The Binary Blues

binary bluesThe binary is a big fat bully.

Seriously, what a meany!

It’s like a drill sergeant at boot camp, spitting out orders as it forces us to line up in tidy military-style formation: “Two lines only! Girls on the left! Boys on the right!”

Pick your line, the Binary Bully orders us, conform to its narrowly defined parameters regarding appearance and behavior, and then stay in that line – FOREVER! And don’t even think about standing anywhere in between these two lines, soldier.

My child is fully on board with the binary.  Like most five year olds, she’s a binary devotee and enforcer: “Boys wear pants and dark, boring colors, and they like superheroes.  And I am NOT a boy.”

I’ve tried hard to present her with a middle ground, to blur the rigid, either/or lines that dominate in early childhood. I’ve pushed for ambiguity.

I even came up with what I thought was a pretty clever way to talk about gender as a fluid and varied concoction of masculine and feminine ingredients, like an improvised recipe that each of us uses to bake our own unique gender cake:  a cup of this, a pinch of that. “Today I feel 7 parts girl and 2 parts boy,” I might say. “How about you?”

“I’m a million parts girl and one part boy.”


I wanted her to know that there was more than one way to be a girl or be a boy. I wanted her to know that she could pick and choose from among all the “girl” ingredients and “boy” ingredients and cook up her own special recipe, mix in anything that she wanted, and give her creation whatever name she liked.

There was a time, early on, when she was about three and a half, that she drew some pictures of herself as half girl and half boy: The head had “boy hair” on one side – short and spikey.  The other side had long “girl hair” flowing down to the floor. A few times she pointed to her body and said to me, unprompted, “This half is boy, and this half is girl.”

I was really struggling with the “trans thing” at that time.  When I say “struggling,” I really mean resisting.  I was scared to death of her being trans, so I was fighting it – clinging fairly desperately to any signs that pointed to some other, less frightening outcome: A gay son perhaps, or a gender-creative kid who mixed it up like the one in the half-and-half drawings she made.

Around the same time, we happened upon some new friends who had told the binary to shove it. One of the parents, T., is genderqueer, identifying as neither male nor female. T. uses the pronouns they and them. One of T.’s kids is a young girly-girl, like mine.  The other, at age four, feels as uncomfortable with the binary as T. does.  T.’s daughter was quick to correct me when I used a male pronoun for her younger sibling: “You mean, ‘They want some ice cream,’ not ‘he,’” she said.

From T. and their kids, I learned that for some people it feels just as awful to be placed in either binary box as it does for M. to be put in the boy one.  At the end of the day, no matter who you are, it just feels horrible to not be seen and acknowledged as the person you know yourself to be.

I eventually had to give up my clever little gender-chef game because it started to feel cruel.  M. would roll her eyes, or – worse – just look away from me, the mom who wasn’t getting it.  “Maybe you are part boy, Mama,” she’d say, scanning my poor fashion choices with a mixture of pity and disdain (jeans, black shirt, nothing sparkly – again. Hopeless!), “But I’m all girl.”

I wonder sometimes what M. might do in a world where everyone was more like T. and their family, with a gender system that didn’t mandate such a narrowly defined binary. Would she be OK identifying as “boy” if that category allowed her to also be a princess? Would she still see herself as “half-boy, half-girl” in a world that embraced and provided role models for more complicated gender recipes?

I’ll probably never have answers to these questions. While it’s all well and good to say that the binary is arbitrary, and a big fat bully, and to tell my child she can cook up her own unique identity each day from scratch, that’s not what most of the world subscribes to.  That’s not what she sees every day at preschool, around town, on television. T.’s family is definitely the exception to the rule, and M. knows that.

For now, my child wants her piece of the binary pie.  And it’s a girl piece. But I do wonder if that may change as she gets older.

I am old.  (I’m 41.) I grew up in a world whose only images of trans people were found on shows like Jerry Springer and the only image of a non-binary person was “Pat,” the androgynous character on Saturday Night Live whose gender ambiguity was a source of hilarity and ridicule.  (“What’s that? It’s Pat!”)

I’m not nearly as well-informed as I’d like to be about theories that challenge the binary, but lately I am hearing more and more voices hinting at a shift in the conversation.  Especially among those far younger and hipper than I am, the conversation about gender is not only challenging what it means to be a male or a female, but it’s challenging the notion of the binary itself.  My suspicion (and my hope) is that as my child gets older, she’ll be the beneficiary of this more enlightened and inclusive approach to gender and identity.  In a few short years, she’ll probably consider me to be a complete dinosaur on this issue. (“Seriously, Mom, your thinking is so binary!”)

