Talking to kids about gender identity
This interview is from A Kids Book About: The Podcast, with host Matthew Winner and author of A Kids Book About Gender, Dale Mueller. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
What is gender?
Gender is just an idea. And so it resonates with different folks in different ways.
I love talking about gender, and it’s something I think about A LOT. It’s something that I think we all should get to talk about, because, like Dale mentioned earlier, it means something different to everyone.
Gender can mean different things to different people because essentially, it's a concept that we, as humans, made up as a way to sort of like socially categorize ourselves and other people. It's something that I think a lot of folks grow up feeling as this very fixed, defined role. And then as you learn about history and you learn about other cultures, you realize like, oh, we just made this up, and people buy into it and people relate to it differently and people put different levels of importance on [it]. But it's really just an idea.
You might have heard Dale describe themself as nonbinary and trans. Those are both terms I describe myself as also. But maybe they’re words that are new to you.
When a baby is born in a hospital, a doctor assigns them a sex based on parts of their body. In the U.S. they would be assigned “male” or “female” or “intersex.” Usually then the baby’s grownups and family will assign them a gender like “girl” or “boy” based on the baby’s sex, and often have expectations for how the baby should dress or behave as they grow to match that gender. These are called gender roles.
Being trans or transgender means you don’t identify with the gender you were assigned at birth. And being cisgender means that you do identify with the gender you were assigned at birth.
A binary means you’re given just two options, like “hot” and “cold,” or “up” and “down,” or “girl” and “boy.” So someone who is nonbinary has a gender that is outside of the gender binary of “girl” or “boy.”
Gender means something different to each person, and someone’s gender identity can change. But how do we know our own gender identities?
It's really about what feels right to you. What do different identifying words mean to you? Does male feel right? Does nonbinary feel right? Does no word feel right?
And you're like, gender's an idea that doesn't resonate with me and like, that's fine too, you know? So I think that ultimately it's most important to find a gender identity or ways you identify around the idea of gender that feel comfortable to you. Know that those things might change.
Between how we think about our bodies, how others see us, how we act, and how every culture has different gender expectations, there are as many experiences of gender as there are people. Some people’s experience of gender is that they don’t have any gender at all. Folks with this experience often use the word agender to identify themselves.
As we think about our own experiences of gender, we get to discover what gender expression is right for ourselves.
I think a lot of cis-gendered folks probably think about gender identity issues more than they realize.
Everybody has something that is a part of their cultural definition of a gender or gender identity that they hold or that's projected onto them; that doesn't quite align with them. Finding how you express your gender identity is something that we all participate in, or deciding that you don't want to express a certain element of gender identity and that doesn't resonate with you.
That's also something I think everyone, to an extent, does whether they're conscious of it or not. So exploring gender identity is about [asking yourself], how do you want to participate in gender expression or not [participate] in gender expression, and that's what you show the world. You know, how you dress, what you do, how you talk. But also we all have to sort of grapple with like, well, “what do I know about this gender identity that people are perceiving me as, or people are projecting onto me or that I identify with? What are the assumptions that people make and does that align with me or not? Do I want that to be part of how I identify?”
Exploring gender often means trying out new ways to express gender that feels true to ourselves or brings us joy. That can look like so many things, like trying on new styles or ways of walking.
I think a lot of folks' first thought is around clothing or styling your physical appearance.
And I think there's a lot of ways to play with that. And that can be really fun. That can also be pretty scary ‘cause you can do things on your own in private that feel a little bit safe and do whatever you want in your own space. I think that's the best place to start.
So we're all sort of exploring our gender kind of constantly because we're all coming up against the stereotypes of what different gender identity labels mean, and that's never gonna align a hundred percent with a whole complicated person.
There's a lot of ways. Sometimes it's just thoughts in your head. Sometimes it's actions and how you present yourself.
For Dale, gender expression and their gender identity are things that have changed throughout their life.
Growing up, I self-identified as a girl. I was assigned female at birth. I feel very lucky in that I think that my immediate biological family wasn't super preoccupied with gender roles. Like, you have to act this way because you are this gender. That idea wasn't something that I was really forced into based on the family I grew up in.
And so it was helpful to me in this way, because I didn't feel really trapped in what it meant to be quote unquote, female.
And then as I grew up and interacted with the world at large, it was sort of this realization of, Oh, like all of these ways that I see myself and being called a girl growing up, didn't really bother me. It's starting to bother me because that doesn't feel true. That doesn't feel right. The way people perceive me based on my body doesn't feel accurate.
Gender expression can be a way to show and share your experience of gender with everyone around you as well as a way to affirm your gender for yourself. Which means, it can be different for everyone, but Dale shares ways they like to express their gender identity.
