Becoming Who We Are: On Staying Multi-Faceted in a Binary World

Becoming Who We Are: On Staying Multi-Faceted in a Binary World

It’s 2021 and the times, they are a-changing. Same sex marriage is legal. Violence against a person because of their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression (SOGIE) is now a hate crime. And an acknowledgement that there is more to gender than the binary has been monumental. In California, non-binary is now a legal distinction on government forms. Gender is a complicated construct, and we are only now beginning to talk about gender in a more expansive way that takes into consideration gender attribution, expression and identity.  The recognition that gender is subject to more than physical attributes defined at birth should be celebrated.

Gender can be defined as:  Gender refers to the different ways in which sexual differences between people appear differently in different times and places, societies, cultures and across people's lifetimes. ... Gender refers to both gendering processes in society and outcomes of those processes.
Non-binary can be defined as:  Identifying as either having a gender that is in-between or beyond the two categories ‘man’ and ‘woman, as fluctuating between ‘man’ and woman’, or as having no gender, either permanently or some of the time.

I was born in 1967, and the world was completely binary. Period. If you didn’t identify with the sex you were assigned at birth, then it was assumed that something was wrong with you. The term androgynous was common, but still very limiting and frequently used to describe those with outward physical attributes that are both male and female. There was no gender equity, not even gender equality. For those who struggled with their gender identity or expression, they often had to hide their truth or face ridicule and violence.

I grew up a normal kid in suburbia, to middle class parents in a community predominantly made up of people who were light skinned like me. I played with other kids - gender didn’t matter. At an early age, however, I began to find myself drawn physically to more than one gender. I also struggled with masculinity and femininity and had days where I’d wear frilly dresses then other days where I’d dress like - and want to be - a guy. Had I been made aware of the term then, I would have almost certainly identified as nonbinary or gender fluid. My pronouns would likely have been ‘they, them, theirs’ instead of ‘she, her, hers.’  

The option simply did not exist. You were male or female and that was it. I graduated high school in 1985. There were movements and artists who were trying to normalize their nonbinary experience like David Bowie, Prince and Madonna. But there was also a lot of fear and anger. So many of my friends and loved ones were beaten, murdered and belittled just for being who they were. I remember the searing anger and resulting pain that I felt when my High School informed me that I would not be able to purchase prom tickets unless I could produce a male date. It was hard enough to be out in those days without that kind of cruelty.  

I recall friends skipping school, changing schools, having to leave the sports they loved - all because of misconceptions and biases about what it means to be ‘different.’ It is truly refreshing to see the rich language now associated with how gender and sexuality is identified and expressed, but even now, I struggle. I don’t want to offend anyone by referring to them by a gender that they may not identify with. The nature of my upbringing has my brain stuck on binary repeat when it comes to such things. Even when I am being mindful I still find challenges. I was in Starbucks recently and had a mild anxiety attack because I couldn’t come up with a gender-neutral term of respect such as “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am.”  So now, as I grapple with my history and see so many young people living their truth, my concern goes to what we’re doing in the home and classroom in order to support those children who don’t feel comfortable in their own bodies.  

How can we support healthy gender identity development knowing what we know now? We’ve moved away from the pink and blue, from boys can’t play with dolls to girls playing with trucks. But we’re a long way from helping children to become who they really are. We still say, ‘boys and girls’ and we still have different behavior expectations based on gender. We wouldn’t force a child to write left-handed if that wasn’t natural for him, but we’ll happily enforce these gender norms we’ve grown used to.  

Gender norms are a societal construct and should be viewed through that lens. So, what can we do? I have a few suggestions:

  1. Support the social and emotional competence of children by expressing to them that they are perfect just as they are. Providing respect and affirmation can improve the mental health of gender expansive children.
  2. Change the way that we talk about gender. We can be open about how our understanding of gender is evolving. We can use terms that are not gender specific. We can keep any gender biases to ourselves and avoid perpetuating stereotypes.
  3. We can pay attention to gender expansive children’s literature that includes meaningful portrayals of characters who transcend the binary.
  4. Most importantly, we can nonjudgmentally listen to the children and provide our support by letting them know that they are being taken seriously and that we will strive to make our community welcoming for all genders.

By Lola Cornish, CAAEYC Equity and Inclusion Committee Member

Supporting Gender Diversity in Early Childhood Classrooms:  A practical guide by by Nicholson, Steele, Maurer, Hennock, Julian, Unger, Flynn, Pastel. Published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers (October 21, 2019)

10 Things We Can Do to Support Our Children Who Are Questioning Their Gender, by Dr. SHane Hill.

Qualities to Look for in Gender Expansive Children’s Literature, Changing How We Talk About Gender, and Early Childhood Gender 101, from

Suggested Book List:
It Feels Good to Be Yourself:  A Book about Gender Identity, by Theresa Thorn
Who are You?  A Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity, by Brook Pessin-Whedbee
Jack (Not Jackie), by Erica Silverman
One of A Kind. Like Me.  by Laurin Mayena