On suppressing gender fluidity in children

Gender and expressions of gender are complex things. Some seem eager to dismiss gender as a social construct, undermining the very real and sometimes painful experiences of people who experience gender conflict and struggle with their gender expression. Others reduce gender to essentialist narratives about how people are what they were born with, and that’s that — there is no room for gender fluidity, for being transgender, for complicated relationships to gender. The growing social movement to encourage people to rethink their attitudes about gender is having a huge influence on how society views and deals with gender, but there’s still a long way to go, and one area that’s often underaddressed is gender fluidity in children.

Children are new to this strange, terrible, sometimes beautiful world of ours. That makes them interested in exploring, playing, poking at the boundaries. They want to learn more about how the world functions, about how they function, about whether established truths are maybe not so true. Play is an important part of development, and gender expression among children is a part of play. I don’t mean this in a mocking sense for young adults and adults who are struggling with their gender — because for us, it’s something very serious and it’s not playful at all. But for children seeking and establishing an identity, gender fluidity and genderplay are quite common.

Boys, girls, and everyone between learn about social expectations when it comes to gendered behaviour, but they also explore their own. Some are fortunate and they’re not immediately bombarded with people telling them how to behave, while others may be drenched in pink or blue from the very start. In any case, children don’t have fixed identities, and gender is a key component of identity, which means that as they’re exploring who they are and who they want to become, they’re considering both gender and how they want to express it.

The result is often shifting and highly fluid. A person with internal genitals might love wearing overalls, playing with trucks, and pretending to be a logger, stomping around the house with faux dump trucks and watching a parent work on the car — that child may be a tomboy, a butch, or any number of things, including just a plain ole boy or a girl. A child with external genitals might love dressing up in pink dresses, holding tea parties, and playing with dolls, might have a singular obsession with ponies — that child might be femme, or girly, or just a guy who likes pink sparkly things. Or a girl. There’s no real way to tell, and cues about how children gender themselves need to be taken from children themselves.

That doesn’t necessarily indicate that a child’s expressed gender is a fixed, final point, though. Gender is complicated, and children are still exploring it. Maybe that dump truck-loving kid above identifies as a boy, uses a male name, goes to school as a boy, and realises in first grade that she’s actually a girl, or that she’s genderqueer, or that she’s agender. Perhaps that boy is the femmest femme gay guy that ever did femme, or a totally macho heterosexual dude, or maybe he’s a trans girl who will grow into a trans woman. There’s no way to tell — and no assumption to be made on the basis of outward presentations of gender. I know lots of extremely masculine, extremely heterosexual guys who wear sparkly pink dresses. I know a whole lot of super femme girls who are as straight as can be who are into things like powerlifting. I know lipstick lesbians and bearded ladies and everyone between. What you do isn’t who you are, though it may be a part of how you express your identity.

Children are genderfluid because they’re still growing into themselves. Think of gender like a spine: It’s incredibly strong and flexible, but it still grows over time. If we x-ray a baby at birth and then ten years later, we expect those vertebrae to have grown, for the spine to have more thoroughly developed. The same is true of gender, no matter what gender parents want to assign at birth. Maybe that baby’s spine grows on a straight (no pun intended), even, predictable path. Maybe it curves and twists — except that, unlike spines, gender fluidity isn’t something to be corrected with surgery and bracing so children will be more comfortable and will live longer.

One ironic consequence of the push to understand gender as a more fluid spectrum or cloud has been that parents are sometimes too eager to assign fluidity or transness to cis kids who are just exploring. That little girl with butch tendencies (and why do we need to assign things like loving car repair and tractors to butches anyway?) is, quite likely, just a little girl, and she may well grow into a woman who loves mechanical things and goes into engineering or runs her own auto shop or whatever else she wants to do. Or maybe as she grows up, she becomes less interested in those things, trading in model trains for equestrian sports or basketball, turning her focus on tractors into an interest in farming. Who knows who kids are going to be, and they shouldn’t be suppressed or dictated to.

Historically, genderfluid children have been suppressed and told to ‘act their gender,’ often in vicious and harmful ways that sometimes have devastating consequences. That treatment must end, because it’s child abuse, and it’s wrong, and terrible. But as we welcome genderfluidity to childhood, we must remember that playful expressions of gender don’t reflect a fixed, final, fully baked version of gender (for that matter, gender fluidity may continue into adulthood). Kids should just be allowed to be kids, with identities that evolve naturally and organically in an environment where they can be respected and loved for who they are instead of who everyone else wants them to be.

Image: Purple Sherbet Photography