You Need To Let Your Child Explore Their Gender Expression On Their Own Terms

by Cassie Brighter
Child covering his face with his shirt with a transgender flag in the background
Scary Mommy and EvgeniiAnd/Getty

One of the trickiest parts of the gender conversation is the prevalence of misogyny and toxic masculinity in this society.

Boys who WANT to be men, but find the restrictive/prescriptive requirements (“Boys don’t cry,” etc.) like a straitjacket around their heart.

Girls who WANT to be women, but find the objectification, the male gaze, and all the other misogynistic bullshit suffocating.

That’s why it’s extremely important to have extensive conversations with our kids about intersectionality and feminism. Tell them about societal structure. There HAVE been societies where women were equals with men. There HAVE been societies where men could be openly sexual with other men. There have been societies where women had the power. There have been all kinds of societal structures. This “Men rule, women drool” patriarchal oppression, this “Effeminate men will be put to death” schema, is not the natural order. It is religion-driven, it is there for the benefit of the few and the detriment of many. It is ARTIFICIAL.

For trans folk, this whole dynamic takes on a whole new layer. Some pre-transition trans women will seek to prove themselves as men by leaning HARD into the toxic masculinity tropes (bodybuilding, military, “tough guy” stereotypes). Some late-transitioning women are just dripping with chauvinistic male-power myths they soaked up in their pre-transition life. Some trans men ooze misogyny as a way to “prove” their manhood.

I grew up a secret girl in a very chauvinistic household. My father was the white knight in shining armor, my mother was the damsel in distress. This worked at the beginning of their romance — when she really did need saving. But over the course of their marriage, I saw her try to rise up from her infantilization, try to assert herself as a woman with her own agency, only to be pushed down by her husband. (“Have you taken your pills? Is it your time of the month? Women are SOOOO emotional…”)

When my father disapproved of my behavior, he’d tell me, “You’re just like your mother.”

Imagine growing up in this paradigm as a secret girl. Imagine KNOWING you’re a girl, and also knowing there’s nothing good about being a woman. (I’m not even talking about being a TRANS woman — I’m talking about women in general.)

What saved me, in my case, was Wonder Woman. The 1980s Lynda Carter version. Here was a tall, beautiful, strong but gentle, hot but motherly, adorable powerful superhero. Kicking male villains with her rocking red boots.

Even before Wonder Woman, I had found refuge in Laura Ingalls of “Little House on the Prairie,” in Jo March of “Little Women,” in Johanna Spyri’s “Heidi” (I was introduced to the character through the absolutely adorable 1974 anime show “Heidi, Girl of the Alps“). But Diana Prince was my hero and my savior.

A few years later, along came Ripley, in Aliens. There was the sweaty, bearded tall cis man — the obvious hero of the movie. And he got dead. It was shocking. And then Ripley, the unexpected heroine, grabbed the heavy machine gun and went after the alien. Another major watershed moment for me.

As for men, my childhood was soaked in toxic masculinity models. Dirty Harry (we didn’t question police brutality back then). Conan The Barbarian. Tarzan (we didn’t question the fact that it was the story of a white man in Africa back then). Humphrey Bogart. James Bond. Strong men, who knew how to fight, who were comfortable killing, who used women and discarded them.

I did find some balance in Charles Ingalls, Laura’s dad. I wished my dad would be like hers. I found solace in Laurie Laurence, and in Peter, Heidi’s shepherd friend. But I knew these were men I wanted to meet, to befriend — not men I wanted to become.

Talk to your children about intersectional feminism. Tell them about Ida B. Wells and Harriet Tubman. (Do you realize that Ida B. Wells was 25 when she embarked on a journey of the deep South to record LYNCHINGS? A Black woman, traveling alone, recording lynchings in the South? What an amazing badass.) Tell your children about Greek society, about Alexander the Great and his male lover, about the courageous, unbeatable gay warriors of the Sacred Band of Thebes, about the Dahomey warrior women, about the Suffragettes.

Children need CONTEXT.

I watched a “Grey’s Anatomy” episode in which a girl felt no pain. She had a rare medical condition that blocked her ability to feel pain. But she did not have any context for such a condition. She DID have a different context — that of superheroes. So she thought herself a superhero, and to prove it encourages other kids to hit her, to punch her, even to take a baseball bat to her stomach. She arrived at the hospital with severe, critical abdominal trauma. Still feeling no pain.

If you love your children, give them context.

Tell your kids about colonization, white supremacy and racism. Tell them how “Black” didn’t exist, until some hack working for the King of Portugal invented the brand, to sell the idea of the African slavery trade to Europeans. Tell your kids how “white” was invented — how it didn’t exist until a coalition of Black and Irish folk burned down Jamestown to the ground in Bacon’s Rebellion, and rich white landowners/slaveowners needed a strategy for preventing such coalitions between indentured Europeans and enslaved people stolen from Africa.

Tell your kids how the vast spectrum of gender identity and expression was widely acknowledged by indigenous cultures all over the world until the Europeans came with their soldiers and their religion. Tell them about Muxes, and Two-Spirit people, and Mahu, and Fa’afafine. Tell them about the five genders of South Suluwesi — a nation of over three million people (please disregard the ignorant misgendering from the American narrator).

Tell them how left-handed people used to be beaten until they wrote with the right hand. Tell them about superstitions, about idiotic, oppressive societal constructs, about bad rules and bad laws. In central Nigeria, twins are considered demons, predestined to kill their parents — so twins are killed at birth.