I changed my hair a lot. I cut my hair a lot. I color it. This is something that for me, feels like a very androgynous move, but I will own that not everyone would perceive it that way.
Androgynous means that something is a mix of masculine and feminine.
I don't have eyebrows. That's intentional. I remove them on the regular. I also have long fingernails that I'm pretty meticulous about keeping long and keeping painted, and they're like pointy and that's important to me. And so there's those things.
I also wear a binder. So that's a garment that compresses my chest. So I have a flatter looking chest, which a lot of folks do. And, so those are different things that I do that feel like gender expression to me in a more physical sense.
And I think that there's also things that I sort of have this slow cycle of realizations that I do, like, “oh, I didn't realize that's why I do that.” So anything from the way I sit to the way that I walk to—how am I trying to sound when I answer the phone on different calls—you know? In certain situations, especially if I don't know the person that I'm interacting with, I'll think about: how does my voice sound? Can I hold it in a lower register for longer? There's more sort of physical embodiment things that are part of my gender expression, whether they're conscious or not.
For many people, when they’re able to express their gender authentically, it can be significant. It may feel a little scary. And hopefully it feels freeing.
It feels very validating. I think that it does feel vulnerable sometimes. So when I'm in a space with my friends, with other trans and non-binary folks or queer community folks, it feels very validating to be able to be myself and feel seen at the same time of knowing that they aren't looking at me and seeing something different than how I see myself—they're seeing me express myself authentically.
I've met other folks who are questioning their gender or have less normative forms of gender expression, feel safe and feel like they get to do the same thing.
So even when it feels scary, it also feels rewarding and worth it. It's really nice to be able to say, here's who I am, these are my pronouns. I'm gonna take up a little bit more space. So I will say that it's a huge relief as far as coming out and presenting the way that I present now. I feel much less self-conscious than I used to, and I feel much more accepting of myself.
When we’re able to live authentically in our experience and expression of gender, we often get to build community and relationships in which we’re loved and accepted exactly for who we are.
I don't know, honestly, I don't know where I'd be if I didn't have the community that I have right now.
So it's really important to me. And because I think seeing people live authentically, whether that has to do with their gender or their profession or whatever it is, it opens up the possibilities of what you can see for yourself. So when you see people like living in alignment with who they are, it's really inspiring.
I have been very lucky in finding a community as an adult that allows me to express myself and accepts me, but also really allows me to experiment. I know a lot of trans and non-binary folks might do a slow transition when it comes to pronouns or trying out different names and having support around that has been really great.
It's finding people who accept your journey, [and are] more excited for you to grow and change.
Just having one person in your life where you feel comfortable talking about that, and they're willing to kind of accept you through that can be the difference between being able to like, feel comfortable living authentically or not.
And so community is really important and one of the most beautiful things about the queer community and the trans community is I feel like no matter what, we can relate on a certain level.
So like, we will help each other out. You know, even if I don't know a person, even if I don't like a person, if I can relate to what they're going through and give them support. I'm going to do it.
Maybe while listening to this episode, you’ve started thinking about your experience with gender. Or maybe it’s something you’ve thought about for a while. So before we go, I want to leave you with one last bit of wisdom from Dale.
That's really normal. Like it's really normal to feel like, “Hey, this expectation that's been put on me, doesn't it doesn't really fit. It doesn't feel like it fits.” There's a lot of different sides to people. And also people are constantly changing and whether those are little changes or big changes, or those changes take 10, 20 years, everybody is reacting and growing and changing all the time.
And so, feeling that way is very normal. And I think that, if you are questioning your gender identity or questioning the idea of gender, that is an okay thing to do. I think that it's really also important to know that there is always somebody else out there that is having those same thoughts or those same struggles or those same experiences.
And maybe it looks a little bit different in somebody else's life, but like someone is always going to be able to relate to that process. And I would just say to like, take your time with it, do what feels good and feels right.
And so just remember that even if a lot of people perceive or a lot of people kind of say that there's a lot of structure and rules to how this works, like that's all made up.
It's not that it's not important, but it's not based in any capital T truth. And so it's really about finding what resonates for you. What makes you feel like you're living authentically and how you want to be treated by the people around you?
I think that sometimes that means talking to friends or a family member or, sometimes that means talking to a therapist or a counselor. You know, there's a lot of people who can be receptive and answer questions and talk about their experience. But I think that it's—I want to encourage people that it's okay to take your time.
It's okay to like, not know everything in a definitive way. Because it's about finding a self definition.
Each week on A Kids Book About: The Podcast, we talk about the big things going on in your world with a different author from our A Kids Book About series. This week we spoke with Dale Mueller, the author of A Kids Book About Gender.