Is that a boy or a girl?

I’m unlocking my bike at the Harris Teeter when a dad pulls up with his daughter on the back of his bike. While he’s locking up she runs around the bike rack, singing to herself and pushing bikes over. She is standing probably a foot away from me when she asks her dad, “Is that a boy or a girl?” He replies, “Why don’t you ask her?” She never directly addresses me and I stay silent. “Is it a boy or a girl?” she asks again. He repeats his first answer again. Finally, as I’m getting on my bike to ride away (she still hasn’t addressed me directly) he says to her “She’s a girl.”
Kids are usually the most honest, the least afraid to ask questions. But if these interactions don’t reveal how entrenched the gender binary is in our world, I’m not sure what does. She was only vocalizing what all of us do internally, each time we encounter someone new. We size them up, and deciding their gender is a big first step.
Being called “it” didn’t feel too good, but then again she’s six and our language doesn’t give her many other options. It was interesting that his daughter’s questioning didn’t phase the father though–he gendered me right away (“her”) even before he answered her question directly.
I chose not to answer, first because she never asked me directly (it’d be hard to ignore a direct question) but also because I didn’t know how to respond. It’s getting harder and harder these days to respond to that question (which I get mostly on forms and such). These days I identify as genderqueer, if given the opportunity to write in my gender on forms, and kind of enjoy the rare moments when I get called “sir” in public.
Afterwards, while biking home, I contemplated what would I say to this kid if I could actually explain. Would I try and explain the idea of genderqueer to her? Would I give her my life story, complete with my thoughts about my gender identity and presentation as it’s morphed over the years? Would I tell her I don’t love pronouns, or answering which I prefer? There’s no simple answer there for me.
My friend Alex told me about how she reacts in these situations, by asking questions in return. What do you think? Why do you want to know? Are you a boy or a girl?
I’m writing about this because in our recent conversations about gender here at Feministing, the topic of genderqueerness came up and some commenters asked for more discussion on the topic. I’m also working on a new series (title TBD) about gender in everyday life, kind of a way to talk about different examples of how gender difference is reinforced by society. So stay tuned for that to come in the next few weeks.
Looking for a definition of the term genderqueer? Try here and here for some definitions.

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  1. shsally
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    This happens to me a lot. I also get teenagers and adults asking me this question in a hostile manner. This is very different, I think, from honest curiosity, but there have been time when kids have asked me what gender I am and I can’t remember that they honestly are trying to figure it out.
    It really is strange that asking “Are you a boy or a girl?” can be an extremely hostile question depending on the person doing the asking. I have thought about sincerely asking kids whether they are a boy or a girl when they ask me, but I am worried that without intending anything negative, I will come off as hostile towards them (the same way that their questions sometimes feel hostile towards me).
    This issue is very difficult for me to unpack because part of me wants to be OK with navigating through the world as a gender-ambiguous person. And the other part of me wants it to be very clear that I self identify as a woman with a gender-ambiguous presentation. I often feel offended that other people don’t perceive me correctly and feel angry that they are trying to shove me into one of two boxes. But then, on the other hand, I think that the identity I feel is very difficult to clearly present so I’m not sure I can justifiable blame people for not getting.
    …I just wish that they didn’t express their not getting it with real hostility and anger towards me.

  2. Selidor
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    The points you were bringing up are the same questions that trans people get asked again and again, though, and are part of the same arguments used to try and delegitimize trans identities.
    If you’re really asking yourself the questions you typed out, then you do need to self-educate if you want a better understanding of trans people, and how to engage in discussion with us on trans issues.

