Gender is messier than a singular point on a two-dimensional line

My daughter is nearly four years old, which means that gender and the social construction of identity around gender is something that I think about on an almost daily basis. For one thing, it’s really hard to not hyper-examine the nuances of social expectation when you live with a gnome who asks “why” about everything under the sun approximately three hundred times per day.

There’s also the issue of trying to fight the awful socialization she’s picking up from the other children at her daycare. In the past year, since my daughter has started to become aware of gender norms and expectations, she’s gone from a self-confident little girl who didn’t particularly care what she wore as long as it was brightly colored to a child who is scared of the dark and climbing, will only wear girl colors, is obsessed with Disney Princesses, and insists that she is a princess – along with all of the attendant awful baggage that comes with.

So I spend a lot of time trying to teach her that being female doesn’t mean being limited by these reductive stereotypes, although my resounding lack of progress on that front has been discouraging to say the least. Something else that I am trying (and failing) to introduce as a concept is the fact that there are more gender options available to her than “boy” or “girl”. There’s an entire universe of gender options out there that I didn’t know about growing up, and I don’t want her to feel shoehorned into a gender by her biology simply because that’s the way that the majority of her caregivers conceive of gender!

Of course, actually having these conversations turns out to be super difficult for two reasons:

  1. Part of being able to teach her about this stuff involves finding language for it. And that’s HARD when talking about gender, because there is A LOT OF JARGON involved in educating yourself on gender issues that can be really hard to navigate without unintentionally stepping on toes. And figuring out how to phrase all of that in terms that a not-quite-four-year-old can understand is even more challenging!
  2. The language that a lot of people use when talking about non-binary gender identity is that of a spectrum, but I’ve never been a fan of the idea of gender as a spectrum. If gender is a spectrum, that implies that all possible genders exist as points along a single two-dimensional line with “male” and “female” as the two extremes along that line – which is incredibly reductive.

So it was with all of that in mind that I decided to make this comic – which will hopefully provide a useful visual representation for understanding some of the basics of the complexity of gender identity:


Why a complex view of gender matters: personal reflections on my own gender identity

My entire childhood, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was “failing” at being a girl. I HAAAAATE dresses, I’m disinterested in makeup, and hair? Between generally not understanding how to girl and having curly hair, my hair has always been a perpetual struggle for me.

(It didn’t help that my classmates ALSO thought I didn’t know how to girl. When I was 13 I cut my hair short and my classmates called me “Pat” – after the horrifically awful SNL skit – for a year.)

In high school and college, I’d joke about “being terrible at being a girl” or (after getting married) that I was “the man in my marriage”. But by then, I’d found ways of performing femininity that felt (mostly) comfortable for me. I still don’t wear dresses (unless I’m LARPing), and I mostly avoid makeup (except for LARPing or job interviews). But I’ve learned ways of dressing that look feminine without me having to put a lot of effort into PERFORMING FEMININITY. Because even now, that shit makes me feel like an alien from another planet.

This is how I feel whenever I have to put on makeup for a job interview.

It wasn’t until a few years ago when I started learning about non-binary gender identities and getting really obsessed with gender in general that I was introduced to the term “cis-by-default”, and was like YES. THIS. Because that perfectly describes how I feel about my gender now. If I had known that being genderqueer was a thing that existed when I was a kid, or shit even in college – I would have been all over that. I would be genderqueering like nobody’s business.

But finding out that’s a thing after 30+ years of figuring out how to be feminine without performing femininity? After having a kid and not having the time or bandwidth to even care about bathing regularly, let alone experimenting with gender presentation? No way.

In talking with my husband about this the other day, I compared it to a favorite pair of sandals. You get them because you like how they look, but it turns out that they just don’t fit right – they rub your heel, or they keep slipping off, or give you blisters. But you’re stuck with them because these are the only sandals you were given. Eventually you break them in, and maybe they end up not quite the way they’re supposed to – maybe you have to cut a strap to make them fit, or maybe they look too worn to be professional once you get them to that comfy stage. Whatever. What matters is they are comfy and are your go-to footwear.

