Why Gender Is Make Believe

by Chase Strangio
Originally Published: 
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“Are you a girl or a boy?”

It is a question that many young people hear regularly. Girls with short hair. Boys who wear dresses. Kids who navigate the gendered space between the binary. Days old babies who leave the hospital without a huge bow glued to their hairless heads.

It can sound innocuous to a caretaker and it can reflect innocent childhood curiosity. But if we don’t guide ourselves and our youth toward a kind, reflective and just notion of gender, our desire to gender each other can easily lead to other impulses – exclusion, limitation, bullying, and in some cases, violence.

Young children are curious and they observe difference – it is our responsibility to actively engage their observations of and questions about difference and build empathy, break down binaries, and embrace a collective responsibility to challenge oppressive power structures. This means, too, acknowledging how we and our children benefit from some of those structures and being prepared to relinquish some of that power.

Consider the experience of Jamel Myles.

Four days into fourth grade, Jamel Myles died by suicide. He was 9 years old and had just come out as gay to his classmates. He had loving and supportive family, a school district with explicit protections for LGBTQ students, and was proud of who he was and excited to share his truth with his classmates. But he was a kid who didn’t do “boy” correctly. Who because of his gender and his sexual orientation endured relentless bullying and rejection, including calls by classmates to kill himself, and now his beautiful life has ended.

We have to do better.

Nine year-old children should not be dying because the world is unable to appreciate their beautiful souls. Jamel’s peers needed more tools for seeing someone different and holding him up, celebrating his creativity, and connecting his experience to something familiar in their own.

As parents, caretakers, human beings, we have a role to play in building gender justice.

We are the ones who are setting the tone, creating the norms, and building the future for our youth. We are the ones who walk into a store to buy birthday cards and don’t remind our children that there does not need to be “boys’ cards” and “girls’ cards” or “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys.” We are the ones who model the impulse that one cannot exist before they are put into a gendered box; we ask first and foremost of a pregnant person or a parent – “is it a boy or a girl?” We go to the store to get a gift and the salesperson asks, “is it a boy or a girl” and not “what does the kid enjoy? What are their passions? What makes them happy?”

Somehow gender becomes a proxy for all else and any transgressions from the assumptions attached to one’s boyness or girlness are punished. These impulses also ensure that our children self-segregate into boys and girls for play and learning in school. Not only does this exclude gender non-conforming children, but it also almost guarantees that structural power will remain consolidated with men.

I am thirty-five years old and still recovering from the ways I didn’t fit in growing up. The pain of being trans in a binary world took its toll. But the most painful thing is that all these years later and it doesn’t feel like it is better for my own gender non-conforming kid. In some ways, it feels worse.

As we send our kids off to school for the start of another year, as we move through the world ourselves in an increasingly terrifying climate, here are some tools to consider how we might raise gender justice warriors to fight for the lives of young people like Jamel Myles. He could be any of our kids and we should feel the urgency to save the next Jamel whether he is the kid we send to school in the morning or someone else’s. All of our lives depend on building a better world.

Review the books you have in your home and ensure that there is diverse representation.

This means books with Brown and Black characters, characters with disabilities, characters with non-binary genders, non-conforming gender expressions, characters without mom/dad parent families.

Watch your language.

How often do you gender people before you know their gender? (For example, “Did you see that girl?” “That new boy in your class seems nice.”) Use gender neutral terminology like person, kid, parent, etc. It helps normalize the process of asking people what gender they are rather than assuming.

Avoid assumptions about body parts and gender.

It can be easy to use language like “girl parts” or “boy parts,” but remember that some girls don’t have vaginas and some boys don’t have penises and the more we normalize that, the safer people will be.

Remind your kids that we all know ourselves best.

At school, no one should be questioning whether another kid is the in the correct gendered space. We can teach our kids to read situations for safety without policing others.

Remind your kids that we all have agency over our own bodies.

This means our decisions about hair length, style, clothing are ours to make and do not define our gender. Boys can wear dresses, have long hair; girls can wear suits and have short hair; people don’t have to be boys or girls.

Share stories…

about people in your life or in the public eye who are trans, gender non-conforming, LGBQ so young people in our lives see them as leaders and heroes.

Challenge assumptions.

When kids make statements about what girls like and what boys like or what girls look like and what boys look like, kindly challenge those assumptions and help your kids see that the world is more complex and beautiful. Don’t just tell them “no, girls can be anything;” ask, “why do you think that girls can’t do that? do you know any girls that are X thing?” Or if they say, “that person thinks they are a boy but they are a girl;” ask, “what does it mean to think you are a boy? How do you know? How can we be kind to that person and ask them how they want to be referred to?”

Don’t wait.

Don’t wait until your kid tells you they are different to teach them that those differences are beautiful.

Gender is make believe insofar as it is only as real as we make it out to be. It can be magical and it can be oppressive. For Jamel Myles and so many young LGBTQ people, it is magical until it is made oppressive by others. If we think of ourselves as holding invisible chains around all the kids in the world and through our actions, we can either loosen those chains or tighten them; the stakes feel higher.

If we loosen our grasp on what we fear and make space for people to be, to live, to experiment, to grow, to thrive, perhaps everyone’s future will be more magical, brighter and free.

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