  3. Toni
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    I just registered as a recently new lurker to comment. I found this so interesting, and I can see how a situation like this would be difficult.
    “Darn those trans people, having an identity that’s hard for me to understand! ”
    How do you deal with the fact that it IS hard for some people (me included) to understand? And I can imagine it would be even more so for a young child?
    While I’m aware that there are people who’s gender identity is quite different than mine, I don’t know anyone who identifies as transgendered or queergendered or any of the other terms that might be out there.
    I’ve never talked with anyone who didn’t identify as straight female / straight male / gay female / gay male about their gender/orientation. Most people I know have never talked with anyone outside of the straight male/female variety.
    How much do you feel a responsibility for educating people, or expecting them to figure it out on their own?
    I guess I’m just asking because I can’t imagine what answer would truly make “sense” to me (since I only can really know those things I experience), how on earth do you explain it in a way a 6 year old could comprehend

  4. argolis
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    Feministing is feminism 101. I know these issues might seem basic to you, but I thought that this is what the website is here for.

  5. argolis
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Please see my above comment to Miriam regarding what I meant by the “why does it have to be so difficult” comment.

  6. argolis
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    Look, they may be old questions, but they are new to me and to a lot of other commenters here. Sorry, I don’t really get it, despite many attempts to self-educate.
    And I think Feministing should be receptive to these kinds of discussion. This is what the site is here for – feminism 101 for people still learning the basics.

  7. SociologicalMe
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    I have no problem with it being hard for you to understand. I’m a cis woman, sometimes trans issues are hard for me to understand too. What I’m trying to say, and I don’t mean to sound harsh but there isn’t a very polite way to say it, is that the difficulty is your problem and argolis’s problem and my problem, not trans people’s problem. Cis people are a social majority, like white people and straight people. Social majorities often act as though they do not need to be explained, but minorities do, and that it is those minorities’ responsibility to explain themselves. It is a form of privilege to believe that others should spend a great deal of their time and energy explaining themselves to you. The most respectful thing to do is to educate yourself in ways that don’t make demands. There are books and documentaries and websites and blogs aplenty about trans issues, where trans people have probably already answered your questions. This is their contribution to your education, done on their own terms, not in response to other people’s demands. Then you can digest the information and decide for yourself how best to explain it to a young child, like you would with any other topic you find difficult.

  8. Roja
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    One of the first things that annoyed me about the English language was the fact that there were gender-specific pronouns.
    One of the reasons I love my native Persian language is that it does not have male of female pronouns. If you want to specify a gender you have to use the term man/woman/girl/boy.
    I LOVE IT and I hope it doesn’t ever change.

  9. conquestofbread
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    I was one of those kids… asking a lot of inappropriate questions to my parents about people, in front of the people I was asking about.
    I hope I didn’t hurt people’s feelings. I have a hard time understanding social cues, and especially as a child, I did not understand the concept of tact.
    May I please ask if it is inherently distasteful for an adult to ask a person how they identify in terms of gender, as long as the question is presented respectfully?
    The reason why I ask, is that because I am a heterosexual, cisgendered (I learned that word here last week!) individual, I don’t want to make another person feel like I am in judgment of them.
    On the other hand, I want to be able to respect the other individual’s identity, and be able to address them in the way they feel most comfortable.
    What would be the best way, if any, to approach such a personal topic?

  10. Roja
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    sorry, I meant to write “male OR female pronouns”.

  11. SociologicalMe
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    I don’t really think that feministing IS feminism 101. I’m not sure why you think it is.

  12. SociologicalMe
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    I had no idea Norway would be considered conservative. That’s what I get for making assumptions. Thanks for your story! Also, “baldilocks” is now my new favorite word.

  13. nerdyfeminist
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    If you’re looking for a little feminism 101, I’d look no farther than here:
    I find that feministing deals with current events that relate to feminism and related discussions, not education about the basics of feminism itself.

  14. SociologicalMe
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    One of my students once told me that they would ask “hey, what’s your pronoun?” I was kind of taken aback by the simplicity. Never tried it myself, but I would imagine respectful asking is fine.

  15. nerdyfeminist
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    During my college orientation I was told that it’s acceptable to ask people what personal pronouns they prefer (he/she/ze/doesn’t care, whatever the case may be). That way, they can tell you what they want to be called without any fuss. However, my school is small and very liberal, so I don’t know how it works outside of the college bubble.

