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:
- 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!
- 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.
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.