Transistor Radio #2: The Myth of the “Correct Gender”

you don't need to know your gender to know you love cherry tomatoes

you don’t need to know your gender to know you love cherry tomatoes

Last month, my kid turned three years old. There was a cake, and a brand new pop up tent to play with, and a couple of weeks later there was an annual check up with the pediatrician. I didn’t go, but I got the full debrief from her mom and dad who took her. Zadie’s great! Healthy as a horse*! Hitting all those milestones! Well, except for this one thing.

“There was a question on the survey they give you,” said Jon. “It was something like ‘how often does your child correctly identify his/her gender?’ The options were ‘always’, ‘sometimes’ and ‘not yet.’ I put ‘not yet’ for Zadie.”

And I went on a tirade. Bless his heart, he listened. He always does.

As a trans person, this question ruffles the shit out of my feathers because it presumes that someone other than the child themself decides what is correct. When I was Zadie’s age I could correctly identify the gender that had been assigned to me, but to call that my correct gender would have been presumptuous at best (given how I turned out) and full-on erasing at worst. Some of us know what gender we are by the time we’re three. Sometimes that matches what everyone’s expecting of us (cisgender kid) and sometimes that doesn’t (transgender kid). For a lot of us, though, gender is a slippery thing. It took me over twenty years to correctly identify my gender—if by correctly we mean identify gender in a way that makes sense and is comfortable for me. To put it another way, it took me over twenty years to reject what I was told, over and over again, is my correct gender. The constant stream of “You’re a girl, you’re a girl, you’re a girl” the whole time I was growing up confused the shit out of me.

As a trans person, this question is bullshit because it conflates sex and gender, which are separate constructs for a reason. Sex describes biological aspects of a person**; gender is an identity that people express through presentation and enactment. Gender is as psychological and sociological as it is biological, and an important part of that means that it is learned, and a thing which is learned requires time to learn it. By the time kids are three certainly they have received a shocking amount of gender-based and gender-focused socialization. But they don’t yet have the cognitive development needed to interrogate and articulate all of this. Gender is brewing at age three, but it is not done yet. For most people, how a person identifies gender-wise at three is consistent at age thirty, but the whys and hows and meanings are different. And some of us change! Some of us are different at thirty than we were at three.

As a nonbinary genderqueer trans person, this question gets under my skin because it presents the gender binary as fixed, immutable and true. Can I correctly identify my gender? Maybe—it depends on if the person asking accepts the categories I put forth. Is there a write-in category? Why does my kid have to choose between girl and boy? What if she’s somewhere in the middle? The phrasing and intent of this question reifies the gender binary, and in the doing, treats me as something that cannot exist.

And as a parent, this question rankles me because it is insensitive. My kid has a trans parent, and (not so shocking) I have trans friends. My kid interacts with a wonderfully gender-diverse group of people. And she’s at the age where she is learning to read and name social categories. That’s really what this question is getting at—whether or not she understands and can place herself in relevant social categories. But she doesn’t have the same exposure or environment that other kids her age do. She sees a lot of femme women and butch women, big burly dudes and fey elfin men. She sees others, like me, who are in a third category. Watching her interact with the world, it’s become apparent that she maps other people onto her family, categorizing strangers as Daddy-like (typically cis men), Mama-like (high femme people of any gender) and Baba-like (usually short-ish glasses-wearing people who are not so easily gendered). I have heard her call people “girls”, “boys” and “babas”. So she knows. She gets gender. She just gets more of it than most people.

And she is exploring her own gender organically. Over the course of the same week, when I’ve asked her if she’s a girl or a boy in the name of SCIENCE, she’s given the following answers:

“I’m a boy!”

“I’m a boy. I’m a girl. Baba!”

“Girl.”

She’s all over the map, and that’s ok. We let her pick out her own clothes, and she tends to gravitate towards t shirts with dinosaurs and pants. She likes her hair kept short because it’s thick and hot and it tangles and gets in her eyes. She violently resists whenever we’ve tried to do anything at all with her hair except let it just lie there. She is almost always assumed to be a boy outside our house. AND she’s curious about her mama’s make up and will paint her cheeks purple with eye shadow. She loves to dance. She wants to cook and plays in her toy kitchen all the time. She loves trucks and baby dolls. She’s just who she is right now, and there’s no pressure on her to even be a ‘she’ for any longer than she wants to be. Honestly, she seems not to care much about gender. She loves Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: The Legend of Korra, and sometimes she tells us she’s Aang and sometimes she tells us she’s Korra.

The problem with this question is that there’s a chance that my kid, like me, is trans. Who knows? I certainly don’t, and she doesn’t either. And this question is telling me, a parent of a toddler, that it is a developmental milestone for her to have internalized the gender binary and the conflation of sex and gender so well (reinforced, of course, by my parenting choices) that she already knows how she’s supposed to identify and that ‘correct’=‘cisgender’.

How can it be a developmental milestone to rip that choice away from her, to silence her, before she even knows what she has to say about it?

*There was, apparently, talk of putting my three year old on a diet, but that’s getting its very own post, so stay tuned.

**Conversation for another day: I believe in a binary of biological sex as much as I believe in a binary of gender—that is, not in the least.