A Quiet Revolution
By: Erica Lee
“Good morning, boys and girls!” says the teacher.
Their students look back at her, a sea of kindergarteners ready to be hooked on phonics. But that’s not all these kids are learning today.
In five words, our teacher strengthens the idea of the gender binary. These four-year-olds hear yet another adult say that the only “valid” genders are male and female, and that these are separate and opposite things.
Of course, our teacher hasn’t said that out loud. Maybe she’s even a feminist, and would never say that there are only two genders. But language is important. From the minute we’re born, we’re taught that there are only two “appropriate” genders: a nurse reverently swaddles a newborn in soft pink or blue blankets to warm them for the trip home. Their mother slips on a color-coded cap to protect her baby’s downy head. And when they go home, their parents tuck them into matching cribs with matching sheets in matching nurseries.
Babies don’t understand what all this color means. How could they? They won’t even have good color vision until they’re five months old, let alone understand which color “matches their gender.” But these babies grow up and see artifacts of their birth—see the blue wallpaper and blue teddy bear and blue mobile hanging from the ceiling, see themselves small and wrinkled and alien wrapped in a blue (or pink) blanket—and they’ll think, this is who I am. This is my truth. That these pictures, these gendered blankets too shrunk to reach their feet, are more representative of who they are than what they know in their hearts.
The next push will be small: fairy wings are “for girls only, son.” A girl who loves bugs picks up a book that says “THE BIG BOOK OF BUGS…FOR BOYS!” and learns that bugs, and learning about something you love, by extension, is “FOR BOYS!”
According to child development research, children can usually label themselves and others by gender when they are two-and-a-half years old. However, they don’t believe gender is permanent. As these children are thinking about others’ gender, they begin thinking about their own. In this developmental stage, they believe that putting on a clown costume changes a person into a clown. They also believe that gender can change as easily as changing from overalls into a dress.
We might want to take a lesson from these two-year-olds, as gender can be as fluid as changing day-to-day based on that person’s desires.
Two very important things that affect children’s concept of gender are happening at this age. They begin categorizing themselves in self-conceptions. If you’ve ever known a two-year-old, you know these: “I am a good jumper!” “I am tall!” “I am a good builder!” Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist, says that children at this stage are battling Initiative vs. Guilt. Simply put, children want to do things for themselves, and they want to be very good at these things. In this stage, they look more toward their parents than their peers for social cues, and if much of what their parents say is rooted in the gender binary, then their children will internalize every word.
This is the backbone of one theory detailing why many three-year-old children become almost comically gender-typed. They choose gender-specific playmates, toys, and even play styles because Mom told me I was a girl, so I am going to be the best girl ever.
Children reach gender constancy around age six or seven. Gender constancy is “the concept that gender is permanent and immutable,” according to Dr. Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist specializing in growth and development. By then, children have absorbed six or seven years of messages about the appropriate genders and how to act for each of them. Possibly the most telling evidence of a gender binary is the fact that trans children, about 2-5 percent of the population, are diagnosed with gender identity disorders during childhood.
These strict roles follow a child throughout their life, pigeonholing them further as they grow older. Girls can’t be “too smart” or “too strong.” A recent study conducted by the University of Warwick’s Centre for the Study of Women and Gender led by Dr. Maria do Mar Periera found that every 14-year-old girl in the study was dieting in some form. Their male peers tried to show their manliness with “low-level violence” like slapping and hitting each other, which often rationalized as “boys just being boys.” Adolescence is an even more dangerous time for trans teens, who have to fight the hormonal stress of this developmental stage as well as the seeds of mistruth that adults have planted their entire lives: “but you’re my son, not my daughter,” “God doesn’t make mistakes” or “I’ll always think of you as my son.” These mistruths are toxic and sometimes fatal. And until we create a society that dismantles the gender binary and accepts humans as they are, people will suffer for just wanting to exist.
It is unacceptable to tell a child that their gender, their identity, and their truth is not valid. The amount of human suffering caused by the gender binary is incalculable, and its sources are often hard to discern. We must support every person the gender binary wants to reel back in line, because this binary would rather an atypical child suffer than continue to deviate from its norms.
There’s no evil gender binary wizard sitting in a mountain cackling maniacally and painting toys blue and pink. The people who keep the binary alive and kicking are you and me. Fold this part of intersectionality into your idea of feminism. Protect those who do not identify as cisgender. Support those who push the boundaries of gender roles and choose non-gendered professions.
Just as the gender binary still exists because of small words and small interactions, we can begin to create a more inclusive world with these words: they and their.
“What a pretty dog! What’s their name?”
“Dr. K? I just signed up, and I’m super excited about their class.”
“Wait! Can you stop them —in the grey sweater? They left their hat!”
Instead of choosing one of two genders, choose one of many. In doing so, we move that much closer to a day when gender sensitivity is built into all of our institutions. No matter how many laws we create for equality, nothing fundamental will change until we recognize our insensitivity in everyday life. A generation free from the chains of the gender binary will begin quietly.
It will begin at the dinner table, in grocery stores and at bus stops. It will begin in schools. It will begin with our children.
Our teacher will look out over their classroom and say, “Good morning, class. I’m glad you’re here with me today.”