How old is gender?

When did you first know what gender you were?  Chances are, by age four or five, you were firmly and comfortably established, for life, as a boy or girl.  I know I was.  But it’s not like that for everyone.

My recent post on the Bitch magazine blog got a fair number of responses, among them several questioning whether five years old was too young to be talking about gender, let alone to be “allowing” my “male” child to live as a girl.  I hear this kind of thing a lot.

I, too, probably would have raised similar questions until my child appeared on the scene and began, as children are so apt to do, to teach me all sorts of things I didn’t know I didn’t know.

According to my child’s preschool teacher, four-year-old children are pretty preoccupied with gender.  This is when they’re trying to sort the world out into the categories that we adults are so famously obsessed with.  This is when girls become enamored with pink, and when boy decide that it’s all about the trucks and Legos.

Unlike sexual orientation, which does generally develop later, children at age four and five are aligning and identifying with the gender that they will likely carry with them through the rest of their lives.

But, my dear reader, you already know that.  You already know that we don’t keep kids in a gender-neutral limbo until adolescence.  You know that the parents have already selected the color of the baby shower invitations, decided on a name, and dreamed a thousand gendered dreams for their child based on whether those ultrasound pictures showed what my young nephew Adam calls a “ninky.”

I did this, too.  And for this I have to pause for a moment and just say, to my child:  I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry that, before you even breathed on your own, I loaded you up with a big steaming pile of gendered expectations.  I’m sorry I didn’t realize until recently how silly this was.  I know it could have saved you a lot of angst if I had.  (I’ll pay for the therapy, OK?)

So, here’s the deal: If my five-year-old child had a vagina, would anyone be giving me shit for letting her wear dresses and call herself a girl?  Would anyone be telling me that “five years old is awfully young to be assigning labels, dear.”

Imagine everyone you know taking a “wait and see” attitude about gender among the four- and five-year-olds you know.  Can you imagine that?  Let’s take a second and imagine it together:  You meet little Ella, your co-worker’s daughter, at the company family picnic.  Ella is three or four or five years old.  When sweet little Ella is out of earshot, frolicking with the other kids, you quiz her mother:  “So, are you sure she’s a girl? I mean, can you really know that already?” Ella’s mom would think you were insane.

But this is exactly the question people ask me on a regular basis.

A few months ago, I found myself at the county courthouse, waiting for the judge to finalize my divorce, and hanging out with my attorney, a smart and ambitious lad in his early thirties.  I told him about my child, and how she had recently transitioned to a female identity, after months and months of agonizing on my part about whether this was the right path to take.

He then told me that his wife was pregnant.  “It’s a boy!” he said as we walked out of the courthouse.

I hesitated.  Should I say this?

“Or so you think,” I said, giving him a playful nudge on the shoulder.  We both laughed.

But I really hope I made him think.

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18 thoughts on “How old is gender?

  1. Brilliant perspective! Thanks for this reframe! You’re such a good writer and thinker and I’m really glad I found your blog tonight.

  2. Hello, I am thrilled to find this blog. I was born in 1969 biologically female, but most definitely feeling like a male with a terrible deformity. And back in those days, the only path for parents was to force gender conformity & insist that feelings of despair and humiliation be swept under the rug. As you can imagine, this was a very devastating life for a transgendered child/person to live. I am so happy that we as humans are beginning to take a different approach with this. I think “stacking the deck in her favor” by surrounding your daughter with love & open-minded people is much better than insisting that she shut up & wear blue & “act” “masculine.” It will not be easy for her or you, especially at certain points in life (puberty!?), but your dedication to loving & understanding your daughter instead of shunning her (as my mother did me) will make the difficult times much more bearable for both of you! I really look forward to seeing the progress we all are making toward understanding the gender spectrum, and how much happier the children who are trapped in the wrong bodies can feel knowing there is hope for them to be who they really are in the world.

  3. I also wonder what would happen if everyone took a wait and see attitude. I’ve been trying to do that with my daughter who is now almost 4: dressing her in mostly neutral clothes with a few girly gifts from grandma mixed in, never mentioning what I call the P word, sometimes reading the three little pigs with all female pronouns, saying that there’s not much difference between boys and girls aside from penises and vaginas when it comes up in conversation, etc. I wonder whether if more people did this, the pink explosion would still happen as early as 4 or 5 (if at all). Probably some kids know earlier than others. Kids that age definitely want to figure out who they are, and to sort themselves into hierarchies like little wolves, but this is one sort of grouping where so very much of the content is force-fed to them, I wonder how much of it would be left. Another piece of the puzzle that rarely gets mentioned is that gender is surely a spectrum just like any other human trait. Lots of people fall somewhere in the middle in terms of gender too, so those ones might not decide which they are until much later (if at all).
    I do sometimes doubt myself and wonder if my kid would be better off if I socialized her in a more “normal” way (assuming she ends up in the 99.7%). But then I remember that she hears enough about it from other people to catch on, if she wants to, and like you say, it really could save a lot of angst if I let her figure it out on her own in her own time, no matter what she decides. Lots of cis women and men feel like they have to contort themselves in order to live up to gendered expectations too. This is not to say we all have it as hard as trans people. Obviously not. Just that there are motivations for everyone, no matter who their kids turn out to be, to dial back the early expectations. I guess some people actually want to force-feed their kids these expectations though, and might take this spectrum idea as all the more reason to dial it up.
    Anyway, thanks for your post.