  16. LucyBell
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for posting, Miriam.
    This might be an overly simplistic story, but last year I was a volunteer at the LGBTQ People of Color Health Summit (I was invited by a friend.) I’m white, hetero, married and brought my conservative mother from Iowa to the event. She had many questions on “boys” & “girls” “Does she have a penis then?” “Well, did he have breasts? Can she get pregnant?” By the end of the weekend, she has met so many funny, honest, lively and beautiful people that she stopped asking. The attendees, from social organization execs to transmen and transwomen sex workers starting calling her “mom” and asking about her knitting projects she was seen working on. I don’t really feel like any of these questions matter anymore when you just love a person. And the only way to grow to love a person is to stop asking to begin with and just open your heart.
    When I feel really comfortable, I might ask a VERY good friend a question or two, but generally speaking I just don’t care about the “mechanics” or particulars. She/he is someone I hang out with, go to the movies with, talk about politics, bake cookies and ride bikes. And once, when at the park, a little girl I knew came up and asked me, “Is your friend a boy or a girl?” and I answered, “You got it right! T is my friend.”

  17. theKP
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    Has anyone else read Aaron Raz Link and Hilda Raz’s co-written book What Becomes You? There’s a heartwrenching scene where a little girl asks Link if he’s a boy or a girl, and he responds by asking her what she thinks. She guesses girl, and Link says that he says yes because he just couldn’t stand to disappoint her–because it was so clear that she wanted him to be a girl like her because she liked him. That story just left me in tears. (It’s a really smart book–I highly recommend it.)

  18. Aint I A Woman
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, actually its not…the mods frequently direct people to the Feminism 101 link ( when people say things that might come off as ignorant, even if its not their fault. Not trying to make you feel bad. Its just that these things come off as offensive.

  19. Unequivocal
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    I think that in general a respectful “how do you prefer to be addressed” style question is not likely to be met with indignation, although of course individual responses are likely to vary. If the question does offend, that isn’t the end of the world either, especially if the alternative is to not engage out of fear of saying the wrong thing.

  20. LauraMichelle
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    I have been a frequenter of feministing for quite some time, and this is the first post that I have felt compelled to react to within the community and outside of my own head. I think that this original post (thanks Miriam!) is so full of so many interesting aspects and questions.
    However, what I find to be most interesting and I wish a dialogue was more clear regarding people’s thoughts, is in regards to what the parent should actually say to the child.
    I desire to be as educated and aware of all aspects of society. And one of the responsibilities that I take very serious is a wholesome (in the complete sense and not the Leave it to Beaver sense) raising of my future children. I am assuming that everyone within this community feels the same. So what do we say to our future or current children in these situations? What is the best way to approach these situations? Hoepfully since day one there is an open and healthy dialogue about sexuality and gender, but how is a “good” parent actually supposed to tackle this situation? I am hoping for honest advice from people living lifestyles other than my own that can prove to be helpful.
    Thank you so much everyone for this discussion!

  21. LauraMichelle
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    I have been a frequenter of feministing for quite some time, and this is the first post that I have felt compelled to react to within the community and outside of my own head. I think that this original post (thanks Miriam!) is so full of so many interesting aspects and questions.
    However, what I find to be most interesting and I wish a dialogue was more clear regarding people’s thoughts, is in regards to what the parent should actually say to the child.
    I desire to be as educated and aware of all aspects of society. And one of the responsibilities that I take very serious is a wholesome (in the complete sense and not the Leave it to Beaver sense) raising of my future children. I am assuming that everyone within this community feels the same. So what do we say to our future or current children in these situations? What is the best way to approach these situations? Hoepfully since day one there is an open and healthy dialogue about sexuality and gender, but how is a “good” parent actually supposed to tackle this situation? I am hoping for honest advice from people living lifestyles other than my own that can prove to be helpful.
    Thank you so much everyone for this discussion!

