Dear My Little Yoni: How Should I Talk about Gender Identity?
“Dear My Little Yoni,
My daughter has been asking a lot of questions about gender lately. She just made a new friend who identifies as non-binary, so she came home with a LOT of questions. I want to make sure I’m giving her accurate info. I’m also nervous this subject might rub off on her or confuse her / make her want to be nonbinary. What do I do?” - Nora
Hi Nora! First off, just know it’s natural for your daughter to be asking questions. Children are naturally curious and always eager to learn new things. Your daughter is likely asking simply because she’s never met someone who identifies as non-binary. It’s important to answer your daughter’s questions accurately, because not answering will likely confuse her more. Normally, when a parent doesn’t know how to discuss a topic, the go to behavior is to shut down the child’s natural instinct to learn. But that could tell them that the person they are trying to understand is bad and taboo. You want to promote empathy and compassion in your child, so they come to understand all people. Having meaningful conversations with your child is part of catching up to an increasingly diverse world! Often, it’s not kids who struggle to adapt and accept. Parents need to check their assumptions based on years of biases and learned construct on gender and gender expression. People are just people, and you want your kids to know that! It’s OK to be uncomfortable while learning that gender always has been fluid, but it’s not ok to deny someone else’s safety or existence. Everyone deserves to feel good and be seen for who they are, including children.
Talking about gender can seem scary, but you need to realize you are already having similar conversations with you daughter. You tell your kids that any person can use a particular color, work in any profession, and wear any clothes that make them feel good. Gender identity can be explained in the same way. If your daughter asks you “are they a boy or a girl?” don’t assume or pretend to know. Instead, use gender-neutral language, like “they” and “them” pronouns, to let your child know that until a person self-identifies, you can’t be sure. Emphasize that they should approach everyone with kindness and not assume a person’s identity or pronouns. Explain that both kids and adults have every right to dress, act, and identify in ways that make them feel good and healthy, as long as they are respecting the safety of others.
If your daughter has more questions, try explaining the difference between gender and sex. A doctor assigns you a sex, male or female at birth. They assign the sex based on your chromosomes and your genitals. If you have X & Y chromosomes and a penis, you are assigned male. If you have X & X chromosomes and a vulva, you are assigned female. But it’s important to explain that there are people who don’t fit into these neat columns. Some people are born with more chromosomes, they have XX and XY, or they are born with male chromosomes but not male genitals. These people fall under the term intersex! Intersex means they cannot be defined as one sex because there’s something in their bodies that differs from the rule of male and female. Explain to your child this doesn’t mean they are wrong or abnormal, this means they don’t fit into a rule doctors have used that excludes intersex people.
People mistakenly use the terms sex and gender interchangeably. While the two terms are connected, they aren’t equivalent. Doctor’s assign sex at birth, but we tend to assume their identity will match their gender as they grow up. This isn’t always true, and it’s not wrong or incorrect. Transgender means that a person born with male sex actually identifies as a woman or vice versa. Gender fluid, gender neutral, and genderqueer are all terms that fit under the nonbinary category. While explaining these terms, remind your child that it’s best not to apply labels one hasn’t given you permission to use.
Transphobic people will try and argue that gender identity is a new idea, but history shows us a different story. It helps your child to see that nonbinary people have existed throughout history. Explain that many Native American cultures recognize Two-spirit as a 3rd gender. Two spirit refers to a person who identifies as having both masculine and feminine spirits, and is used by some indigenous people to describe their sexual, gender, and/or spiritual identity. In almost every indigenous culture they were revered, respected, and honored. In indigenous cultures, two spirits were often visionaries, healers, or medicine people. Due to colonizing forces, Two Spirit people had been lost to indigenous cultures, and Native people were forced to adopt homophobic and transphobic attitudes. Clearly, the idea of gender identity and sex has a history, and people have been grappling with their identity for generations.
A person’s gender comprises complex relationships between three parts of themselves: body, identity, and social gender. Let your daughter know, each person gets to decide what gender they identify with, or if they don’t fit into those labels at all. To explain gender and pronouns better, try writing down gendered and neutral words for your child to identify. Your child might understand that the ‘girl’ words describe her identity best, and this will help you show her that neutral words are the words her new friend identifies with best. This gives your child a more concrete way to understand gender identity.
Explain to your daughter that gender identity is a person’s perception of having a particular gender, which may or may not correspond with their birth sex. Sex is a label, male or female, while gender is a social and legal status, and often has a set of rules or expectations from society. Every culture follows rules and thinks people should behave a certain way because of their gender. But these rules reflect how you’re expected to live, instead of being about your body, and these rules only fit into male or female.
Gender Identity shows how you feel on the inside!
And you express that through your clothes, behavior, and personal appearance. It’s a feeling that begins early on in life. Gender roles are expectations society and people have about behaviors, thoughts, and characteristics that go with someone’s assigned sex. It’s important to distinguish that gender roles reflect silly and outdated ideas like, “only women can stay home and take care of kids”, and “only men are tough and can’t show their emotions.” OBVIOUSLY, this isn’t true! Reinforce that women are smart and capable of achieving great success, and men are capable of not only being tough, but being vulnerable and sharing their feelings. It’s important to tell your daughter gender is a structure and all the stereotypes and expectations of gender roles and gender expression can put pressure on a person and limit their true identity.
Too many people don’t understand the difference and importance of sex and gender. You want to make sure your daughter understands and has empathy towards non-binary and trans people, so they are safe to express their gender truthfully. I know you are worried you might confuse your daughter, but giving her the information about gender identity will only allow her to decide what her true identity is. It’s important to teach your daughter these things so if she does ever have struggles with her gender identity, she knows she can come to you, because you shared this information with her. Nora, you are an awesome parent for trying to research this information, instead of just being worried and deciding not to talk about it at all. If you’re still needing more information and resources to help you with this talk, My Little Yoni has got your covered. Read our book, Yoni Magic: Breaking the Binary, with your daughter, and give her a chance to ask questions and discuss it with you. This will help solidify these concepts in a fun, shame-free way! Thanks to you Nora, your daughter will be a more empathic and caring person.