When I was in middle school, I would ask my mom if I could watch certain TV shows other kids were watching: FRIENDS, Scrubs, and so on. She said sure (she’s pretty chill about stuff like that), but she told me there were a lot of jokes I wouldn’t get. She was right.
I didn’t understand why the laugh track played when Ross forcibly wouldn’t let his toddler son play with a Barbie, he fired the nanny for being a man, or he and the other men got disgusted at breast milk. I didn’t understand why JD and Turk’s “guy love” was such a joke, or why entire episodes revolved around stereotypes like women who can’t play sports, promiscuous lesbians, and instances of assault (Paolo, anyone?) taken lightly.
I now recognize that for the most part, when jokes in the media are “adult,” it’s because kids haven’t been indoctrinated with sexism yet. You aren’t born knowing scripts that men are supposed to be disgusting to women, women are supposed to be shallow, and god forbid anyone doesn’t conform to a binary. Rewatching those shows now, I see just how heavily they rely on these tropes, how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go.
Gender is a spectrum. The concept of binary gender is a Western, colonialist construct, and its perceived ubiquity is a tool of oppression and limitation. Across the globe and throughout history, cultures recognize and respect gender outside the binary, the muxe, the two-spirit, the x-gender, the gender nonconforming, and more. To be limited by the gender binary is erasure and oppression.
It’s crucial to raise a generation who can access these conversations more easily than our predecessors. We must work to help children think outside the gender binary — to raise them with the language, tools, and mindset to recognize that gender is a spectrum; that the binary is incorrect, incomplete, and reductive; that they are permitted to explore across genders; and that trans and gender-nonconforming people are valid.
The gender binary reinforces dangerous stereotypes and reductive roles. It disenfranchises hundreds of thousands of people who do not identify as one of two genders, participating in their dehumanization and serving as cause for violence and discrimination. We must fight for respect, equity, and protection for trans and gender-nonconforming people right now, and for future generations.
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It’s not easy to confront and combat something so ingrained that starts from birth. In fact, it begins even before birth, as we start gendering at gender reveal parties, baby showers, and when buying the blankets we wrap infants in once they enter the world. Here are some ways to help kids think outside the gender binary, from childhood and beyond.
1. Don’t essentialize gender.
Gender essentialism is the misconception that there are only men and women, and that they are two distinct and fixed identities. It means that in order to be valid, you must conform to certain standards of manhood or womanhood.
Because of our culturally-reinforced misunderstandings of gender as a binary instead of a spectrum, we have ingrained ideas about what men and women are, what defines them, and who they should be. Unless you have consciously deconstructed these ideas, you have them too.
According to gender essentialism, men are strong, capable of few emotions, but the emotions they’re allowed are expressed bluntly and always seen as valid. Men are rational, athletic, and natural-born leaders. Women, meanwhile, are viewed as weak, susceptible to emotions, fragile, docile, and are stereotyped as being better suited to supporting roles. This list was nauseating for me to write out, and I hope you rolled your eyes; I hope you know we should be past this.
You were not born with these ideas. They were taught to you, reinforced by every princess story and adventure tale, by every blue “boys” aisle filled with construction toys and work-oriented clothes and every pink “girls” aisle filled with imaginative toys and decorative or outright objectifying clothes.
Your gender only defines you as an individual up to a point. You are an amalgam of everything you’ve experienced, and those traits aren’t inherently gendered — they only have gender imposed on them.
As such, teach your children that people are people. Raise them to see individuals for who they are, not who they are expected to be based on their pronouns. Do not assume your son will grow up to like sports and girls, or that your daughter will grow up to like clothes and boys. Also do not assume the gender of your child before they are old enough to determine it for themself. Normalize the use of “they” pronouns. Introduce it to your child just as they are taught “he” and “she.” Normalize the use of “friends,” “guests,” or “everyone” instead of “boys and girls.”
Allow the phase “gender is a spectrum” to enter your child’s vocabulary from the moment they learn what a boy and girl are. Teach them that there are boys, girls, people who are both, and people who are neither. Teach them that just like how their genitalia is private, the genitalia of other people is not their business. Teach them to stand up for the rights of people who fall anywhere on the gender spectrum, just as they’d stand up to anyone being bullied. Teach them they are permitted to explore their own gender.
Do not allow your child to grow up in an environment that encourages casual misogyny or permits toxic masculinity. When a peer, friend, or teacher says something that essentializes gender — arguing that a boy can’t wear a dress, that girls are worse at sports, that girls must like fashion or boys can’t like boys — don’t let it slide.
Don’t let “jokes” slide. Don’t excuse a boy’s harassment with “boys will be boys.” Children aren’t born understanding the intricacies of the gender binary; they’re taught it.
2. Don’t gender personal characteristics and attributes.
Don’t color-code children. Pick gender-neutral colors from the beginning — reds, greens, yellows, beiges — or just include both pink and blue until they can choose their preferences for themselves. Let them choose what to wear, and who to be.