    • deadpan, you make some really good comments!
      – “Another piece of the puzzle that rarely gets mentioned is that gender is surely a spectrum just like any other human trait.” – I completely agree and am always trying to explain this to people specifically when talking about gender identity and sexual orientation. It makes the world so much easier to understand when we aren’t stuck in black-and-whites

      – “Lots of cis women and men feel like they have to contort themselves in order to live up to gendered expectations too.This is not to say we all have it as hard as trans people. Obviously not.” – This is something huge in my family – my mom, dad, and I, all cis gendered people often go against gender norms and I have always been proud of my family and that we are uniquely ourselves – how wonderful would it be to live in a world where we are free to live as ourselves and not have to conform to ANYTHING except for our own nature and individual destiny….

    • I’m new to this blog (thank you advocate.com!) so I’m going through back-articles.

      This article really resonates – I have always eschewed “girly” things & what society thought I should be. Give me a dirt bike & action figures, or playing tag or building a wood fort – ahhh that was good stuff.
      Now, looking at 40, and knowing a few trans folks – I don’t think I’m trans but I know I still don’t fit ‘neatly’ into the female category. For me, makeup & the manner I dress is more about looking nice w/ the body I have than being “girly” or trying to “attract a man”. I miss my androgynous-looking days.

      I find it interesting that we can put girls into jeans/pants, short hair & play w/ boy-toys, yet our culture looks sideways if our boys and men want to tap into the feminine.

  4. I like your counter-argument. I always turn the question back on the person – how old were you when YOU knew?
    Unfortunately, people get stuck in biological essentialism – your genitals predestine you to a gender identity, as much as they predestine you to certain occupations, color preferences, personality traits, etc… (how sexism still exists in 2013 is beyond me).

    Yet we do change minds, little by little…. My partner’s coworker told her the other day “so, we know the gender of our baby. sorry, the sex. sorry, the genitals. we know the genitals of our baby.” And they want to give the baby a gender neutral name. All this from just being around me for a few months.

  5. This is great ! I am a 57 year old trans man ,,, who started transition at 55 . I knew from my earliest memories I was a guy but I had no support ., instead I was taught it was shameful and wrong . By late teenage hood my mind suppressed my true self and I became the ” good girl ” .
    I won’t go into all the details of the psychological damage it caused me ,,,, but after repeated attempts of suicide at age 53 ,,, ( my true self was fighting to be recognized ) ,, I began to remember my feelings of early life , of being male . With the help of some awesome counselors , I have learned to accept myself . You are an awesome parent , gendermom !

  6. Perfection. I get asked this same question aaaalll the time when I tell people about my trans daughter. She is 5 now. All the other children her age know what gender they are — so why not my child? She’s no different. It’s amazing how deeply children know what gender they are at this age. They cannot be “persuaded” to become something they aren’t, and Lord knows I’ve tried that route. When people ask me if I’m SURE she’s a girl, I tell them to try and persuade their little boys that they are girls. Would any of them buy it? I think not. My daughter knows who she is despite what her genitals might indicate to the rest of the world. Fabulous post — I’m sharing it with all my friends on Facebook because I think it’s something we should ALL be thinking about when we have children. Really, why don’t they touch on this topic in “What to Expect when you’re Expecting” ?!?! lol

  7. I only wish my parents were as amazing as you.

    i’ve begun my transition at the tender age of 41, when i finally told everyone i was a girl, and i’ve always been a girl. as far back as i can recall.

    keep rocking. i’ll keep reading.

  8. Love this post! Excellent job.

    I can’t imagine the fear and heartache it must cause to feel like your body is betraying you by not being the right gender. For a child to stand up for their basic human need to be accepted as the gender they identify as must take a tremendous amount of courage. People are just scared of what they don’t understand. Our world would be a lot better off if people searched for understanding and practiced empathy. It’s sad that society makes the transition harder for transgendered people when I’m sure it’s tough enough as it is.

