If The Label Doesn’t Fit…Don’t Wear a Label

The LGBTQ community and the feminist community overlap in several places, but the clearest of these is in the fact that neither movement believes that individuals shouldn’t be defined by their genders.  We see this in our conversations about why same-sex couples should have the same rights as heterosexual couples, in our advocacy for acceptance and fair treatment of transgendered individuals, and in feminist activism for gender equality.  But sometimes the Q in LGBTQ gets forgotten-~-sometimes, it is all too easy to forget that individuals might not fit in our gender binary at all…and we can’t afford to forget them, either.

When people ask me what “queer” means, I usually give this definition: it is an umbrella term used for non-conventional sexual and gender identities.  This means that not all individuals who identify as queer necessarily identify the same way.  In discussing individuals who do not fall neatly into the categories of male and female as society generally recognizes them, we often use terms such as “genderqueer” or “gender-nonconforming”.

If this is the first time you’re seeing the word “genderqueer” or you’re still wondering what gender non-conforming looks like, don’t worry. The reality is that our society has allowed for an incredibly limited and hushed discourse on what it means to not fall into the neat male/female categories it organizes around, and while this is problematic, it isn’t really the fault of any particular individual.  Rather, it is a problem inherent in a society that necessarily arranges things along gendered lines.

While I could talk a bit about genderqueer adults, I actually want to focus this post on the subject of gender non-conforming children.  I think it’s important that we recognize that when children are young, their understanding of gender is still forming.  This is why young children, as Peggy Orenstein explains in Cinderella Ate My Daughter, can, for example, come to think that if they wear the clothes of the opposite gender they will somehow become the opposite gender.  Obviously gender is about a lot more than how you dress, but a four-year-old doesn’t truly understand what gender means.  Kids are more likely to tease each other about perceived gender deviance as well, and are less likely to understand how to navigate gender if they don’t truly fit.

Last December, Melissa Bollow Temple published a piece in the Huffington Post called “It’s Okay to be Neither”, about working with gender-nonconforming children.  She talks about the importance of discussing gender in the classroom, from a very young age, because that is when children’s ideas about gender are first forming, and when gender-deviant children are most vulnerable.  She also points out examples of how organization based on gender can be problematic even for children-~-for example, many teachers have girls and boys line up in separate lines, divided by gender.  Where does a gender non-conforming child belong?  Teachers and administrators also often address classes as “boys and girls”, instead of “children” or “students”.  Forget schools-~-we have toys made “for girls” or “for boys”, activity books and sticker books and Christmas books specifically for one gender or the other. Gender is something we accept so readily that we don’t even recognize how we have allowed this binary to permeate our lives.

Then, in August of this year, the New York Times published a piece called “What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?”   The article discusses the dilemma faced by parents of gender non-conforming and gender-fluid children.  Why the dilemma?  Society trains us to expect individuals to behave in particular ways according to gender, and to react against those who do not conform.  Parents who want to support their children’s identities-~-which many juvenile psychiatrists and pediatricians believe to be the correct approach-~-but also want to shield them from teasing and judgement on the part of their peers are faced with a predicament.  For more on this, please feel free to visit the blog Pink Is For Boys.

There has been very limited scientific research done on the issue of gender deviance.  This doesn’t mean that it is not a very real phenomena, just that we do not fully understand what causes it.  But the truth is that, no matter what the reason, there have always been and will always be people who don’t fit in the boxes we have built for them.

Many of the parents interviewed for the NYT article discuss trying to balance the priorities already mentioned.  Some of them limit wearing opposite-gender clothes to time in the home, others allow their children to wear whatever they want.  Some are more encouraging than others, some more fearful.  All of this is reasonable-~-as we are just coming to really discuss gender variance now, parents have little to go off of as they navigate an admittedly complicated situation.  Some of the children mentioned have lost friends because of their non-conformity, or have been teased.  One of the fathers mentioned says that he pulled away, only to eventually reconcile with his son’s gender fluidity.

The thing to realize is that gender non-conforming children aren’t necessarily trans, or on their way to becoming trans.  They don’t fit into our neat little categories of male or female.  Several of the children discussed in the NYT article, as well as the student that Melissa Bollow Temple talks about in her piece, identify by the pronouns associated with their gender assigned at birth.  It is possible to identify as “male” but to enjoy wearing dresses and playing with dolls, possible to identify as female and prefer baggy clothes and comic books (and I would know-~-that was me, for a good portion of my early adolescence!)

Now it becomes a question of making room for these people in our world.  While it may be difficult right now, if parents and teachers continue to try to force children to wear one label or another when neither fit, we run the risk of a society that refuses ever to accept people who are different, who don’t fit our expectations.  A study by researchers at Harvard University noted that children who are gender non-conforming are more likely to develop psychological problems, including depression and PTSD, and to be victims of abuse, often by adults.  Teachers need to be willing to discuss gender, and to talk about it with young children, to help them see that gender doesn’t have to be rigid before they internalize the idea that it does.

We need to stop forcing children-~-forcing people-~-into little boxes.  It’s about time we stopped caring what we call people and started caring about people instead.


~ by Randi Saunders on December 30, 2012.

One Response to “If The Label Doesn’t Fit…Don’t Wear a Label”

  1. […] Another great post on letting children be who they are.  “We need to stop forcing children-~-forcing people-~-into little boxes.  It’s about […]

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