It’s a…Person! The Beginnings of the Gender Binary
Illustration by Erin McPhee
When Adli popped out of me the day he was born, the first thing I said was ‘You’re a person’. I was obviously exhausted and slightly delirious but I knew exactly what I said, but not exactly what I meant. It is pretty incredible, a miracle some might say, to have a human develop in your body, a place once occupied only by tissue and blood and have an actual person come out after 40 weeks or so.
So when Adli came out after 7 hours of induced labour, I was astounded by the miracle they call life. He was here, an actual person; not a kick, not a silhouette on an ultrasound picture, but an actual person.
Adli is pretty. He often gets mistaken for a girl and I seldom correct people. In fact, when people ask his sex (and more often than not, they assume he is a girl) I simply have come to not correct them at all. At first I would say ‘he is a boy, for now’ or ‘what difference does it make when they are so small: gender doesn’t really play out until kids learn gender roles.’ Straight lady-moms usually just stare back blankly.
Even with the plethora of info about baby care I have read there are seldom any defining characteristics between the baby genders. The only thing I have read worth mentioning would be that ‘boy’ toddlers seem to take longer to potty train than ‘girl’ toddlers, which can’t be all that surprising to readers since we have all probably sat in toilet water thanks to a cisgender boy or man in our lives.
But there are some interesting ‘differences’ that moms have shared with me, or that I have noticed myself, about the difference in the sexes of babies (and I refer to them now as ‘sex’ because babies are probably not very aware of their gender, which is more in their brains than in their biology/genitals).
Girl type toddlers seem more cautious than their boy counter parts. Boys climb more, slap more, are generally more boisterous (pun intended). I do not believe this is based in biology at all but many a mom has fought me on this. I believe we start treating our baby ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ differently from the start. We allow boys to trust in their bodies, to climb and hurt themselves, to be more physical and to be louder. We coax our girls to be sweeter, gentler; we make them feel like they need to be more cautious and frail acting.
Look at gendered toys. While there are less of these than ever before, McDonald’s still gives out gendered toys and makes the decision (as has society for decades) what toys are appropriate for the binary genders. And when you look at children’s toys themselves it’s obvious where boys and girls’ get this idea of being strong and rambunctious or cautious and frail as preferred ways of acting.
Photo Credit: Ms Magazine
Further this perpetuation of the gender binary discounts gender non-conforming kids, trans kids and trans parents/people. When we give babies, toddlers, and kids only 2 choices on the spectrum of the gender binary (the choices that are positioned as the most opposite, male vs. female), then we are limiting how we teach them about sex, gender, gender roles and gender identity.
If we say there are only 2 genders we discount so many people in the world - many of whom do not identify with one side of the binary (cause even trans people can present as one side of the binary, while genderqueer, gender non-conforming or non-binary folks fit along the mid points of the spectrum). When we only teach about 2 genders, we risk discounting our own kids- who if we taught them about the differences between sex, gender, gender identity and gender presentation may be more free to be themselves. We could support kids to bust open the gender boxes we’ve all been placed in, instead of fitting into those forced gender roles, the second we announce its a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’.
So how do we raise our kids to respect and recognize the gender spectrum? How do we tear open the teeny tiny gender-roles box so kids can be free to be themselves in a world that only recognizes the binary? A trans dad I know buys lots of girls clothes for his (right now) son. His baby style is leopard print jean vest chic. I started a doll collection and dump truck collection for Adli. I refer to people as ‘they’ unless we specifically get a preferred pronoun. I don’t refer to people as girl or boy, man/woman but as a person (as much as humanly possible). I spend as much time as I can with genderqueer, trans and/or queer people of colour with all kinds of gender presentations. I only let Adli watch so much TV.
But the world is the world. And we all grew up in it so it’s also important for me to show Adli that I am constantly learning and what we know about this stuff is constantly changing, and we are going to make mistakes. That may not be ok but we can work together to learn and unlearn.
And then maybe we all could feel free to be you and me.
(Please remember the album, Free to be..You and Me by Marlo Thomas was released in 1972 and was pretty revolutionary for its time. While what genitals you have may not match the gender you feel in you brain, this was a radical idea at the time this video was made)