  9. Great article. Fascinating to read about gender from the perspective of a parent of a transgender child. Definitely food for thought. I think it is great to see children developing and exploring their gender for themselves, not through society’s conformist ideas of what makes a girl a girl or a boy a boy. How many children who questioned their gender when a child might have explored this further if their parent and society hadn’t ‘dictated’ who they should look, act and be if they are a girl or a boy.

  10. thanks for you blog – your daughter is so lucky to have you as a parent. I am already thinking about if/when I eventually have children and how I will raise them in an environment free of gendered expectations and encourage them, above else, to be their true selves. Wishing you and your daughter strength in spirit!

  11. Firstly, I love your blog. I am cis-gender, and (as far as I know) so are my kiddos, but supporting the LGBT community as they work so hard to be treated with equal rights and respect is something that I care about. I think each entry blows me away and amazes me, reminds me of how complicated we are as humans, all other labels cast aside…and I see that your daughter has a great champion in you.
    I do think that it is worth mentioning that scientific studies are finding that the sexual orientation is founded much earlier than we think – some have suggested as early as prenatal or birth, others around the ages of 4 or 5 – it just doesn’t usually manifest until much later (thank goodness for that, yes? lol).

  12. So many people seem to think that young children do NOT know what gender they really are – really??!! They also worry about things like children “going on hormones” at a young age and the irreversible damage that might be caused – especially if these people later “decide” that they “made a mistake.” Young children only get hormone blockers – not hormone treatments. Hormone treatments wouldn’t start until after puberty and after they had no doubt what gender they were. You want the body to develop to a certain point before they actually start hormones. You also have to let the body mature before the person ever has gender reassignment surgery.

    I was born in 1960 and I was first spanked for wearing female clothes when I was four years old. All throughout my childhood I was beaten and/or humiliated for trying to dress or act female — because I was born with a male body. I learned very quickly that I HAD to hide who I was. I also thought I was “sick” and very ashamed of who I was for many years of my life. None of the beatings or humiliation tactics did any good — you ARE who you ARE and that cannot be changed!

    Like most Transsexual people born when I was, I transitioned late in life – at the age of 48. At this point, my transition is complete. Since I was NOT on hormone blockers as a child my body developed with male features. Because of this I had to undergo years of very expensive, painful electrolysis. I have also had facial feminization surgery (FFS) where my entire face was basically removed so the doctor could reshape the bones in my face – bones that had been disfigured by testosterone. This surgery alone took 11-hours and has a very long and painful recovery time and costs tens of thousands of dollars. Children who are lucky enough to have parents understand they are transgender will NOT have to undergo the same torture I went through.

    Keep in mind that until 1995 there WAS no Internet and little or no information available to anyone about Transsexualism. Today, thank God, that is NOT the case today and parents can now understand what is going on with their children who are Transgender. They can also learn what they can do to help those children deal with their lives and what NOT to do… Late transitioners like myself can’t tell you how happy we are to see stories about enlightened parents and YOUNG transitioners like the one above! It is so wonderful to see stories of Transgender children who will NOT have to go through the torturous procedures that we did! We KNOW that “you are who you are” — because we were young once and our feelings NEVER changed!

  13. “When did you first know what gender you were? Chances are, by age four or five, you were firmly and comfortably established, for life, as a boy or girl.”
    I knew I was a girl because that was what everyone told me. It took me 23 years to realise they were wrong. But before I had this epiphany I never outright stated or even thought that I was a boy (I’m more in the non-binary transmasculine space anyway), I just felt something was wrong with me, as that I never found happiness as a girl/woman was somehow my failure, so I just tried and tried, struggling for years.

  14. Well I thought I was a boy and thought so(also thought it was upto me to become one and in my hands too) till I started to physically grow up into a girl. From then on, its like, I gave it all up, all the boy’s games. I guess I might have given up a part of wanting to live life as i wanted to!!

  15. You, dear Gendermom, are changing the world for the better. On hard days, remember this. On easy days, remember this. Love that precious little girl of yours as you are already doing. I raise my glass to you, to your daughter and to all those who stand for human evolution in the positive sense. I hope the road is easy. I hope your paths are well lit. I hope you are met with love, acceptance, kindness and praise. Blessings to you!

  16. I’m a trans guy, I feel most of the problems that trans people face is in lack of acceptance. Just from my observation, people with accepting families, work place situations, and friends do much better. I believe the stats on suicide are not applicable for families like yours. The problem is NOT being trans (mostly– I wouldn’t say it’s convenient!!) but in how society views it. Love your blog and your podcasts, and thanks for putting it all out there.

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