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.”
I agree that gender labels are confusing kids, but not in the way that many adults think.
When I was born, I was given a label that didn’t fit. It went against everything I understood about myself, and made for a very confusing and difficult time.
I struggled to make sense of what was going on while it was happening, so I couldn’t do anything to fix it. But now, looking back, I understand. It just took me a while to figure it out.
I was a nonbinary kid, but I was taught that every child fit under one of two labels: “boy” and “girl.” I was also taught that of those two, I was a girl. But those two labels don’t include everyone. They certainly didn’t include me.
I’ve never felt any 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 cause the female gender to make sense to me. (And trust me, it’s not because I didn’t try to make sense of it.)
It turns out there’s a label that describes this experience of genderlessness. It’s agender.
If I had been taught the meaning of that label, I wouldn’t have been confused at all. I would have immediately recognized myself in that word. I could have easily picked it out from a thousand other labels. But when I was a kid, that label didn’t exist.
Instead, I lived for almost three decades being told by everyone around me that it didn’t matter what I knew about myself, I was female. And I couldn’t figure out a way to escape it.
The label I was given was wrong
I didn’t need people to tell me who I was. I knew who I was. But whenever I interacted with anyone, I was treated as though I was a girl. I was often punished if I didn’t behave in a “ladylike” enough way. All my activities were defined through a gendered system that I couldn’t make heads or tails of. It was very confusing.
I learned to believe that no one could perceive me as anything but a girl. It even started to mess with my head, and I began to think that maybe I was a girl—I was just the sort of girl that didn’t know how to be a girl.
It made for a difficult, lonely, and eventually detached childhood. Everyone made everything about gender—a thing I didn’t have or understand.
Sometimes I would find an opportunity to play with other kids in such a way that gender didn’t matter. When the adults weren’t paying attention, we could just goof off, and nothing had to be about who was a boy or who was a girl.
But as I got older, those blissful moments of not being forced into the “girl” category in a social setting grew more and more rare. It wasn’t just adults—kids started making a big deal about gender, too. Games became “boys against girls.” Girls had to play girl characters, and boys had to play boy characters—otherwise you couldn’t play. Or, they’d just segregate entirely.
I learned that the only way I could be myself was to spend time alone. Or, in my later teens, anonymously on the internet.
Putting one of those two gender labels on people was such a part of everything everyone did that it seemed there was no room for me among people.
Gender labels confused me as a kid
I spent a ton of energy trying to figure out how to be a girl, because it seemed like the only way I could be part of society. It was exhausting and discouraging.
I was constantly uncomfortable, stressed, and self-conscious. Nothing made sense, I couldn’t get it right, and I was miserable. Whatever I tried, I just couldn’t get “being a girl” to click. I felt like the only one of my species trapped in an alien society.
By the time I got to college, I’d become so depressed my body started shutting down. Medications and talk therapy didn’t give me any answers or relief. But they did help me survive long enough to figure out what was going on.
Having an incorrect gender label placed on me by others was a constant block to me getting to be myself. And it started before I was even born—when an ultrasound gave doctors and my parents information about my genitals that they interpreted as sufficient intel to define my entire personhood.
Because that’s just how we’ve come to do it in this culture. (Pretty weird, right?)
So can we be more kind to kids?
If you think gender labels are confusing kids, I agree with you. Because in this culture, we start telling kids who they are before they’re even born. And when we do that, we’re not always right.
When you’re told who you are from birth by people who turn out to be wrong, it’s a really tough thing to overcome. I know first hand.
We need to trust kids enough to let them tell us who they are. We can teach them about different gender identities without necessarily needing them to be any particular one. If we need them to be a certain gender in order to accept them, that’s conditional love.
I have no interest in turning cisgender kids trans. That’s not what trusting kids to self-identify their gender is going to do.
But I do hope to help more trans kids to actually get to have a childhood. I hope they get to live their lives free to express who they are. I hope they not only survive to adulthood, but that they thrive.
I survived being raised as the wrong gender, but just barely, and I’m still trying to recover from the damage.
Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way for others.
If you’re worried about gender labels confusing kids, maybe it’s time to stop telling kids who they are, and listen to them instead.