“You had a baby boy!” were some of the first words I heard after the birth of my child. But, within Danny’s first few years, I began to wonder. They loved little ponies, dolls, unicorns, dresses and princesses, and only befriended the girls at preschool.
At first, I worried that something was wrong with Danny and it was my fault. When they told me they wanted to be a princess for Halloween, I tried to gently dissuade them from it. But they knew exactly what they wanted, and I relented. I worried about their future and cringed when I saw reactions from other adults. At that initial stage of parenting a nonbinary child, although I loved Danny with all my heart, I failed to give them the wholehearted affirmation they needed.
Over time, I realized that it wasn’t Danny that needed to change. Their way of being was a gift that helped me look inward and challenge my own ideas: Why did I worry that behaviors considered normal and healthy for a girl might be wrong for my child? Why did it scare me to think that my child might be gay or transgender?
I didn’t realize it, but like many people who grew up in this colonized world, I was trained in either/or thinking. When it came to gender, I took it for granted that humans were one of two genders, without questioning our method for assigning gender based on genitalia.
During my childhood, nobody spoke to me about gender roles. Rather, I absorbed this information through the world around me. The books I read or the TV shows and movies I watched all presented a heterosexual and binary world; transgender, nonbinary and queer people did not exist in the media I consumed.
I saw rewards and punishments being doled out to people based on how well they played the assumed roles of their assigned genders. I internalized that girls were rewarded for being pretty and well-behaved, which would lead to the ultimate reward of marrying a charming prince. Boys were rewarded for being tough and strong and one of the worst put-downs for a boy was to be called a girl.
Even with my child, I didn’t learn about the gender binary until Danny was in their teens. After they came out, I got involved in organizing and supporting families with LGBTQ+ children in Latine and Asian communities. From queer and trans activists, I learned that the gender binary imposes rules and expectations on us throughout our lives. These include how to dress, look, behave, move, speak and identify, who to love and which bathroom or locker room to use. People who live by the rules are privileged in their ability to do so. Those who don’t are marginalized and punished. I was the mother of a child who couldn’t live by those rules and be themself.
I also learned that the either/or way of looking at gender is anything but natural and that gender diversity has existed within many cultures throughout history. For centuries, the gender binary system has been forced on Indigenous cultures and used to treat Black people, Indigenous people and people of color as less than human because of their divergence from it. The gender binary impacts many aspects of how our lives and institutions are organized and reinforces hierarchies of racial oppression and privilege.
Unlearning the gender binary helped me wholeheartedly embrace and celebrate my queer, nonbinary child for who they are. Now, nothing brings me more joy than seeing Danny live their truth loudly and proudly. Unlearning systemic gender directives has also given me more freedom to be myself: I’m more at peace with who I am, less fearful of others’ judgment and more able to speak and live my own truth.
I have come to believe that freeing ourselves from binary thinking around gender can significantly reduce the pain we inflict on ourselves and others. If binary ideas about masculinity and femininity weren’t used to measure our worth, we would all have more freedom to discover ourselves. We wouldn’t be compelled to assign gender to our children even before they are born. Trans and nonbinary children wouldn’t have to fight against these assignments just to be who they are. Trans people wouldn’t face discrimination in most areas of their lives, or have their lives cut short by violence. Parents wouldn’t be investigated for child abuse for supporting their transgender children. LGBTQ+ books wouldn’t be banned and Drag Story Hours wouldn’t be attacked.
Rather than suppressing the rights of queer, trans and nonbinary folks, we should support their leadership and liberation. If we can move beyond the gender binary as we work for social justice, we can all live more authentic and joyful lives. Imagine a world with no pressure to live up to gender rules. Imagine families, schools and communities where we grow up feeling safe, loved and affirmed for who we are. This is a world I want to live in.