  22. LucyBell
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    I’m about to have my first child, and have also been thinking very deeply about many of these questions. (I wrote about some of worries here:
    I think I might say, to my child, should he/she be old enough to understand, “Why do you ask?” They might not know why they are asking, just that the world around them seems to be split into binaries and they have a need to comprehend something. I bet a lot of kids would just shrug their shoulders. I don’t think the dad in Miriam’s story was so out of line, having a child ask someone directly certainly seems more respectful than talking about them in a 3rd person while they are standing right there. But I also feel strongly that when children grow up with lots of different kinds of people around them, what becomes “normal” for them is the diversity of looks, bodies, colors, shapes and sizes. I’m reminded of a line from “Robin Hood” with Kevin Costner, where a little English girl asks Morgan Freeman’s character, “Did God paint you?” And he laughs, and says yes, because “Allah loves wondrous variety.”

  23. jnbklyn
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    This is the kind of parenting moment I totally YEARN for. I would say, “Not everyone is a boy or a girl, . There are so many different kinds of people in the world! If you ever need to figure out how someone would like to be addressed, you can ask them politely.” Then I would leave quickly, so as not to prolong the (perhaps uncomfortable) interaction for the gender-nonconforming person, and tell this person who spurred our discussion to have a good day! (But then, I’m from the south.)

  24. sixolet
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    I just signed up here to answer!
    I think the best reaction I ever got from a parent was the first time I showed up to a particular chavurah (Jewish prayer group). It went something like this:
    Kid (approx 3 years old at this point): Are you a boy or a girl?
    Me: Kind of neither and both. Not everyone has to be a boy or a girl.
    Kid: !?
    Kid’s parent: You know — like God is both and not exactly either a boy or a girl.
    Kid: Oh, okay.
    At this point I thanked the parent for their support, and I’ve been coming back to that chavurah ever since.
    As a visibly genderqueer person, I do like getting “the question” from young kids. It’s a moment to do a little low-risk outreach — very few parents have ever been so rude as to contradict me to my face as I tell their children about the space between and around gender in which I’ve been moving.

  25. sixolet
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    I find that people asking my pronouns is generally okay if the pronoun question is not the first or second or even third thing in the conversation; it’s pretty rough as a conversation starter. It’s like “oh hi I noticed you’re trans/genderqueer/whatever”. Just keep in mind that the “what pronouns” question can be as rude as any other if you’re not careful with it.
    It can take a little thought, but nobody tends to be offended if you just avoid pronouns if you don’t know what a person prefers. It really is not too hard to do with practice.
    Finally, if you notice someone is trans, but it’s clear what gender they are presenting as, you are generally safest from offending by using pronouns that match their presentation.

  26. sixolet
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    I usually say something like “both” or “neither” or “it depends”. I usually feel pretty safe doing that.
    Sometimes I don’t want to take the energy to educate. Sometimes I just want to get on with what I’m doing; get away; be safe. Sometimes I don’t want to have to sit there and explain genderqueerness for the twentieth time that day. So sometimes I’ll give a binary answer. That’s not wrong. It’s not even all that dishonest, if I give the binary answer I feel closest to (oh how transgender and genderqueer identities overlap in myself in fun ways).

  27. eryn
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    This exact topic has been on my mind a lot lately. I work at a gourmet grocery store and twice lately little children have asked me if I am a boy or a girl in front of their parents. And both times the parents just stood there looking at me like “well…what are you going to say?” While I may not be the most feminine girl in town aside from my shortish hair I am also pretty clearly a girl.
    The thing that bothers me the most is not that the children ask because I get that…it’s that the parents don’t say anything. My parents taught me that questions like that to complete strangers are rude. I still believe this to be the case. I would expect that at least one of these parents would apologize for their children being rude.
    I agree that it is a good way to educate children when they ask questions like this. I think that is an important lesson worthy of time and attention. But it a good opportunity for the PARENT not for me the complete stranger.

  28. Unequivocal
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    I understand (and agree with) what you’re getting at here, but I would point out that responding to a question with “why do you ask?” will normally come across as a criticism of the act of asking. I know that what you are striving for here is an opening of dialogue, but my experience with children indicates that this sort of approach is more likely to make them assume that they’ve done something wrong.