And then someone shows you a pair of strappy ultra-high stiletto heel sandals. And shit, you love them SO MUCH. You’re mad you didn’t even know that strappy ultra-high stiletto heel sandals were a thing! Except… you have your comfy sandals. The ones that maybe weren’t supposed to fit you, but they fit now. And sure the new sandals might be amazeballs, but those things come with a learning curve. You’re going to fall on your ass and embarrass yourself in public at least a few times before you get it right, and who knows, you may even break an ankle. And shit, trying to be in school, do freelance, and have a three-year-old? I need sandals I know I won’t break my neck in if I have to chase my kid all of a sudden.

…but still. I have some awesome non-binary friends, and watching them experiment with their gender presentation makes me a little sad for younger me. For the me that definitely would have made different choices if she’d known those choices existed.

11 thoughts on “Gender is messier than a singular point on a two-dimensional line

  1. You do realize that you could teach your daughter all of these things, and she may still decide to be a disney princess. And that seems to me to be a perfectly valid choice, just not my first one.

  2. Yes hello psych researcher here! Kiddos around 3-5 are very much about sticking things into categories that are VERY black and white with no wiggle room, but they usually start to grow out of it around the 6-10 years old range because their brains are experiencing “unfolding”; in other words, as it gets bigger it becomes capable of more complex thought because it’s more efficient at thinking. Also, when kids figure out gender norms, they explore them by presenting as the extreme, but as they mature they grow out of it (or not, if they feel comfy with it). So even if it seems like you’re getting nowhere with her now, it’s still planting the seeds in her brain (because kids are sponges, as you know!) and allowing for more complex conversations down the line when she’s old enough to get more viscous concepts. 😉

  3. I don’t understand why you need to present your daughter with options. As I narrowly understand the issue, you are what you are. It isn’t so much a choice as how your brain chemistry functions. As long as you are being accepting of her than your job is mostly done. You may have to be vocal about being accepting and that your love is unconditional. Beyond that what more can you do?

    Im not giving you all my credentials/presentation as that lets you categorize me instead of trying to understand the things I write. Other people here seem fond of placing themselves in box, but I certainly don’t owe that to anyone. If my opinion doesn’t matter because I won’t do so, than I suppose I’d rather not be heard.

    • Go back and ACTUALLY READ everything that I wrote about how I am not cisgender and would have made different choices if I had known that there were more gender options than just “cisgender man” and “cisgender woman” when I was growing up.

      That will answer your question about why I want to present my daughter with options.

      • So gender is a choice now? I think you are leaving many of your readers confused. Since in a previous posting you said and I quote “And as someone who feels queer-adjacent without actually owning the identity of being queer (at least at present – since I very much present as cishet and 100% benefit from that privilege)”

        • No, it’s not a choice, but having more options for expressing someone’s gender can really help people figure out what they really do identify as; at least this is how I understand it.

          As for your quote, seems to me Wundergeek was stating she’s queer-adjacent (or maybe it would be better to say that they’re exploring those ideas at this point in their life) but *presents* as cishet; presentation is not the same thing as identification.

        • ^ Exactly what Andrew is saying. I dress and present as female and use female pronouns. And I am in a hetero marriage and have had a kid. Saying I don’t benefit from cis privilege and hetero privilege would be a lie. But what I have been wrestling with for the last while is the fact that I am NOT cisgender.

          Because I was raised not knowing that you could be something besides cismale or cisfemale, I didn’t have any language to describe how I felt or figure out what I meant. And even now, when I have done several years of work around educating myself on gender theory and what it means in practice OUT THERE, how it applies to me and my own life? Fuck if I know. I’m still fumbling around in the dark, and the only thing I know for certain is that I’m not cisgender, I’m not transgender, and I’m not agender.

          Hence feeling queer-adjacent while still presenting as cisgender. But, you know, that’s ground that’s covered by the comic. 😛

  4. I’ve been mulling the idea of writing a blog post about being a “passing cis man”. In a radical interpretation of gender identity as performance, there is actually no essential difference between a trans person “passing” and a cis person “passing”*, as it’s all about conforming to vague ideas in the public perception.

    *Note that I realize it’s very different in the lived experience of people, which is why a specify “essential difference”.
    ** Also note that the notion of “passing” for LGB (not T) people is very different, and in fact inverted, from the notion I’m using here.

  5. It would be nice if comic could answer this: If our representation is not necessarily our gender, and what we are assigned at birth is not necessarily our gender, then what a person talks about when he says that he feels masculine or feminine? What is associated with gender when we strip makeup or lack of it, and external sexual attributes? Behavior patterns? Butch seems to disagree

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