As a parent, I am very passionate about breaking down the gendered rules society expects my children to play by. I decided early on that I would not push my children into gendered play, and indeed, that I would try not to gender play to begin with. In fact, I push the boundaries even in areas like clothing. When my son Bobby was born, I put his older sister’s perfectly good outgrown pink baby clothes on him (I would have bought gender neutral baby clothes to start with, but we were given a mountain of used girl baby clothes and we were poor college students so I wasn’t going to turn them down). Even today, three-year-old Bobby enjoys wearing his older sister’s outgrown dresses. And six-year-old Sally? I let her pick her own clothes, and have since she was old enough to start indicating a preference for this outfit or that. She has recently started shopping in the boy section, because Star Wars shirts are apparently way cooler than pink sparkle hearts shirts.
Both of my children display some level of what might be seen as gender nonconformity, though I don’t think they experience it that way, because I’ve never taught Bobby that dolls are for girls or Sally that computers are for boys. For them, there are simply things they’re interested in and things they aren’t. Bobby plays with his kitchen set and his trains, and Sally plays with her barbies and her CSI kit. It isn’t weird to them that Bobby loves watching Tinkerbell movies on Netflix while Sally prefers science documentaries.
I recently read an anti-trans article arguing that parents who transition their children do so because they can’t put up with the social pressure of having gender nonconforming children. In a response to this article, a trans author wrote that when parents first start wondering whether their children are trans, trans advocates tell the parents that there is a difference between “gender nonconformity” and “gender dysphoria.” In other words, this author argued that the author of the anti-trans piece was full of shit because trans advocates know very well that there is a difference between nonconformity and dysphoria. (I wish I could find these articles and link them here, but I seem to have lost them!)
I have learned recently that being a girl is very important to Sally. She gets upset if someone reads her gender presentation as male (as people not infrequently do), and she adjusts her presentation (clothing, hair, accessories) in order to be read the way she wants. I don’t know why being a girl is so important to her, but it is. I read somewhere that gender becomes important to children in their preschool and early elementary years as part of their efforts to figure out the world around them. Perhaps that’s part of what is going on here—perhaps Sally simply wants to know (and assert) where she fits in this complicated world we live in. Or perhaps it’s more than that, I don’t know.
At first Sally’s strong identification as a girl bothered me. Don’t get me wrong, I identify as a woman myself. But gender is a social construct, right, and aren’t we, as feminists, supposed to be breaking it down? What does being a girl even mean? Why does Sally care so much? Except for the physical realities of things like sexual reproduction, there is little in our biology to mark us “male” or “female.” Why can’t we all just be people and leave gender behind entirely, I wondered? Was it because I had accidentally let patriarchal gender norms influence her? I asked Sally why being a girl is so important to her, but she couldn’t tell me. She is a girl, and that matters to her, and she can’t articulate why. She just is.
And you know what? While this initially bothered me, I’m okay with it now.
There has been an increasing amount of press given to parents with young trans kids, and with some have responded to that press with concern. Why not just let kids be kids, they ask? Why not just let kids play with the toys they want, and leave it at that? Does transition reinforce the gender binary by telling girls that if they like male-coded toys and play they must be really boys, and vice versa? It may seem odd, but being the parent of two apparenlty cis kids has made me feel an incredible amount of support for parents of trans kids.
Gender performance and gender identity may be related, but they’re not identical. My children’s gender performance is all over the map, but they both identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Bobby doesn’t see anything wrong with wearing a dress and saying “my a big boy.” Sally hangs with the boys and talks Star Wars and computer games, but will adamantly correct anyone who uses male pronouns for her. A child who is trans is not one who plays with the “wrong” toys for their gender, but rather one who identifies as a gender other than that assigned at birth. Sally hanging with the boys is very different from Sally insisting that she is a boy, just as Bobby wearing a dress is different from Bobby stating that he is a girl.
Yes, gender is a social construct. But we can widen accepted gender performance without getting rid of gender identity. I can accept Sally’s identity as a girl while encouraging her to perform that gender in whatever way suits her. In other words, being a girl does not have to mean wearing dresses, becoming a nurse or a teacher, and being a homemaker (though it can mean that, of course). Being a girl can also mean wearing overalls, becoming a mechanic, and bringing home the bacon. When we talk about gender as a social construct, it’s not gender identity that’s the problem, it’s artificially imposed limits on gender performance.
Last year I read the Divergent trilogy, which focused on a society where children were born into one of five factions, each with its own social rules and values. When they came of age, children were allowed to choose whether to remain in the faction they were born in or whether to switch to another faction. When someone failed a faction’s initiation, they were thrown out, and became factionless and despised. Over the course of the trilogy, rebel leaders among the factionless overthrow the prevailing order. They set up a new regime, and banned factions entirely. Even wearing your faction’s traditional clothing was against the law. The trilogy’s heroine, Tris, initially supported this idea, but ultimately came to believe that banning factions was just as harmful as mandating them.
I couldn’t help but see some parallels between the world portrayed in Divergent and the world we live in. An increasing number of people identify as nonbinary—neither male nor female—as well as genderqueer and other variations, not unlike the factionless. One of the big problems the trilogy turns on is the mistreatment of the factionless. One can imagine a world, in the years after the trilogy ends, where the factionless are treated as equals even as others continue to identify with a faction, albeit with more freedom and a wider range of possibilities open to them.
Or maybe this whole Divergent tangent only makes sense in my head.
Anyway, as a child I was taught that being female meant fitting in a specific box, a box I have since broken out of. I didn’t know I had any choice about my gender identity until I was an adult, though being a woman has never felt wrong to me. I want Sally and Bobby to have more freedom in both performance and identity than I had growing up. I’ve told Sally about transgender and nonbinary identities, both so that she knows for herself and so that she can support any trans or nonbinary classmates she may have in the future, and I’ll tell Bobby as he grows. I want my children to make their own decisions and form their own identities within an atmosphere of information and acceptance.
But my takeaway here—the main thing I’ve realized—is that gender identity and gender performance really are two different things. When we say that “gender is a social construct” we are primarily talking about gender performance. But gender identity? Is that a social construct too? I’m not sure. But let me ask the question a different way—Does gender identity cause harm? Should I be telling Sally that she is wrong to identify as a girl? Clearly not. Trans and nonbinary identities are breaking down some of the traditional rigidity of gender identity, and increasing acceptance of more varied gender performances is removing some of the traditional constraints of gender identity.
Perhaps the real problem is neither gender identity nor gender performance but rather the policing of each.