How To Answer The Question ‘Is That A Boy Or A Girl?’
As a nonbinary trans masculine, yet androgynous-leaning person, I’m often misgendered. Adults almost always guess, but children are more likely to ask if I’m a boy or a girl before making assumptions about my gender or pronouns. They frequently do this in front of their parents or other adults who are making their own calculations. If I’m within earshot, parents are really good at sinking into the ground out of embarrassment and then silencing their child with whispered scolding. I’m neither a boy nor a girl and I use they/them pronouns, but if I’m not in the mood or don’t have the time to respond, the conversation ends and no one learns anything.
Don’t Blame Your Kid For Something You Didn’t Teach Them
Parents want to know how to respond to their children when they blurt out the “boy or girl” question, but whether it’s done without my knowledge or in front of me, it’s not my or any person’s responsibility to answer this question about their gender identity. And stop shaming or shushing children’s curiosity; it’s not the fault of the child for asking the question in the first place. This is on parents and other adults to educate children about gender and gender expression so kids don’t feel the need to place others into binary boxes.
You Are Not Entitled To Know Someone’s Gender
First of all, no one has the right to know how anyone identifies, so if the person you or your child is asking doesn’t want to answer then you have to accept that and move on. This doesn’t mean you get to assume a gender or pronouns, this means you can refer to the person using the gender neutral pronouns they/them until you learn otherwise. You already do this more than you realize.
Let’s say you go to the park and see someone’s water bottle on a picnic table. You look around and don’t see anyone. The water bottle is in great condition and one you wouldn’t want to leave behind so you guess that it was forgotten. You may say to yourself, Hmmm. It looks like someone forgot their water bottle. I hope they come back and get it because that’s a nice one. Maybe I will take it to lost and found for them just in case. You don’t know the gender of the person, so your brain automatically went to using they/them pronouns in the singular form which has been done for hundreds of years in spoken and written language.
You can avoid misgendering someone by using this same example on a person you meet for the first time whose gender is unclear to you. Defaulting to they/them pronouns is an act of respect.
Does It Matter?
Now that that is clear, if you or a child is questioning someone’s gender first ask why. Does it matter? Likely it doesn’t. People want labels to make themselves feel more comfortable and often that means making assumptions about someone else. When we do that we use gender labels and pronouns that may not be right because we feel like we have to check a box. But that box is much less important than someone’s need to be respected.
Embrace Not Knowing Someone’s Gender Identity
You need to also acknowledge there are lots of ways to express gender and there are more than two genders. Gender expression is the external message we share about how we feel about our gender. We express who we are with clothing, hair, makeup, or jewelry. Our gender identity is how we feel internally and our sense of self is a spectrum that ranges from female to male, can be a mix of genders, or can be a complete lack of gender. Because there are multiple genders and many ways to express them, we can’t assume someone’s gender based on their looks.
Folks need to get comfortable in not assuming gender. It’s okay to embrace the discomfort of not knowing someone’s identity.
I was forced to use a gendered bathroom while I was out of my house one day and decided the women’s bathroom was my safest option. As I went into a stall, a child and their adult walked into the same public space. I heard the child say, “Are we in the girls’ bathroom? I think that was a boy.” To the adult’s credit, they replied, “I know we’re in the right spot and I trust that person knows they are in the right spot too.” Because the adult was so chill and reassuring about the topic, the kid was chill too. I suspect the child will learn that lesson a few more times; my hope is that it will become second-nature for the child to look at a person and not feel the need to question someone’s gender based on biased expectations.
“I Don’t Know, But We Shouldn’t Make Assumptions”
When your kids ask if someone is a boy or a girl, it’s okay to say, “I’m not sure. There are lots of ways to be a boy, girl, or a person who identifies as both or neither. We should be respectful and smile as we go by. Or we could say hello and introduce ourselves and mention the pronouns we use so they feel comfortable telling us how they identify if that is what they choose to do.”
Eliminate the urge to ask about someone’s gender by thinking outside of the gender binary. Read books and have conversations that challenge gender stereotypes and teach your kid that nonbinary, genderfluid, and genderqueer people exist — and are awesome.
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