  29. hannah
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    It’s less important to me to know, right off the bat, how a person identifies, and much more important to know how to talk to/about them respectfully. I generally ask folks what pronoun they prefer, and then offer up my preferred pronouns. Or, if for some reason I can’t ask someone face-to-face, I’ll scout amongst my group of friends to see if anyone knows. When neither I nor my friends know what pronouns to use for someone (at least, within queer/trans communities or in regards to someone who seems to be transgressing normative gender lines), I avoid pronouns all together, and use the person’s first name or they/them/theirs.

  30. hannah
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    Hey Argolis,
    The phrasing of your question makes me feel a little funky, but I think the overall sentiment of your original post, which seemed to be about the difference between butch woman-identified folks and trans folks, is okay. Folks who have responded to you with frustration are definitely right, you can do a lot of self-educating on trans issues in order to gain a better understanding. But I thought I’d at least put some ideas out there on this forum, in case other people have similar questions to yours.
    Before I jump in to what I want to say, I want to acknowledge that this is tricky, because I can only speak from my own position–identifying as genderqueer and as a woman, and not identified as transgender, nor as cisgender, though accepting that I fall in certain contexts under the trans umbrella. I can’t speak to the experience of being trans in terms of wanting to pass, though I definitely recognize that being trans is not identified by passing! All that said:
    The way I think about it is that someone who identifies as butch might identify that way because it makes that person feel good/better/(more) at home in their body/(more) comfortable living in the world. Someone who identifies as transgender might identify that way for the same reasons. A butch-identified woman and a trannyboy might have the same haircut, body type, and clothing style, but that butch woman might feel great using the pronouns she/her/hers and living in the world as a woman, while for that trans man, he doesn’t feel good in the world unless people use the pronouns he/him/his to refer to him and he can use the men’s restroom unquestioned.
    I don’t know how to give you more of an answer than that. I think we all find ways to live in the world that feel good to us, even if people around us don’t understand, even if WE don’t understand. You said in your post that you could understand butch/femme gender presentations. I think the question of “what makes one person trans and another butch?” could be similar to the question of “what makes one person femme and another butch?” — which is, that’s just the way we are, that’s just the way we’ve found to live and feel good. Even if it seems to reinforce binaries on the surface, there are lots of ways to be subversive from within the identities and presentations that feel good to us.
    Just some thoughts, hope that’s helpful.

  31. Lisa Harney
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    Why do you need to understand trans people?
    Also, why do you equate “butch” with “trans man?” You’re not looking at a true spectrum here – you’re looking at a subset of women – butch lesbian women – and a subset of men – trans men – and creating a false equivalency, asking why trans men can’t just be butch cis women. It’s not even true that most or all trans men were butch lesbians before transitioning, and the idea that trans men are pressured into transition is largely a transphobic derailment of trans conversations.
    As for the idea that trans people reify gender, this has been debunked repeatedly.

  32. Lisa Harney
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    I agree with this – the division of biological features into “male” and “female” is largely arbitrary and is only usually accurate, and not something that is applicable to all people. I’ve been finding the definition of “biological sex” vs. “gender” to be increasingly problematic because the point of biological sex is to gender body parts.

