attempt to adhere to the heteronormative default setting we're expected to follow with regards to the M or F on our birth certificate.

The Bottom Line

From the very beginning of a child's life, we feed into society's concept of gender, and those beliefs ripple out to impact how they eventually perceive and think about everything from relationships to gender roles to the clothes they wear. If parents can approach gender and how it intersects with our children's sexuality and gender expression with a more open mind, then we can leave room for authentic self-discovery, creative expression, and boundless, healthy love.

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