“Boys to the right, girls to the left.” Ever since we were put into our pink or blue onesies as babies, it’s been drilled into us in countless ways that gender is and either/or thing. For many of us, it’s simple to check the “male” or “female” box at the doctor’s office or choose which bathroom to use.
But for those who don’t fit neatly into the male or female category, such choices become more complicated. The conundrum has come to light more and more in recent years, bringing much-needed attention to something that has always been true: Gender is not a black-and-white binary but a spectrum with many shades of grey.
Sex vs Gender
First it’s important to understand the differences between sex and gender. Sex refers to biological characteristics of maleness or femaleness (indicated by chromosomes, gonads, hormones and genitals), while gender refers to a person’s internal sense of their own maleness or femaleness. Gender is internal; you can’t see it, and a doctor can’t predict it at birth. Neither what someone wears nor what’s between their legs tells you that person’s gender. You can only truly know if they tell you. (And FYI: Someone’s sex or gender tells you absolutely nothing about their sexual orientation, meaning the sex or gender of people a person is attracted to.)
Cisgender (cis) is a term meaning that the sex someone was assigned at birth—what the doctor puts on the birth certificate—matches the gender they identify with. For example, someone born with a vagina, ovaries and XX chromosomes who identifies a female is cisgender.
Though we were taught that there were only two sexes and two genders, the truth is that both sex and gender exist on a continuum. A 2015 Fusion Millennial poll of adults ages 18-34 in the USA found that the majority see gender as a spectrum, rather than a man/woman binary. And a 2017 Harris poll of millennials found that 12% identify as transgender or gender non-conforming.
For people who have both male and female sex characteristics, the term intersex applies. For those who don’t identify as 100% male or 100% female on the gender spectrum, many terms exist, including nonbinary, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, pangender, demi-girl, two-spirit, and all, none or a combination of these. If you’re curious, do a little more digging. You might start answering the questions posed, and find a gender that feels like it’s always been you, regardless of your age.
The Importance of Respect
If you’ve never conceptualized gender in this way, relearning what seemed so simple can be difficult. But when your coworker your in-law, your friend, or your child lets you know that they identify as, say, nonbinary, I’s important that you don’t let the confusion over something new to you get in the way of being respectful and supportive. If you are cisgender, you may never had had to think about what your gender was. Having that privilege offers you the opportunity to be an ally for those who do not have it.
Transitioning is a term commonly used to refer to the steps a transgender, or non-binary person takes in order to find congruence in their gender. But this term can be misleading as it implies that the person’s gender identity is changing and that there is a moment in time when this takes place. What people see as a “transition” is actually the alignment in one or more dimensions of the individual’s gender as they seek congruence across those dimensions. A transition is taking place, but it is often other people (parents and other family members, employers, etc.) who are transitioning in how they see the individual’s gender.
Transitioning can also refer to social, legal, and/or medical steps individuals take to affirm their gender identity or gender expression.
Not everyone wants to take some or any of these steps, and that’s okay. Transitioning for some looks like using a new set of pronouns or wearing different clothing. It can be changing one’s name on legal documents or changing one’s gender marker on a drivers’ license. Or going on hormones. Or getting surgery to affirm one’s gender. Not all people who identify with gender(s) other than the one they were assigned at birth choose to transition. And for those who do, the process can look a million different ways.
If you are involved in a transition, first and foremost, when someone tells you their gender, your only job is to believe them. Treating this as a fad or a phase they’re going through is disrespectful and incorrect. Try your hardest to reflect back the language they use about themselves. If they tell you they’re now going by a different name, use it.
We’re very accustomed to gendering everyone we meet—thinking of a person as either a he or a she. But for those who are trans or gender nonconforming, these pronouns don’t always fit. This may take some getting used to, and that’s OK. Not sure? People usually welcome being asked, “Say, what pronouns do you use?” or “What are your affirming pronouns?” Or I could say, “My pronouns are she/her/hers. May I ask what yours are?”
If you slip up, apologize and correct yourself, but please don’t tell a nonbinary person that their affirming pronouns are grammatically incorrect or hard for you to use. Remember, this is not about you, it’s about supporting them.
This is important: Don’t ask anyone what genitals they have or if they plan to take hormones or have surgery. Some, but not all, trans or nonbinary people have surgery or take hormones to help make their bodies more congruent with their gender identity. For many, this is crucial and even lifesaving. For others, medical intervention doesn’t feel as important. Regardless of their choice, other people’s genitals are none of your business.