  33. Rachel_in_WY
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 1:13 am | Permalink

    I was actually in a similar situation with my stepdaughter about a year ago when she was four. We were at the library on campus and as we waited at the counter for our interlibrary loans, a genderqueer individual walked up, and she said hello to us first. After a pause my stepdaughter asked me if she was a boy or a girl. I responded kind of like the father in Miriam’s story but said “let’s ask what he or she thinks.” So we respectfully asked her if she thinks of herself as a boy or a girl. And she said (as others here have also expressed it) “well, I’m kind of both. I am a girl, but being a girl doesn’t always work for me, so sometimes I act more like a boy. So I’m a little bit girl and a little bit boy.” My stepdaughter didn’t miss a beat and said “it’s like how I’m a girl but sometimes I wear boys panties and shirts because I like Shrek and Thomas.”
    I have to admit I was really happy we had this little encounter, because it kicked off all these conversations about gender with my stepdaughter that would have been hard to introduce without a concrete example. Disembodied gender is still a bit too abstract at the age of 4. On the other hand, I feel wary about using encounters with individuals as “teachable moments” but it’s impossible not to when you’re moving through the world with kids at your side, and I think that always modeling behavior that is respectful of the voice and autonomy of others is the key.
    Incidentally, we ended up meeting up at the coffee shop on a number of occasions (accidentally at first) and having great conversations for several months until she graduated and moved away. So that’s another advantage of taking your kids with you everywhere you go – they often serve as an ice-breaker and conversation-starter so you end up becoming friends with people you might have simply smiled at and passed by.

  34. I am an it
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 1:32 am | Permalink

    “Being called “it” didn’t feel too good…”
    Whilst people are taught that epicene (singular) “they” is incorrect (although it has been used by authors such as Shakespeare and Jane Austen) there are few other options.
    We have moved past the use of “he” as a generic term, and the only other gender neutral (neuter) pronoun in recognised English is “it”.
    Now, as it happens I (someone who is TG, speficially anti-gender) prefer to be referenced by the pronoun “it”, because the word is accurate, but I know that almost all gendered people (be they transsexual or cissexual) dislike it, and I am not entirely sure why.

  35. Laura
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 1:47 am | Permalink

    I think maintaining a safe space for trans people is more important than cis peoples’ right to not think about what they’re saying before they say it.
    Google isn’t hard to use. Whether you intend to or not, you acting like trans and genderqueer people owe you an education because they’re different from you, and that IS hard on a lot of trans and genderqueer people. When you refuse to take responsibility for your own education, questions, and opinions, you force the responsibility for that onto other people and that is kinda hurtful.

  36. Catherine
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 2:28 am | Permalink

    I work a summer camp, and I present myself pretty androgynously, though I identify as female. When I am asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?” I always say, “What do you think?” and almost always get very charming answers.
    Last summer, I worked with three different groups of 7- to 9-year-olds. One was a mixed group of boys and girls, one was almost all boys, and one was all girls. I got the most questions from the mixed group, fewer from the boys, and none whatsoever from the girls. The girls’ camp was a science camp for only girls, and all the counselors and teachers were girls, too, so perhaps for that reason they didn’t have to ask.
    One interesting thing happened in the mixed group, though. There was a child named Lily in a different group who dressed, looked, and acted like a typical 10-year-old boy. Lily’s mother used the pronoun “she” to refer to her child, but the others kids told me that Lily used the boy’s bathroom. I wish I’d gotten to know Lily, but she wasn’t in my group. A couple of the kids decided to come gossip to me about Lily and how they thought it was weird that she used the boy’s bathroom and looked “like a boy.” I don’t remember exactly what I told them, but I think I said that it was rude to talk about people behind their backs and that it was okay for Lily to wear whatever Lily preferred. I wondered how Lily’s group counselor handled it.
    Anyway, I love talking to kids one-on-one about gender. I’ve only had one kid be outright rude to me. All the others seem genuinely curious. One little boy, after I asked him what gender he thought I was, said, “I think you’re a tomboy.” I thought it was cute, because he asked me the binary question (boy or girl) but then went outside the binary in his own little way with his answer.

  37. marissafromboston
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 2:33 am | Permalink

    actually, i totally disagree. this is *not* a feminism 101 site. this is a site for informed, “in the know” feminists who are well educated on a variety of feminist topics.
    i dont mean to sound rude; i am just frustrated with comments like this – it leads to stupid debates like the “why dont we define ‘cis’ everytime we talk about it” one.

