Boys and girls, listen up! We’re going to separate into two sides: boys on this side, girls on the other. No boys allowed! Are you a boy or a girl? You look like a girl. Those are girl clothes. How many boys are in here? All the girls stand up. This is the girls’ bathroom! One boy and one girl will be chosen. Boys aren’t allowed to spend the night.
A couple of years ago, my then seven-year-old son calmly told his dad and me that he no longer wanted to be called a boy. Our son had very long hair at the time and wore skirts or pink clothing on occasion, so he’d been mistaken for a girl many times, though it never seemed to bother him. Still, we were surprised. “Oh. So then do you want to be called a girl?” we asked. He thought for a moment. “No,” he decided. “Because I’m neither.” It’s been almost three years, and Noah is still adamant that he* is non-binary.
About a year before Noah told us he no longer identified as a boy, he was diagnosed with autism. When I first began writing this post, I was planning to write about misconceptions around ASD and how challenging it can be to raise an atypical kid in a typical world. It was Noah who stopped me.
“I think you should write about what it’s like to be non-binary in a gender-obsessed world,” he argued. “Being non-binary is way harder than having autism.” That was a shock. For me, as Noah’s mom, managing the symptoms that often accompany autism (like depression, anxiety, and OCD to name a few) seemed way harder than referring to oneself as neither a boy nor a girl. But Noah is living with both and still thinks shaking off gender norms is the most difficult challenge he faces every day.
I’m still learning, as Noah’s parent, what being gender neutral means for him, and how marginalized non-binary kids feel every day. The paragraph of expressions at the beginning of this post are some that Noah hears – and has to have an immediate response ready for — on an almost daily basis. So I asked Noah what three things he wished he could tell the world about being a non-binary kid, and here’s what he said.
1. Being gender neutral can be lonely.
With teachers separating the class into “boys and girls,” boy/girl bathrooms, gendered toy and clothing sections at the store, and “girls only” or “boys only” mantras ringing out on the playground, being a nonbinary kid can be a lonely experience.
“Is there a non-binary side?” Noah once asked a substitute teacher who insisted boys line up on one side of the room and girls line up on another. The teacher was confused by the question. I asked Noah what he did, and he reported that he was already lining up with the boys even as he asked. “If there was a non-binary side,” he said, “I would be the only one.”
The thing is, trans and gender non-conforming (TGNC) youths are not alone. Multiple studies show that more and more kids are coming out as transgender or rejecting traditional boy/girl gender identities altogether and identifying as gender fluid. According to Daniel Shumer, a specialist in transgender medicine at the University of Michigan, “previous estimates of the size of the TGNC population have been underestimated by orders of magnitude.” Sadly, pediatric studies are discovering that TGNC kids often have significantly poorer mental and overall health than kids who are cisgender (meaning those with a gender identity which corresponds with their birth sex). Shumer beseeches schools and doctors to “abandon limited views of gender” for the sake of these kids’ health and wellbeing. After all, we all remember what it’s like to be a kid; it’s lonely enough without being marginalized by an outdated understanding of gender.
2. It takes a lot of bravery to be out as gender non-conforming.
Not claiming a gender can be scary and threatening to a kid. “I’m nervous to wear skirts to school, because most people still think of me as a boy and I don’t want to be laughed at,” Noah confessed. “But wearing skirts at home makes me feel cheerful because they’re pretty.”
Unfortunately, being laughed at is mild compared to some of the problems gender non-conforming kids face. According to the Human Rights Campaign, a terrifyingly high percentage of LGBTQ kids are depressed, have trouble sleeping at night, and experience elevated stress as well as feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. Only 26% of gender expansive youth say they feel safe in their school classrooms, and only five percent say their teachers and school staff are supportive of them. Worst of all, studies have shown that when gender non-conforming kids don’t feel supported by their parents, they are at high risks for self-harm, homelessness, and even suicide.
It’s not easy being a kid who doesn’t adhere to gender normativity. That’s why we adults have to work harder to help gender non-conforming kids feel safe, supported, and loved. “I do understand why people are afraid,” Noah told me. “No one wants to be laughed at. But you should just be who you are. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”
3. There’s nothing wrong with us!
The number one thing Noah hears from other kids is, “Are you a boy or a girl?” I know kids are often just trying to figure things out, but it’s frustrating for Noah to have to define his gender to every stranger on the playground. Moreover, there are some kids who just cannot let it go. He’s told me stories about kids cornering him at school and harassing him to give them a straight answer about his gender, and by that I mean a black and white answer. In most kids’ minds there are just two possibilities for gender identity: girl or boy. “For non-binary kids, gender is a box we don’t fit inside,” Noah explained.
It’s our job as adults to teach our kids to be accepting of all people, that gender is not black and white, and that not everyone identifies as a boy or a girl and that is okay. Coincidentally, in my limited experience from helping Noah navigate this, I’ve found that knowing someone with an ambiguous gender can be just as challenging for adults as it is for kids. I understand. It can feel slightly uncomfortable not knowing someone’s gender, especially if we aren’t sure what pronoun to use when referring to that person. But try to imagine how much more uncomfortable it is for someone who is gender fluid to have to define who they are for every confused person who feels entitled to an answer.
“I wish people just didn’t care,” Noah told me. “I wish they wouldn’t ask. People don’t deserve to be harassed if they say they aren’t gendered.” However, he does have his answer ready when other kids want to know whether Noah is a boy or a girl. He simply asks, “Does it matter?”
It doesn’t matter to me what gender my child is, if any. What does matter to me, as his mother, is that he knows he is loved no matter what. When Noah first told us he was not a boy, obviously we were concerned. We didn’t want him to be hurting, and kids who experience gender dysphoria are often in a lot of emotional pain. Could this be why he was struggling with anxiety and depression, and why he was being bullied at school? We sought guidance from Noah’s ASD psychologist, who gave me the best advice I’ve heard to this day.
“There is nothing you can or cannot do or say to make Noah transgender,” she told us. “He either is trans or he isn’t. Your only job is to love him and show him that you support him regardless. If he isn’t trans, and he’s just experimenting right now, fine. He’ll remember that you were always steadfast in your love for and support of him. But if he is trans, he needs your support more than ever, and right now is the time you’re showing him whether or not he can trust you.”
Our job, as parents, is to love and support our children regardless of where they fall on the gender spectrum. Our job as adults is to educate ourselves and increase our own understanding of a very gender diverse population so we can help build a better world for our kids. Daniel Shumer believes that “continued work to build understanding of how youth…express gender is a critical step toward reducing health disparities in [the TGNC youth] population.”
To transgender and gender non-conforming kids, Noah’s message is simple: “You’re okay. There’s nothing wrong with you. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”
As the mother of a non-binary kid, I hope we can all be as kind and as wise.
*After discussing it at length, we still use the masculine pronoun for Noah, with his consent. He is also fine with she/her pronouns. We haven’t used they/them, although that is the preferred pronoun for many gender fluid people.