Here at the human factory, we’ve got two sets of default settings you can choose from when ordering your child.
Girl: pink, likes boys, wants children, enjoys dressing up as a princess.
Boy: blue, likes girls, enjoys dressing up as a fireman.
These might seem a little limiting, but, you know, there’s a lot of room for imagination here. For example, boys can sometimes grow up to be policemen instead of firemen. Or CEOs of major financial companies. Or lawyers, or doctors. And girls…might want two children, or maybe three. Or maybe even four! Like I say, there’s some flexibility here.
The reason that I bring up this topic is that I find it simply fascinating that even many progressives kind of assume that children are going to fit into these two default settings. This was brought home for me when I read an article in The New York Times talking about middle schoolers coming out as gay, and encountered a lot of resistance from people going “well, how do people that young know that they are gay?”
If you’re under 18 and you say that you are queer, or trans gender, or want to pursue an occupation usually closed to people who share your sex, people automatically assume that you can’t really know what you want, because you’re breaking out of the factory default. A nine year old girl who knows that he is really a boy “doesn’t know what [she] wants and may change [her] mind.” People effortlessly degender trans children all the time because, you know, they’re children, how could they possibly know?
An eleven year old girl who comes out as a lesbian “doesn’t really know” what her sexual orientation is, because, how could she? She’s never even had a sexual encounter with another girl, so how can she be so sure that she likes girls? She’s going to change her mind once she grows up and meets a nice boy.
When a boy says that he wants to grow up to a nurse, someone is going to tell him “oh no, you can grow up to be a doctor, if you want, you’re a boy. You don’t need to be just a nurse.” When a young girl announces that she wants three children, everyone nods and smiles in approval. When a young girl announces that she doesn’t want children, she is reprimanded and informed that she’s going to change her mind later.
As a society, we assume that children are cis and straight until proved otherwise, and that their characteristics are going to fit within a set of known, understood, and comfortable parameters. And, believe me, ample proof will need to be provided. Why do we make this assumption? Because we’re trained to, as a culture.
A better question might be: Why are we automatically assuming that all children are straight, since, you know, how could they know? They shouldn’t be having sexual encounters, so there’s really no way to tell how their sexuality is going to go, in the end. Why are we assuming that all children are cis, when trans people repeatedly talk about the fact that they have known that their assigned gender is wrong from an extremely young age? Why do we assume that all women want to have children, when in fact many childfree individuals have known they didn’t want children from a very young age? Why do we continue to believe that gender is a determining factor in what kind of occupation someone can/should be interested in?
Why are we falling into the factory default trap and assuming that everyone is going to fit within a socially accepted mold? Do parents have any idea of how harmful their assumptions about their children are? I realize that it’s extremely difficult to raise children in an entirely neutral world, although many parents certainly try as best they can.
And there’s something especially tragic about the children who do try to assert themselves, to speak up, because they are crushed down. I’ve known I was queer since I was eight years old, because I remember having a conversation with a friend (who coincidentally turned out to be queer as well) about it. By high school, we had drifted apart and society’s expectations had so crushed me that when she asked me about that long ago conversation, I said “oh, well, I don’t feel that way anymore,” because I knew that’s what society wanted me to say, because I was a girl, and I was supposed to like boys. She probably asked me because she was exploring her identity, and I inadvertently affirmed the factory default when I rejected my own identity, pretended that something I knew inside wasn’t true.
How does a little boy know he’s a little boy? Well, evidence seems to suggest that if he’s really a boy, he just knows. He understands, on a visceral level, that he’s a boy. But if he’s trans, he knows on a deep level that something is wrong. The little boy may actually identify as a little girl, and hate seeing herself in the mirror every morning. Or the little boy may identify as genderqueer, and be deeply confused about what is going on in ou world. Gender identity isn’t something that’s learned and acquired (although gendered behaviors are), it just is, but people only seem to accept that when it’s a cis gender identity.
For cis people who have never had to question their gender identity, this appears to be deeply confusing. The factory default clearly says that there are little girls and little boys and that’s it, so what’s the problem? What do you mean, you don’t agree with the factory default setting? You can’t disagree with the factory!
Sexual orientation is also not a learned behaviour or a choice. You just know, inside. You may struggle with it or find yourself uncertain, but I suspect that’s in large part due to the society in which we live, because a conflict with the factory default must be wrong, so you should just try harder to fix it.
Maybe if we weren’t so heavily reliant on the factory default when viewing the world, we wouldn’t have such a difficult time accepting people who are trans gendered, people who are queer, people who transcend social norms about gender identity. Maybe they wouldn’t be considered “deviants” and “abnormal.” Maybe they’d just be people.