  38. NomadSpirit
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 3:14 am | Permalink

    I’m definitely not an expert on this topic, but I think you’re selling yourself short by calling your anti-binary position on biological sex “rather radical” and “difficult to defend.” It seems to me that basic biology–you know, facts–that are available to anyone with an internet connection debunk the idea of a biological sex binary.
    First off, it’s simply false that all people are chromesomely either XX or XY, supposedly the fundamental determiner of male vs. female. There’s plenty of other combinations that empirically exist in sufficent numbers throughout the population: XXY, etc.
    Secondly, even among XX and XY individuals, physical sex characteristics don’t always develop predictably. There’s plenty of intersex people who, at birth, display genital characteristics that are neither male nor female, or are both, or are something in between. Hormonal development at puberty often complicates things further.
    I’m sure you know all this already. . .but to me, these are facts, and if average people can’t accept them that’s their problem. The fact is NOT EVERYONE IS BORN A BIOLOGICAL MALE OR FEMALE. And obviously, in adulthood one can alter aspects of their biological sex, and can also adopt any gender identity they feel like.
    So a simple way to explain all this to a kid might be: “some people are boys, some people are girls, other people are other things. Me, I’m not a boy or a girl.”

  39. dbt
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 3:29 am | Permalink

    As a parent of two children around this age, I’ve seen lots of these conversations with other children and my own about things that get outside overly simplistic worldviews. (My kids tend not to have overly simplistic worlviews… but that’s another story.)
    I’ve found that generally speaking, as long as everybody is respectful, they tend to come out just fine.

  40. Oekedulleke
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 4:24 am | Permalink

    I think its very good of the father to try and get his daughter to ask you herself. I think it shows he doesn’t have any problems with you looking differently from the norm and that he is trying to educate his child to also be respectfull of that.
    If the father (or mother) would have chosen to ignore the question, or do something like “its a girl, now come here and dont ask such questions” it would, imo, show an inability to deal with people who are different and teach the daughter to be weary and divisive towards ‘others’.
    props to the dad imo.

  41. Jennifer
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    This comment has been deleted because it violated our comment policy.

  42. Selidor
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    I’m gender neutral, but I personally dislike it because ‘it’ is normally used for objects, and I feel like it detracts from the fact that I’m a human being.
    I know some people use it as their pronoun of choice, and that’s fine, but it carries too much of a negative association for me to want to use it.

  43. reyl
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Explaining trans identities to six-year-olds is actually much easier than explaining them to adults who have years of internalized transphobia and societal assumptions about gender crammed into their heads.

  44. Rachel_in_WY
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    My view of utopia is a world in which everyone is genderqueer in the sense that they’re free to negotiate their own identity and fall wherever they like on the gender spectrum. Which, of course would make the gender continuum obsolete. Unfortunately, I think Butler is right that it’s heteronormativity that prevents this. Since gender is supposed to serve as this outward expression of what you’ve got in your pants (to put it rather crudely), people get pretty hysterical over the thought of a genderless world because then they couldn’t know whom it would be appropriate for them to fuck just by looking at them. Oh the horror (clutches pearls)!

  45. Anacas
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Ideally, if truly wholesome parenting is what you have in mind your child will already have encountered the idea of genderqueer people who aren’t men or women, boys or girls before they see someone on the street with an ambiguous gender presentation.
    You don’t need to wait to tell your child about people like us until they’re confused on the street. When put on the spot like the father in Miriam’s story was, I think telling the child to ask the person is a fairly ideal response, and if there’s no opportunity to ask talking about how you can’t know how someone prefers to be addressed without asking–a good way to emphasize the importance of respect in general. But since you’re thinking about these issues before becoming a parent, why not incorporate the existence of genderqueer and other trans people into your child’s experience of the world early on?

  46. Anacas
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Argh, I meant this as a reply to someone upthread who wondered how to handle that situation if it came up with their future children. But it’s generally applicable too–parents who care about raising respectful children who are aware of diversity should expose their kids to these concepts early on.