For now, however, she continues to be a vocal proponent of the binary.  I suspect that this may be partially developmental.  Kids her age (5 ½ ) are still trying to sort the world into meaningful categories, and this can result in some pretty black-and-white thinking: Boys are blue, girls are pink, and there’s really not much room for gray (a horrible color which M. would never wear, by the way).

There’s also the fact that M. has had to fight pretty hard to gain access to the girl side of the binary.  For her first three and a half years, she was stuck in the boy side, and she hated it.  I think she feels a need to be sufficiently feminine in order to keep her spot in the girl club (I wrote about this in my “Tom Boy Trans Girl” post). That probably helps explain why she generally insists on playing exclusively with other girls and on avoiding any toy or article of clothing that might read “boy.”

But there is hope:  The other day, while we were at my parents’ house, Grandma suggested that we invite little Ian over to play. Ian is M.’s age and his family just moved into the neighborhood.  M. was skeptical. A boy?  She shrugged. Not really her thing.

But Ian turned out to be a dreamboat of a kid: Wide-eyed, sensitive, chatty, and – to M.’s delight – pliable.  Ian was ready and willing to take orders from my strong-willed little gal.

My Grandma has a TON of Legos,” M. bragged to Ian.  She rarely plays with Legos, but she knows that Legos are a “boy” thing and I think she was trying to be a good host. M. and Ian disappeared into the play room (yes, awesome Grandma has devoted an entire room in her house to toys for her grandkids). I heard them chatting happily.

Walking by the door, I overheard M. saying, “You can want to be a girl and still play with boy stuff.”


Of course, that’s the kind of thing I say to her all the time, but she’s never agreed with me, let alone expressed a similar opinion. My victory smile faded. Yes, the message had gotten through, but she’s not going to admit this to me. Apparently the kid is still hedging her bets with the mom who used to make her be a boy.


Does she really think I’ll take away her princess clothes and cut off her pretty long hair if she tells me she likes Legos?

Oh, honey, you should know your mom better than that.

5 thoughts on “The Binary Blues

  1. I kind of want to commend you for approaching the topic of the gender binary, tbh. But a lot of research has been done (I can’t be bothered to find sources right now, sorry) that has pretty much proven that the idea that gender is “one or the other” is born of a societal need, and not a biological one. And it’s really only a western society thing, as there are several groups (in the Philippines and elsewhere) that recognize up to 5 different genders, which is brilliant.

  2. You probably will get these answers as she gets older and more comfortable with herself. Dropping the chef game and just relaxing a bit about where she ends up on the spectrum sounds like a good idea. You could keep on showing her diverse examples of how to be without hammering the point quite so explicitly. They say kids learn by example.

  3. I continue to love your posts and identify with you, despite my being a married housewife raising cisgender kids. This whole thing about “boy stuff” and “girl stuff” always confused me. I am ALL woman, and I enjoy sewing, knitting, plumbing, machine repair, learning to play banjo, and my mohawk. I’ve always been of a mind that if it is something I WANT to do, it must be a feminine activity because I am feminine. Also, that all of my feminine interests would be masculine if enjoyed by a man. It wasn’t until my first discussion about gender with a genderqueer friend that I realized other people categorize interests as firmly male or female. It seems a little bit as if they see things in the exact opposite way I do. As in– Me: interests are fluid on the gender scale, I am female. My friend: I am fluid on the gender scale, interests are either male or female with a few possible neutral interests.

    Perhaps at this point I should say that my son and I have sensory processing disorder. Not a big deal, and I was never treated as if I were strange as a child. It’s our normal. However, we don’t experience things the same way “most” people do, someone generally has to point out that what we are doing is not normal for us to realize someone does it a different way, and our home lifestyle is definitely divergent.

    Anyway, in our house there is no activity, color, or interest that is either “male” or “female”. I have a boy very proud of his penis who is interested in Star Wars, all types of weapons, electric guitar, feather boas, anything black and sparkly, and tight jeans. He is 6. I have a girly girl who loves pink, mice, blasters, and insists we call her “Princess Leia” (long story where I tried to take an opportune moment to teach my kids about respecting another’s identity). She is 8. They both like nail polish and play with legos, as my sisters and I did throughout our childhood. I never thought of legos as “boy”!

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