“What are you having? A boy or a girl?” This is one of the first questions people are not shy to ask a pregnant person. The question is asked because people are a complicated mix of curious, compassionate, and naive.
While the intent is rarely meant to be harmful, it perpetuates the cycle of a heteronormative way of thinking and living. Heteronormative is the idea or belief that society’s norm is created by cisgender and heterosexual people who follow gender “rules” and match the stereotypes of what it means to be male or female. We are surrounded by the heteronormative every day—and that is where the damage is done. Because those who live outside of these gender boxes, especially gender creative children, are not embraced for who they are.
In the simplest terms, a gender creative—or gender-expansive—child is one who rejects expected gender roles and stereotypes. Dr. Diane Ehrensaft, a developmental and clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Director of Mental Health and founding member of the Child and Adolescent Gender Center, introduced us to this phrase in her first book called Gender Born, Gender Made. But it was her second book, The Gender Creative Child, that pushed the term into mainstream conversation. The book is a scientific yet compassionate examination of gender fluidity, and provides ways for parents and professionals to support and affirm our children’s gender and gender expression when one or both veer from assumptions.
Years of societal conditioning have led people to believe that gender is determined by looking at a baby’s genitalia in an ultrasound. They also believe that when it comes to gender, there are only two options. Add in gender reveal parties, and we have too much money being spent — and too much physical and emotional damage being done — in the name of dated biases and myths about gender.
Gender cannot be determined by a person’s anatomy because gender is not the same as sex. And gender isn’t binary. Some folks are gender fluid and feel their identity fluctuates between male and female. Nonbinary folks like myself identify within gender spectrums outside of being male or female. I am a mix of both male and female genders, but usually I don’t feel any gender at all.
Gender creative children may question their gender identity, but they are not necessarily transgender. A gender creative child is not necessarily queer either. A boy who loves “girl” things is not excluded from falling in love with girls. And a masculine presenting female is not excluded from dating a masculine presenting male. Clothes, makeup, hair, and accessories allow us and our kids to express themselves and their gender to the world. But because the world has told us what gender expressions should be for gender, people get very stuck when a boy prefers dresses over jeans.
Until we can eliminate the notion that a person should look a certain way based on their gender, we will look at the boys who like glitter, the girls who wear mohawks, and the kids who question the gender label on their birth certificate as gender creative kids. It would be a wonderful world to live in if those kids were just seen as kids and not outliers. Conformity should include the confidence to be ourselves while expecting acceptance and safe places to exist.
I would love to believe that what parents want most for their kids is happiness. We tell them to be confident and true to themselves. We encourage individuality and preach kindness. And as hard as we try to raise kids who see the beauty in themselves and others, there are signs everywhere that tell our kids this message of “unconditional” acceptance has conditions. Even subconsciously, parents direct their children to the paths of less if not least resistance when it comes to fitting in, especially when it comes to gender and gender expression.
As a transgender person and a parent of a transgender child and cisgender children who have exercised their rights to express themselves in ways that deviate from how their peers think they should express their gender, I can promise you that this message has its limitations. Most of what our kids see portrayed in and on their books, movies, cartoons, and clothing feeds into the idea that people are either a boy or a girl and they wear colors, play with certain toys, and act in ways that are also labeled as being for one of those genders. It’s hard to accept things we are not used to seeing, and that applies to the people who go against the embedded norms of gender expression.
When my son was four, he picked out winter boots that were silver with salmon colored soles and trim. The middle sections of the boots were shiny and sparkly. He called them his space boots. He felt like an astronaut when he slipped them on, and he loved them. He also loved his purple water bottle. He had picked it out because it had elephants on it and he liked elephants. Sometimes he would paint his nails or slip on a skirt when his sisters did. But my Ben never looked less masculine (according to society’s idea of what masculine looks like) when sporting any of what his friends at school eventually told him were “girl things.” He did look like an astronaut in his silver boots, and his stocky body in a skirt reminded me of a Viking or gladiator.
None of it mattered, though. And while I would not label my son as gender creative, those two instances told him there was a certain way to be a boy, and he was doing it wrong. He still actively supports people around him to wear and play with what they want, but at the age of six, his kind heart already knows others will not be kind to him if they find out he dressed up as Anna to his twin sister’s Elsa three years ago.
We need to actively check our biases and break down these harmful heteronormative images and belief systems by removing gender labels wherever possible. We need to start asking folks their pronouns and gender instead of assuming we know based on their physical presentation. Don’t just tell your kids to break gender stereotypes; tell them to support the kids who are changing stereotypes just by being themselves.