“Are you a girl?” A story about labels

A lot of people tell me that it’s confusing for kids to learn about different labels for gender outside of just “boy” and “girl.” But I strongly disagree. 

As a former nonbinary kid who only knew of the labels “boy” and “girl,” the limitation was what was confused me. If I had known about the label “agender,” I wouldn’t have been confused at all. I would have immediately recognized that it fit me. 

I’ve never felt any internal sense of gender. “Being a man” or “being a woman” just seem like performances that come naturally to people, but can only be faked from me.  Being born into a body labeled “female” didn’t just magically make the female gender make sense to me. (And trust me, it’s not because I didn’t try.)

As far back as I can remember, when I would imagine myself in any story, I was genderless. In dreams, I’d be genderless characters. I can’t gender. I am undeniably agender.

But as a kid, I didn’t have that label.

I knew who I was. But I also knew that none of the available labels fit. So I learned to believe that no one in the world could see or believe I could be anything outside of that, no matter what I knew was true. 

It made for a difficult, lonely, and eventually detached childhood. Everyone made everything about gender—a thing I didn’t have or understand. And any time I was in that blissful place of not being forced into the “girl” category in a social setting, someone would eventually, inevitably, ruin it by asking that dreaded question:

Are you a girl?

This question—or whatever other variation on it people would ask—always forced me into an awkward situation. Answering it meant one of two things:

  1. I could be honest and try to explain that I wasn’t a girl, which always led to some kind of bullying or gaslighting.
  2. I could lie, and feel miserable about how lying was what people seemed to want from me. I still might get bullied.

The only solution that didn’t make me miserable was avoidance.

I remember vividly the first time I tried to run away from this question. I’ll tell you the story.

Running away from the question

I was seven years old, at the ski hill in Leavenworth, my home town. This ski hill was called Ski Hill. 

Leavenworth is a tiny town—under 2,000 residents when I lived there—whose economy is entirely tourism based. It’s basically a town that’s also a theme park, whose theme is … wait for it … Bavaria. And this theme is taken very, very seriously. (I went to real Bavaria a few years ago, and was shocked to realize how impressively accurate Leavenworth’s Bavaria impersonation is. )

For example, by rule of the chamber of commerce, every storefront must choose between four gothic calligraphy fonts. Even Starbucks, McDonalds, and Safeway had to do it if they were going to exist in the city limits.

I’m totally serious. You can look it up. Or, go there sometime.

Most of the town’s activities—like the Christmas lighting ceremony, Oktoberfest, etc.— were focused on entertaining people from outside of town. But not Ski Hill. Ski Hill was special, because it was for us: the people who lived there. 

Local parents in the tiny Leavenworth community often volunteered to operate the two rope tows that pulled skiers and snowboarders to the tops of the two hills (the Big Hill and the Little Hill). My dad was on the volunteer rotation. During the winter, my parents would often drop whichever of their five kids were up for it off at the Ski Hill for an entire day, knowing we were in pretty good hands. They’d give us a few dollars to spend on a bowl of canned chili, a hotdog, or a candy bar over at the lodge. After it was over, we’d sleep like rocks.

It was one of those days. 

At this point in my life, skiing was one of the only things I could do in public where I wasn’t being forced into feminine clothes that firmed up the “girl” label for people who saw me. Most of my ski gear was 90s-kid unisex, and I usually hid my hair in my hat.

When I was skiing, I felt like myself. That made it one of my favorite things to do.

I’d made my warm-up runs on the Little Hill and was ready to hit the Big Hill, where the cool snowboarder kids were hanging out that day. I usually tried to avoid them, because they made fun of me. But I wanted a steeper, bigger hill, and I didn’t want them to stop me from doing what I wanted.

So I did what I always did to get over there: took the rope tow to the top of the Little Hill, and picked up as much speed as I could to try to shoot myself all the way over to the base of the Big Hill. I could never quite get fast enough to make it the whole way over, even when I waxed my skis. I always had to either take them off and hike the rest of the distance (not fun) or hike the remaining distance with my skis on (exhausting).

The rope tow on the Big Hill was fast and steep and scary. It was long enough and powerful enough that the tension would sometimes lift kids my size entirely off the ground. You had to wear tough leather glove protectors or the rope would burn right through your gloves. And you had to grab on gently and slowly, or it would jerk your arms so hard you might hurt yourself. I always started with two hands in front, then once I got going, I’d move my left hand behind my back and hunker down for a stronger grip. I’d need it for the steep parts.

It was an intimidating system. But I loved it.

I eventually made it up the rope tow to the flat area at the top of the Big Hill.

Three snowboarder kids were sitting in their spot—a snow-covered ledge right above the landing. They would climb up and sit there for hours, goofing off with each other and heckling smaller kids who got to the top of the hill. 

I looked up, saw them, and quickly looked away to try to pretend that I hadn’t. 

“Hey, are you a girl?” one of them yelled in a taunting voice.

The question hit me hard. I immediately felt trapped by it.

I really wanted to just say “no” and move on. But I knew I couldn’t tell them I was something else instead. Nobody thought that was a thing. I didn’t even have a word for it. And I didn’t want them to think I was a boy, because it wasn’t true. Either way, they’d make fun of me. I was the littlest, scrawniest kid on the Big Hill. 

One of them threw a snowball at me while I tried to figure out what to do.
“I said: are you a girl?” the same kid yelled again.

I drew a blank. I wasn’t ready to give in and lie with the “yes” it felt like they were trying to force out of me.

Unsure what to do, I just made a dash for it, and skied off. 

When I got to the bottom, I decided to risk another run on the Big Hill. I wanted to be there, and didn’t want the snowboarders to take it away from me. 

Going up again turned out to be a mistake. 

When I got to the top, all three of them were waiting, chanting at me. They’d built up an arsenal of snowballs in the time it had taken me to loop around.

“Gir-rul, gir–rul, gir–rul, gir–rul!” 

They laughed and pounded me with snowballs as I tried to get away. One of them came after me, so I went down the side that had a bunch of trees to try to lose him. I didn’t stop to check behind me until I’d made it all the way back to the Little Hill again. At some point he’d stopped—he probably didn’t want to have to deal with hiking back to the base of the Big Hill to get back to the rope tow that would take him up to his friends.

I stayed at the Little Hill for the rest of the day. 

I didn’t want to be forced to call myself a girl at Ski Hill. That was the one place I had where everyone hadn’t already decided that’s what I was. I watched out extra hard for the snowboarder clique after that. I didn’t want to be reminded of who everyone had decided I was, and of how little I could do about it.

I never told anyone what happened. Anyone I could talk to already thought I was a girl, so I knew they wouldn’t get it.

In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever told this story.

More labels aren’t confusing to kids

I know first hand how much the wrong label can limit a person. I’ve spent most of my life trapped under the wrong one. That’s a big reason why expanding the vocabulary we use to describe gender is important.

Pressure to conform to a gender that you’re not is confusing. Being trusted to recognize the label that matches your gender (if there is a matching label) is not confusing.

Every single person I ever interacted with in my life was telling me I was a gender I wasn’t for 28 awkward years, and I still recognized the label that fit me anyway. It just took me a long time to learn that anyone else might believe I was who I said I was.

Cisgender boys and cisgender girls are going to know their own gender, too—and they’re never going to deal with anything close to that kind of pressure to perform as a gender that’s not really them.

So if the proliferation of gender labels freaks you out, just remember: you can trust kids to actually know their gender, even in the face of immense pressure. 

I sure knew mine. And you knew yours, too.

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