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Parenting Beyond the Binary


Recently I have seen a lot of memes and other social media that is similar to the above posting. They all have examples of parents explaining transgendered folks to children in a somewhat healthy way. Most of the examples are pretty congratulatory about explaining someone who appears to be one gender dressed as another gender as “in the wrong body” and “needs to fix that.”

I understand that the dominant narrative about trans folks is that anyone identified as “trans” is in the “wrong body.” That narrative is limited and insufficient. It is actually an artifact of defining “transgender” in the DSM-IV (now V) in this way so that insurance companies would occasionally pay for gender reassignment surgery. The necessity for American medicine to create a box and explanation that is acceptable to profit-making insurance companies has limited our discussion of gender identity.

The explanation for “a man in a dress” offered on many of the social media posts make the assumption that the person who appears to be cross-dressing is transgender. This is a bad assumption. It also enforces the binary concept of gender.

Assuming someone who appears to be “male” dressing in “female” clothes is based on several assumptions. First, the “man” has culturally defined “masculine” characteristics. Second, it requires thinking about clothing as “male” or “female.” It further requires that the person explaining the situation assumes a lot about the individual’s gender identity when they have never met the person.

It is quite possible for a masculine looking person to actually be biologically female and identify as biologically female. The appearance of Harnaam Kaur, a woman with a beard, on the runways during Paris Fashion Week this year rocked the media. Here was a woman with traditionally masculine characteristics ruling the most powerful fashion runways of the world. Trying to explain to a child who sees her in a dress as a “person in the wrong body” is not only incorrect, it reifies the idea that there are “men” and “women” and each look a specific way.


Haraam Kaur (pictured above)

Some individuals choose to dress in a way not seen as “gender appropriate” not because they are transgendered, but because they simply prefer that look. In college and grad school, I commonly wore men’s jeans, a man’s shirt and boots or Doc Martin’s because that is the look I liked. It has nothing to do with “being born in the wrong body” or my gender identity. I just preferred those clothes some days. At the time, my breasts were much smaller and I had short hair. It would be easy enough for someone to assume I was trans, but would be incorrect.

The explanations that suggest anyone in non-traditional gender attire are trans also reinforces the ideas that there are only two genders – Male and Female. The explanations assume that to “be in the right body” someone has to be either male or female. Gender is so much more than two. We know there are people who are gender fluid, agendered, transgendered, genderfucked and more. Many of us are okay with our biological bodies but don’t fit in to the current cultural constructs of “male” and “female.”

We need to push parents beyond the binary medically acceptable explanation of non-traditional gender representations if we are ever going to move beyond the binary. Here are some options to the above scenario:

6 yr old: Mom, why is that man in a dress?

Mom: Sweetie, clothes don’t have to be specifically for boys or girls. People can where what they want, and that’s ok. If you want to talk to that person, you might want to ask if they want to be called Sir or Miss or something else.

– Or –

6 yr old: Mom, why is that man in a dress?

Mom: That person may not be a man. We don’t know. It doesn’t matter if they are a boy or a girl. Sometimes people don’t always look the way you think they will. Do you think that person looks good in the dress?

– Or –

6 yr old: Mom, why is that man in a dress?

Mom: I actually don’t know if that is a man or a woman. It doesn’t really matter. They are being who they want to be. If you want to say, “hi” please ask them how they want to be addressed.

We need to move the next generation beyond the binary if we are going to create an inclusive society. This means we have to move beyond the binary. I am glad people are posting examples where parents are not outright hostile to trans folks. However, we need to push beyond that if we are going to raise the next generation to be better than we are.

It’s that simple. Next excuse…

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