Your children need to understand oppression. Your children need to understand the reasons why societies sometimes foster irrational hate. Your children need to have the context that will save them from soaking up these hateful agendas, or turning them inwards into self-hate.

Think of it as vaccinating your children against hate and bigotry.


Getty Images/iStockphoto

Is Your Child Trans?

What is your child’s gender? Wait, come to think of it, what is your gender? Let’s start there. This was often left unexamined in our generation, or the generations of our parents, grandparents. You were told your gender, and you believed it. Even if, internally, you disagreed. Only those with massive dysphoria, those who couldn’t live with that, would brave society’s rabid hateful bigotry against gender-diverse people.

I’ve seen it happen more than once in recent years, that as a child comes out as trans, as the child asserts their gender and insistently, persistently, consistently sticks to their understanding of themselves in that gender, a parent may come to realize, with a thud, that they themselves are agender, or nonbinary, or transgender. We were just never afforded the opportunity to look at ourselves that clearly.

Tran Kids and Misogyny

Cis girls may find girlhood, womanhood a burden, especially as they move toward puberty and they experience internal pressures (menstruation, hormonal changes) and external pressures (male gaze, objectification, over-sexualization).

Cis boys may find boyhood, manhood a burden if they’re forced to choose between obsolete tropes like the bully, the hero, the nerd, the sissy. They may find manhood a burden if they’re told “boys don’t cry” or if they’re constantly told to “man up.”

Nonbinary people may find all conversations about gender staggeringly nonsensical, boring and unrelatable — like a sport one is not into, or a religious belief one does not share.

Pre-transition (closeted) trans boys may find misogyny deeply confusing. They know the oppression is directed at people that look like them, and they know they should push back against it, but they also have the odd feeling that the story is not about them. And when they see toxic masculinity tropes like “boys don’t cry,'” they may cringe and shy away from coming out, because losing their ability to express emotion is not something they want to sign up for.

For pre-transition (closeted) trans girls, misogyny and patriarchy may keep the child from speaking out. It may steep the child in fear of ridicule, it may fill them with shame.

But is your child trans?

I’ll use an analogy. Let a child write. Let them pick the pen up with the hand that feels most comfortable, and write. You will easily discover if they’re right-hand dominant, left-hand dominant or ambidextrous. In some instances, you’ll find nuance — a child who writes most comfortably with the left hand but plays the guitar in a right-handed way.

The same applies to gender. When you stop prescribing, policing and demanding a gender identity and a gender expression from your child, they’ll be left free to explore. However, because of all these societal oppressions and bigotry, this exploration may take longer. And the more context they’re lacking, the longer this will take.

AFAB (assigned female at birth) children

Are you concerned your AFAB (assigned female at birth) child rejecting girlhood because they’ve soaked up so much misogyny that they find the notion of being a girl confining, restrictive, suffocating? Show your child stories about amazing, kickass women. Tell them about Kamala Harris and Stacy Abrams. Tell them about Serena Williams, Lady Gaga, Lizzo. Tell them about Cleopatra. Tell them about Zheng Yi Sao, the legendary pirate of the South China Sea, who ruled her own navy of 80,000 outlaws.

Do you think your AFAB child may be rejecting girlhood because they like girls, or because they prefer a butch expression? Tell your kid about LP, about Tig Notaro, about Rachel Maddow.

But allow for the possibility that it’s not about that. Allow for the possibility that your child just doesn’t relate to the notion of “woman” or “girl,” that those labels are not for them.

And maybe the issue is not about making your child come to terms with the fact that she’s a girl — maybe the issue is to make you, the parent, come to terms with the fact that he’s a boy.

AMAB (assigned male at birth) children

If you have an AMAB child (assigned male at birth), tell them there are many ways that men can express their gender.

Even in the extreme polar masculinity, Arnold Schwarzenegger has a more lighthearted male expression than Sylvester Stallone. And younger men in the same polar “hypermale” gender expression are already redefining what that means, redrawing the boundaries. Men like Dwayne Johnson and Jason Momoa.

Your AMAB child should know about gay men like Anderson Cooper, John Barrowman, the amazing Neil Patrick Harris.

Your AMAB child should see male gender expression of flamboyant straight men such as Russell Brand, the gender non-conforming expression of Prince and Jonathan Van Ness, and the red-carpet gowns of Billy Porter.

Your AMAB child should know that gender expression, sexuality and gender roles for MEN are expanding drastically in this generation.

That said, you should keep your mind and heart open to the possibility that your AMAB child is not male — that the child’s gender is something other than what you were told by a doctor who glanced between a baby’s legs.

These conversations should be lighthearted and easy. They should happen easily, and should not emerge as a pained consequence of your child’s coming out. They should be part of your parenting — whether your child appears cisgender or trans, whether your child seems attracted to masculine men, feminine men, genderqueer people, feminine women or masculine women.

A big part of your job as a parent is to provide context. To explain the landscape. To explain why things are the way they are, in our society, how the frameworks came to be, which frameworks are healthy and helpful and which frameworks are harmful.

Your job as a parent is less about deciding which road your child should travel, and more about describing the landscape.

For more content like this, please visit the Facebook page Protect Trans Kids.

If you’re a parent of a trans child and need support in this journey, consider joining the Facebook group Support Network for Parents of Trans Kids.