I recently took my daughter to the restroom at a local restaurant. As you might expect, in a health food restaurant in a progressive city, the restroom was labeled not men, not women, not family, or even just restroom. It said “all genders.”
It didn’t occur to me to think about my daughter’s reaction to that term, given the Class One Potty Emergency at hand. But my daughter did not miss the sign.
Once she was settled on the toilet, she asked, “What does all genders mean?”
“Well, it means, men, women, and…anyone who doesn’t identify as a man or a woman.”
“But what else is there?” she asked.
“Like, someone who just wants to identify as a person.”
“But why can’t they just be a man or a woman.”
“Like I said. They just want to be a person.”
Though I know I will appreciate her persistence someday, on this particular day, it was a challenge. I tried a different tack.
“Do you know what ‘binary’ means?”
It was worth a shot. “It means that something is either one thing or another thing. You know what ‘non’ means, right?”
We were getting somewhere. “Okay, so there’s something besides man or woman. It’s called ‘nonbinary,’ which means not one thing or the other thing.”
My daughter looked at me with her head cocked to one side, then washed her hands and skipped back to the table, where she resumed coloring on the kids menu.
“How the hell do you explain nonbinary gender to a kid?” I whispered to my husband.
Not surprisingly, given the fact that my husband, myself, and our two daughters are cisgender, the topic of gender had never come up until we saw the “all genders” sign. According to Trans Student Education Resource’s website, the word cisgender, from the Latin “cis,” meaning “on the same side,” is an adjective that describes someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.
The book “Who Are You: The Kids Guide to Gender Identity”, by Brook Pessin-Whedbee, explains, “For some people, the grown-ups guessed right about their body and their gender. This is called cisgender – when someone’s identity matches their sex assigned at birth.”
My husband and I have certainly talked with our kids about bodies, private parts, and where babies come from. But those were conversations about sexuality, not gender. So, I was caught off guard by the “all genders” sign and unsure of how to begin to explain it.
Says Talcott Broadhead, author of “Meet Polkadot”, the brightly illustrated story of a nonbinary, transgender child, when you talk about nonbinary gender, talking about the gender binary is a good starting point. Broadhead explains that the gender binary refers to “who you should be, think, look, feel, and act like” as a girl or as a boy.
The problem with the traditional gender binary is that people don’t always fit neatly into a prescribed notion of what it feels like to be a boy or a girl. Pessin-Whedbee explains that the sex you’re assigned at birth, whether it’s male or female, may not match your gender. While your sex is based on your body parts, gender is an expression of who you are – including what you feel, what you like, how you dress, and “who you know yourself to be.”
How you dress is an example of gender expression as is the way you express yourself through your clothing or hairstyle (e.g appearing masculine or feminine). Gender identity, on the other hand, refers to one’s internal sense of being male, female, neither of these, both of these, or another gender or genders.
In “Pink is a Girl Color…and Other Silly Things People Say”, author Stacy Drageset dispels some common myths for young readers. For example, ballet is not just for girls and anyone can play basketball. Drageset explains that, rather than choosing clothes based on whether they are “boy clothes” or “girl clothes,” it is more important to dress according to what you like and feel comfortable in.
As Pessin-Whedbee writes, “There are lots of ways to be a boy. There are lots of ways to be a girl. There are lots of ways to be a kid.” She lists a number of other ways in which people may choose to identify themselves, including:
- gender fluid
- gender neutral
- third gender
While Pessin-Whedbee refers to the gender spectrum as an alternative to the gender binary, Broadhead’s book does not. In a conversation, Broadhead – who uses the pronoun “they” – explained that the notion of a gender spectrum implies that male and female occupy distinct ends of a scale, whereas they feel gender is, in fact, too fluid and unique a concept to fit a linear model. They prefer the concept of gender diversity, which includes a gender universe, in which “we are each our own star.”
The Genderbread Person 2.0 graphic is an excellent resource, showing the variations on different aspects of gender that make gender so personal. Whether they take the approach of a gender spectrum or a gender universe, experts agree that you are the only one who gets to say who or what you are (with the caveat that the term two-spirit is specific to certain indigenous cultures).
I spoke to Heather Thompson, the deputy director of Elephant Circle. A self-identified genderqueer person, postpartum doula, and an advocate for “queer, trans, and non-binary folks” in the Denver birth community, Thompson recommends using everyday encounters to open conversations with children about gender.
For example, when my five-year-old asks me why our cashier has an earring “even though he’s a boy,” I can take the opportunity to explain that you don’t actually know what a person is when you meet them.
A mother herself, Thompson acknowledges that kids often understand a lot more than we give them credit for: “In my experience, they get the middle [of the gender spectrum], they just didn’t know we could talk about it.”
Certainly, books like the ones mentioned above can also be great conversation starters as well. For parents reluctant to open a dialogue about gender for fear of not having all the answers, or feeling that they should have opened the conversation earlier, Broadhead has advice:
It’s never too late to tell a child something along the lines of, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t actually sharing everything I know about gender. You and I know a lot about our own gender and it makes sense to us and it’s who we are, but what I haven’t explained to you is that there are actually a lot more genders.”
If your kids have questions you can’t answer, they recommend looking at websites like the Trans Youth Equality Foundation or asking someone who would know. What Broadhead doesn’t recommend is cornering the one trans parent at your child’s school in the pick-up line and interrogating her. “That’s obviously inappropriate.”
And, of course, dining in a restaurant with an “all genders” sign works quite well, too. While bathrooms have nothing to do with gender, I am grateful for the public restroom that started a conversation about gender in our family.