Our culture places a high value on gender “reveals,” where parents announce that they’ve “found out” what their child’s gender is. But, not so fast! Gender is much more complicated than that, and a person isn’t defined by their reproductive anatomy or even their X or Y chromosomes! This is something that we as parents need to understand, and help our children understand.
How you talk to your child about gender matters. You have an opportunity to help them stay open-minded and accepting of other people’s genders…and comfortable with their own.
Gender Roles and Gender Expression
Kids start learning gender roles at a very young age. By the time they’re two years old, most have learned what men and women are “supposed to” look and act like. By age five or six, most have very rigid ideas about gender — though they can become more flexible later on.
So your child may ask questions like, “Why is that man wearing a dress?”, “Is it okay if I play with a fire truck even though it’s a boy’s toy?”, or “Why are you wearing earrings? Are you a girl?”. Or you may see kids pressuring each other to conform to gender norms.
But all these rules about what we’re supposed to wear, how we’re supposed to act, and what we’re supposed to do — they’re completely made up! And they’re very limiting. It’s important to let your child know that if someone’s behavior or appearance doesn’t match traditional gender norms, that person isn’t wrong for being different. It’s really okay.
And if your child wants to try wearing different clothes, or playing with different toys…let them. It doesn’t mean they’ll grow up to be LGBTQ+. Maybe they just want to try different things!
Traditionally our culture has understood people as being “born” male or female, or being “biologically” male or female, as if this was some kind of universal, objective truth. But it’s not (keep reading). And in fact, many different cultures across history have recognized the existence of more than two genders.
So now we talk about what gender someone was “assigned at birth,” i.e., whether their parents and hospital staff labeled them as female or male.
Each of us has a gender identity that may, or may not, match our assigned-at-birth gender. When it matches, we call a person “cis” or “cisgender.”
Trans people have a gender identity that doesn’t match the gender they were assigned at birth. Maybe they were labeled “male” based on their anatomy but they feel that they’re actually female, or vice versa.
Some people feel male sometimes and female at other times, or they feel like both at the same time, or neither. We call this being “nonbinary” or “NB.” Nonbinary people often ask others to refer to them using gender-neutral pronouns like “they” and “them.”
And by the way, ”they” and “them” have been used as singular pronouns for centuries…so grammatically, it’s perfectly acceptable despite what you may have been taught in grade school.
Intersex people have external or internal sex organs that don’t fit into conventional male/female categories — like having both ovaries and testes. Or they may have a different combination of chromosomes, like XXY, instead of the typical XY (male) or XX (female). (For an amazing, mind-blowing, and informative perspective on this, watch Emily Quinn’s Ted Talk.)
While it was once considered necessary to surgically “correct” intersex people’s anatomical differences, today many are choosing to embrace and celebrate their uniqueness.
Whenever you believe your child is ready to understand that people can have a range of gender identities, talk about it with them. Help them be accepting of others — and themselves. And remind them it’s never okay to judge or tease someone for being different.
Gender Identity and Sexuality
There’s no relationship between a person’s gender identity and their sexuality. Trans, nonbinary, and intersex people can be attracted to men, women, or both — just like cisgender people. (Many folks now identify as pansexual, meaning they are attracted to people across the whole gender spectrum.)
So we shouldn’t make any assumptions about what someone’s gender identity “means” about their sexuality.
If Your Child Comes Out to You
When children realize there’s a mismatch between their assigned-at-birth gender and their gender identity (often at a very early age), some tell their families right away. Others may take years to find the courage.
If your child tells you they’re trans — that they don’t feel aligned with their assigned-at-birth gender — believe them. They’re not doing it to be the center of attention. They’re doing it because that’s how they actually feel, and they feel it strongly enough to tell you. So please accept that.
Will they always feel that way? Only time will tell. But that’s how they feel right now.
It’s okay to ask them questions like, “What made you realize this about yourself?”, “How long have you known?”, or “How would you like to express this in your life?”. But please ask those questions from a position of believing, loving, and accepting your child, just the way they are — rather than trying to change their mind.
Rejecting your child’s gender identity can be very destructive. Trans kids are much more likely than cisgender kids to experience depression and commit suicide. Respecting and affirming their gender identity is much more likely to help them grow up happy, healthy, and whole.