While some nonbinary folks—especially those you’re very close to—may welcome questions, it may be better to turn to Google or a therapist to work through any confusion or anxiety you may have. No one should need to justify their gender to you or compromise who they are to make you more comfortable. Remember, knowing someone is transgender or nonbinary tells you only a little bit about them. So continue to treat them with respect, curiosity, and compassion, just as you would any other human acquaintance.
A: As we’ve said, being transgender is about an individual’s gender identity, while being gay is about an individual’s sexual orientation, or attraction. Attraction is the combination of the physical and personality traits that happen to turn your crank. Someone may identify as trans and straight, or they may be trans and gay, or they may identify as something else. Two separate issues, two separate personal decisions. We get to decide who we know ourselves to be, and who we are attracted to.
Q: Is there a difference between cross-dressing and being transgender?
A: Yes, cross-dressing refers to people who wear clothing and/or makeup and accessories that are not traditionally associated with their biological sex.
Many people who cross-dress are comfortable with their assigned sex and generally do not wish to change it. Cross-dressing is a form of gender expression that is not necessarily indicative of a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation.
Q: Are children too young to truly know their gender?
A: Understanding our gender comes to us fairly early in life. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “By age 4, most children has a stable sense of their gender identity.” This core aspect one one’s identity comes from within each of us; it is an inherent aspect of a person’s make-up. We don’t question when cisgender children know their gender at a young age, so why do we question when transgender or nonbinary children know their gender at the same age?
Q: We shouldn’t talk to young children about gender diversity.
A: We communicate with kids about gender identity from the moment they’re born. They are receiving messages and stereotypes about how boys and girls are supposed to look and behave, not only from adults, but also from peers, books, media, product marketing and advertising. Research indicates that these messages place them in strict boxes that can prevent them from reaching their full potential. For example, one study published in Science in 2017 showed that, “At age 5, children seemed not to differentiate between boys and girls in expectations of ‘really, really smart’—childhood’s version of brilliance. But by age 6, girls were likely to lump more boys into ‘really, really smart’ category, and to steer themselves away from games intended for the smartest children. If we don’t proactively teach different message to children about gender, they will simply absorb the messages out there—and we all lose.
Q: When do children discover they are transgender?
A: While many transgender people say they knew they were trans at an early age, for many others the journey to living openly as their affirmed gender was longer. Some say the process lasted until their teens, adulthood, or even old age. Many people have a general feeling of being “different” but don’t connect their feelings to their gender until they are exposed to new language or find role models in whom they can see themselves reflected. In one study, the average age of self-realization for the child that they were transgender or non-binary was 7.9 years old, but the average age when they disclosed their understanding of their gender was 15.5 years old.
Q: Is being transgender or nonbinary a sign of mental illness?
A: No. Some gender-diverse people experience gender dysphoria which is a diagnosis in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). However, this refers to the distress some people experience as a result of a disconnect between their gender and their sex. Other minority stress factors often take a toll on transgender and nonbinary youth, who then experience levels of depression and anxiety as a result of harassment, discrimination, bullying and stigmatization they experience. Gender-diverse youth who have parental support and are affirmed in their gender have similar mental health profiles as their cisgender peers.
Q: Can someone be fired for being transgender?
A: Twenty one states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico have statutes that protect against both sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in employment in the public and private sector: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, and Washington. Two states Michigan and Pennsylvania have acquired such protections through executive orders, court rulings or binding decisions by their respective civil rights commissions.
Q: What’s next?
A: There is a generation divide in how we think about gender. I know I’m on the far side. Are you? In order to bridge this gap, those of us who were raised with a more limited view of gender can take this opportunity to explore gender with new eyes, to read and ask questions to better understand gender’s complexity. As with any new learning experience, you’ll learn more about the world around you and about yourself in the process.
Gender diversity has existed throughout history and all over the world. As one of the most fundamental aspects of a person’s identity, gender deeply influences every part of our life. Where this crucial aspect of self is narrowly defined and rigidly enforced, individuals who exist outside of its norms face innumerable challenges. Even those who vary only slightly from norms can become targets of misunderstanding, disapproval, or even violence.
This doesn’t have to be the case. Through a thoughtful consideration of the uniqueness and validity of every person’s experience of self, we can develop greater acceptance for all, and make space for all individuals to more fully explore who they are.