We gender everything, from foods to fabrics to colors and behavior. Capitalism thrives on sexism and the gender binary, gendering everything from tea to tape to books and attractions. Capitalism plays on our culturally constructed insecurities, emphasizing that you need this razor or that diet pill to be a valid “woman,” or this deodorant or that shoe to be a valid “man.”
I was devastated when I saw the new editions of Roald Dahl books. I grew up loving how they could appeal to any kid, celebrating the weird and sometimes painful aspects of childhood, not shying away from tough subjects — or cool girls. Now, some of his most popular titles have been brazenly color-coded, and I want to fight this as much as possible. Any kid can love (or be terrified by) Matilda and the BFG!
Point this out to your kids. Show them that gendered products are essentially the same, and that they’re welcome to use whatever they want, whatever fits them best, or perhaps to support a company that doesn’t exploit the perceived gender binary.
Also, raise your kids to recognize that anyone can be compassionate, clever, strong, or rational. Raise them to approach their emotions, to understand why they feel a certain way. Don’t write off young men as inherently aggressive, or young women as inherently weak and spineless. Raise them to recognize that men’s anger is taken more seriously, to anticipate that women’s anger or pain is dismissed.
Take their emotions seriously, no matter what. Ask them why they feel sad or angry, and talk about it. Teach them to be compassionate human beings, to themselves or others.
Do not participate in the degradation of the female. “Gender-neutral” doesn’t mean “male.” Allow kids to celebrate that which is coded female in themselves. It’s there, and if it’s not, teach them to respect it.
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Misogyny is in ingrained in our society. Too often, raising “strong women” or “strong men” is perceived to mean destroying compassion, communication, and sensitivity. Teach children that these traits demonstrate strength and maturity, not weakness.
3. Don’t gender toys and careers.
Fill your child’s walls and shelves with role models across genders and careers. Talk to the children in their life about what they love doing, and why. Don’t expect you know what kids want because of their gender. Women are disproportionately discouraged from pursuing careers in STEM fields, and men are still ridiculed (or hyperpraised) for pursuing careers in caretaking fields. Men continue to be seen as better logicians and businesspeople, while woman are viewed as caregivers and administrative workers.
When we allow ourselves to look beyond the gender binary, and when we help kids think outside it, we allow every person to follow their actual interests and potential.
Give children toys and tools that are both imaginative and constructive: dolls and LEGOs, littleBits and storybooks. Teach them to use both, and to value both ways of thinking. They may end up being better at one or the other, they may end up being well-rounded — either way, the important takeaways are that neither is inherently better, both are important, and anyone of any gender can be best at either, and successful in any career.
4. Do teach diverse history.
Don’t let the patriarchy get to them first! Don’t let sexism and gender essentialism shape the way kids see the world and themselves. Give them stories and scripts that open their minds instead of narrowing them. Teach them that there are so many ways to be a valid human being.
Teach them about female doctors, scientists, and politicians. Teach them about gay activists, trans and gender-nonconforming role models. Teach them about radical black men, radical Asian men, radical Native men who fought patriarchal injustice. Teach them about Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Laverne Cox, Harvey Milk, Angel Haze.
For the earliest education, encourage kids to read I Am Jazz, Gracefully Grayson, Beyond Magenta, Lumberjanes — Worm Loves Worm, And Tango Makes Three, The Answer, and George. Have them watch and read Steven Universe, featuring canon non-binary characters!
5. Do encourage identity exploration.
Above all, allow children to be themselves! Allow them to wear suits, dresses, heels, boots. Allow any child to be a princess, a hero, a knight, a firefighter. Encourage them to experiment and explore, and support their peers to do the same! Make your own clothes and Halloween costumes, or let them shop in any section of the store they prefer.
Allow gender neutral and gender-spectrum language to be more familiar and natural than the language of the binary and patriarchy. Encourage the children in your life to recognize, in these little ways, that gender is a spectrum, and that neither perceived gender nor genitalia prescribes who a person will become — and it’ll end up being a pretty big shift.
Advocate for them. If a child in your life is non-binary, reach out and seek community if you can. No matter who your child is, advocate for the understanding of gender as a spectrum. Stand up for them! And importantly, be a role model. They’re watching the way you talk about men and women, the way you include or neglect other genders. They’re listening to gender-neutral language. They’re listening to the expectations you have of them, who they’ll grow up to be and love. Allow them space and possibility beyond the binary.
Seriously, they’ll get it. When you show kids the possibilities that open up when they’re not trapped by the binary, they’ll start to see the world as a place of far more opportunities. They’ll grow to see people and gendered concepts as they truly are, and start to discover who they really are as people.
[Feature Image: A photo of a child’s face pressed against a chain link fence. They have light olive skin, short dark hair, and brown eyes and are wearing a blue and white shirt. Their hand is clutching the wire of the fence. Source: United Nations Photo]