  47. ferocita72
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    While there are many problems with Argolis’ post that have been enumerated by other posters, I think that the desire to “understand” comes generally from a positive place.
    I think that in this case, “understand” is sort of a shorthand for “not fear or have prejudice against” rather than “reduce to my ideology or world view”.
    Althought stated clumsily, it seems that Argolis realizes that by not “understanding” what genderqueer is (i.e. having the terminology or framework to interpret what genderqueer means to people who identify as such)he/she/ze might have unfounded fears or ideas about them.
    Overall, I think that the response on this board has been quite appropriate in pointing out the problem with the language, while also working to address Argolis’ point.

  48. Zyfron
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Well, weighing in on this as a trans woman myself …
    I would first like to say that I’ve answered this same question many times before, that it does get tiresome – I’m not trying to criticize the question you asked since I understand the topic is new to you, but please forgive me if my response comes off as frustrated, and please try to understand where I’m coming from as well. And I apologize in advance for this being somewhat long and ranty, but like I said it gets frustrating after a while.
    You wonder, why can’t women just wear “boy clothes” and keep their wallet in their back pocket and so on and so forth and still be a woman. Well, that’s easy. They can! Now let me ask you something different though, why can’t you (you specifically) wear dresses and makeup and act in a feminine manner, keep long hair and still be a man?
    Does that seem like an odd question to you? You’ve already said that you’re a woman so it must seem pretty odd for me to ask you why you can’t “still be a man” based on habits or clothing that line up with that. In fact, if people were to suddenly start treating you as a man, even if it was as a man who happened to like all those feminine things, it would seem pretty odd to you.
    Well, that’s sort of what it is to be trans. I like computers and technology, and baggy clothes and video games and math. And, as you accurately pointed out, that doesn’t make me a man or even push me any closer to being one.
    What makes me trans is NOT that I’m different from “other boys” in that I like very feminine things, it’s that I’m different from other women in that I am treated as a man by default (and of course, there’s all the trans-hate discrimination and such, but I suppose we don’t need to get into that here). The difference between us isn’t that I can’t accept my gender or am uncomfortable with it. It’s that when I tell people what my gender is, I am not believed, and am often ridiculed. A woman in pants is not less of a woman. A woman with short hair is not less of a woman. A woman with a penis is not less of a woman. When you get out of old ways of thinking, it isn’t that difficult to see.
    To think about this issue in a constructive way requires a new paradigm, it’s not as simple as assigning a set of behaviors, clothing, body parts or professions to “each” gender and then asking everyone to stick with it. It’s also not as simple as assuming birth certificates are always correct. If your parents declared at birth that you were a believing, practicing Christian – that wouldn’t make it true. If you converted to some other religion, or became an atheist, or whatever – someone might ask “Why can’t you have short hair and still be a christian?” And of course you can. But regardless of your hair or your clothes, if you aren’t a christian then you aren’t, and if you aren’t a man or a woman, then you aren’t, and to expect everyone to simply stay within their prescribed category while modifying behaviors without fundamentally altering our ideas about their identity, this is not only wrong, it is working under an entirely incorrect paradigm, coming at the issue from entirely the wrong direction.
    Hope that helps.

  49. Zyfron
    Posted May 19, 2009 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Just an aside – even if everyone was free to explore their own identities (which of course, everyone should!) I don’t think it would make gender obsolete. I identify as a woman, and even if there was no discrimination against women or transsexuals, or even pressure to fall nicely onto “one side” or the other, I would still be a woman.

  50. Picaflor
    Posted May 20, 2009 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    It seems like biology has a bad reputation here, and it’s unfortunate. I was always taught that sex has three aspects – genotype (XX, XY, XXX, XXY, etc.), phenotype (primary and secondary sex characteristics), and gender (the spectrum from “feminine” to “masculine” as defined by a culture). My profs always stressed that genotype and phenotype don’t necessarily match up, and that gender is socially constructed but may be influenced by genetics (eg. high testosterone levels are generally associated with more aggressive behavior, which some cultures would consider “masculine” behavior).
    Basically, I’ve never heard a (modern) biologist use the term “biological sex” in the sense of the XX/XY binary. It seems like non-biologists like to construct straw man arguments using this term to belittle the field of biology.
    Sorry if I’m derailing…

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