By Julie A. Ross, MA, with Seth Majnoon
“My daughter just told me that she’s non-binary and wants me to call her ‘they’ instead of “she.” I asked her if that meant that she’s gay and she said, ‘No.’ I’m completely confused. And what’s with ‘they?’ I mean, that’s plural, not singular, right?”
This is not the first time in my practice that someone has come in with this type of question. In fact, it’s becoming more and more common for me to hear about children who are comfortable coming out as a different gender than they were assigned at birth so I’d like to give a very basic crash course for parents who are confused about this.
Before I begin, however, please take it to heart that if your child has told you that they don’t identify as the gender that they were assigned at birth then you should congratulate yourself. It means that they have been thinking about their gender for a while now and that they feel comfortable enough to not have to hide their true identity from you. This is a precious gift that they have given you, so no matter how confused or shocked or dismayed you may feel, please keep it to yourself. More than anything, children need to feel loved and accepted by their parents for who their genuine self is, and your child has just shared a very vulnerable fact with you. Handle it with love and understanding.
So, first, what do I mean when I say, “Gender assigned at birth?” When a child is born, an adult — usually a doctor — looks at the child’s genitals and identifies the child as a “boy” or as a “girl.” This is the sex of the child, but it has nothing to do with how they will view themselves later on. When someone identifies with the sex they were assigned at birth they are called “cisgender.” When they don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, they may identify as transgender or non-binary.
So what do “transgender” and “non-binary” mean? The word transgender means that the person does not feel like they are the gender they were assigned at birth. For example, someone who is transgender may have been assigned male at birth but, in fact, they feel female. The term “Non-binary”, however, means that not only do they not feel like the gender they were given at birth, but also that they don’t believe that there are only two genders; hence, they may feel transgender but also neither male nor female.
I know that it can feel confusing to a cisgender person to think about gender not being binary. One of the first questions people ask is “Well, what about chromosomes? There are only XX or XY, right? And that determines whether you’re female or male, right?” Actually, no. While chromosomes may contribute to the gender that you’re assigned at birth, they have nothing to do with the gender that you feel you are when you think about yourself. Additionally, gender is independent from sexuality. Think about it like this: sexuality is who you go to bed with - who you are attracted to. Gender is who you go to bed as - do you feel male, female, transgender, non-binary, etc.
Another question people frequently ask is, “Is this normal? How common is it for a person to not feel like they are the gender they were given at birth?” The answer is, first, yes, it is completely normal. Many people don’t feel like their birth gender. In fact, according to the New York Times, in an article dated Jun 30, 2016, 1.4 million adults in the United States are transgender. It’s important to note, however, that the actual number may be higher than that. For example, people under the age of 18 weren’t taken into account. It’s also possible that some adults weren’t willing to identify themselves, especially older adults. As a parent who has a child or teen that does not identify as cisgender, it’s important to know this statistic. Your child or teen is not alone: they are part of a large population of people in the US that do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Sometimes, parents deny their child’s gender because they think it’s not normal, and that their child won’t ultimately be happy or successful in life. Unfortunately, when a parent denies their child’s identity they almost certainly condemn the child to a life of fighting for happiness and success. In order for any child to feel happy and to be successful in life, it’s helpful if they first have the unconditional acceptance of their parents for who they are.
Similarly, a lot of parents feel that a child, tween or teen is too young to “make up their mind” about their gender and deny their child’s gender on this basis. However, gender is a very basic feeling that one has about one’s self. For example, think back in your own lifetime. Do you remember “making up your mind” about your gender? Or was it just something you always knew? Probably the latter. Most people feel like a particular gender from the moment they start understanding what gender is. For children too young to articulate what gender they really are, they may burst into tears, become angry or aggressive, withdraw, storm off, etc. if they are asked to be on a gender-specific team for example, or told what a “pretty girl” or “handsome boy” they are. They may not be able to say, “I’m not a girl” or “I’m not a boy,” but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a sense of having a gender different from the one that people perceive them to have. The truth is that most people know what gender they are from an early age. However, many non-binary people have difficulty pinning it down — they may simply feel like they don’t “fit in” without being able to figure out why. When someone finally finds the language to describe their gender -- no matter how young or old they are when it happens -- it’s a huge relief and they should never be contradicted or invalidated for it.
Finally, (for this blog at least), you’re probably wondering about the pronoun “they.” So, first of all, for those of you who’ve forgotten your high school grammar studies, a pronoun is used to avoid repeating a noun that has already been mentioned. Personal pronouns are I, me, mine, you, yours, his, her, hers, we, they, or them. When your child asks you to use “they” instead of him or her, they are asking you to refer to them by a pronoun that resonates for them. But, you might say, “they is plural.” Not so! The singular “they” has a long history of use in the English language. For example, let’s say that you walk into a coffee shop and find a wallet that has been left behind. You would take the wallet, walk up to the cashier and say, “Someone left their wallet. I’m sure that they will be back for it.” You are using the pronoun “they” to convey a single person, not multiple persons. Well sure, you might say, but you don’t know the gender of that person, so “they” is appropriate. Correct. And you also don’t know the gender of ANY person, your child included, until they tell you what it is. And if they are non-binary, it becomes incorrect to refer to them with a gendered pronoun such as he or she.
To conclude, this will not be the last time that I will write about gender. It’s a big topic, and I’ve given a very brief, basic description to get you started. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us.