What Are Your Thoughts on Gender?


By Gabrielle. Photos by Jill Peters.

A few months ago, I read an article about the Sworn Virgins of Albania. It’s a fascinating article, and I hope you’ll read it. The summary: in communities organized under the Kanun code of honor, families without sons risked losing land and livelihood. As a workaround, families could assign one of their daughters to live a life of celibacy as a burrnesha, or sworn virgin. “Becoming a burrnesha elevated a woman to the status of a man and granted her all of the rights and privileges of the male population.”

As you can see, these women have lived their adult lives as men. To be clear these are not women who identified as men and had sex changes. No. Not at all. They were born and raised as females, then at some point, they were asked by their family to live their lives as males. And so they did.


This is one of many articles about gender I’ve read lately, but it really stuck with me and I’ve wanted to talk with you about it. I don’t have a specific point about the topic at all. I just want to discuss it with you. Every time I think I’m getting a handle on what gender is and what gender isn’t, I come across another article or essay that expands my brain a bit further and reminds me that I really know nothing at all when it comes to this topic. And I’m wondering what your thoughts are.

Ten years ago, I was having all sorts of conversations about sexual orientation, but gender never really came up. In fact, at that time, if you had asked me the difference between sex and gender, I would have thought the words were the same, totally interchangeable. Five years ago, I would have answered that sex referred to sex organs, and gender referred to being a girl or a boy. If you asked me now? I would say: I’m still learning.

Sometimes I feel like I have a handle on the term sex. I think of it as a medical term. Does a person have sex organs? Yes? What kind? Male organs? Female organs? Both? None? Partial parts of one or the other? Partial parts of both? Does the person have a Y chromosome? Two X chromsomes? Some other variation that I know almost nothing about?

And why specifically would I need to know? Well, I wouldn’t. It’s none of my dang business. As a parent or caregiver, I assume the knowledge would mostly be important to answer related health questions or reproductive questions.

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned as far as the term sex goes, is that I used to assume the options were male and female and that’s it. But for a considerable number of the human population, that is not true. There are more options than simply male and female.

And yet, even with all the variation, I would still argue that between sex and gender, sex is the simpler term.


So let’s talk about the more complicated term: gender. In a recent discussion, a transgender friend said to me, “You are born with your sex. Your gender is assigned to you at birth. Gender is a cultural construct.” When he said that to me, I immediately remembered the Sworn Virgins article and thought, yep, I agree, these women switched to living as men like it was a role in a play. One day they were women, the next day they were men. No medical intervention involved. Their culture just gave them permission to do so, accepted their decision, and treated them accordingly.

The next thing I thought of was the colors pink and blue, our long-time symbols for baby girls and baby boys. But it turns out, the opposite used to be true. Historically, pink was for boys and blue was for girls. And then at some point it switched. And perhaps it will switch again. And again. Culture changes. If we were to take a survey of gender definitions around the world right this minute, it would generate vastly different answers. Something that’s feminine in one culture, can be masculine in another.

But even if I agree and accept the statement,”Gender is a cultural construct”, my mind still gets stuck sorting it all out. I imagine it’s because our culture has put a ton of weight and importance on gender, and certainly it has affected me and everyone else in ways we probably don’t even know yet. The first question we ask of a pregnant woman: Is it a girl or a boy? (I ask it every time. It’s like I can’t help myself.) Before ultra-sounds were invented, it was the first thing said about a new person at their birth. It’s a boy! Or, It’s a girl!

We put a ton of emphasis on gender from the moment a person exists. And for many of us, our own gender is clear. We are comfortable with the gender we were assigned. We never question it. It feels right. And we assume everyone else must feel the same clarity about their assigned gender. Though we’ve learned that’s not the case at all. Not everyone feels comfortable with the gender they are assigned.

It seems to me, that since I easily identify as a women that it would be easy for me to define what it means to be female, what it means to be a woman. But instead, it’s not easy. In fact it’s kind of impossible. Anytime I try to start a statement with “Most women like [blank]”, I can’t fill it in. Most women like nail polish? Nope. Most women like dancing? Nope. Most women like babies? Nope. Most women like pink? Nope. Most women like dresses? Nope. Most women like baking? Nope. Most women like to nurture? Nope.

So is it simply about our sex organs? That doesn’t work either. If a woman has a hysterectomy, we still consider her a woman. Is it a hormone thing? Is it the hormones running through our bodies that make us feel like we’re a specific gender? Maybe. But what about the Burrneshas? Their community considers them male. They live as males. Would we insist that they are female since they don’t have certain amounts of certain hormones?

I also think back to caveman era. Was gender important then? If yes, how would cave people have defined a man or a woman? Certainly, most of our current feminine stereotypes would not apply. No makeup, no curling irons, no fashion. What stereotypes would apply? That cavewomen had babies? Okay. But what about the ones who didn’t have babies, were they still recognized as women? Did it matter?

It’s also clear that our kids are growing up with a different concept of what gender is than the binary I was raised with. From what I’ve observed, for them, gender is more fluid and less important. One of Oscar’s best friends is genderless. Oscar’s whole grade (he’s a 5th grader) knows this and accepts the fact without any worry; it will never be anything but normal to them. Which seems like a step in the right direction. But perhaps the acceptance in our school is an exception.

How about you? What are your thoughts on gender these days? Have you read anything interesting that you learned from? I’d love the link! Do you feel like your views on gender have shifted? Does your gender mean a lot to you personally? Meaning, do you strongly identify as a female or male? Will you be sad if gender lines fade in the future? If you identify as transgender, what do you wish people that are still learning about gender (that’s me!) knew? Also, does anyone disagree with me on the difficultly of defining gender? Maybe you have a definition you find to be spot on? Anything else on your mind gender-wise? I hope you’ll share!

P.S. — About 8 years ago I read the novel Middlesex. It’s excellent. And reading it was the first time I remember seriously considering the experiences of those who aren’t strictly female or male. Have you read it?

108 thoughts on “What Are Your Thoughts on Gender?”

  1. I’m glad that someone who seems much more culturally aware than me still cannot quite grasp this. I get so confused as to even how to think about this topic. I want to respect people’s beliefs, and at the same time, feel that physical differences make a difference. It seems that it easy to judge people who are uninformed when there is very little vocabulary that helps the define the conversation as well. Um, the whole thing puzzles me, I’m glad you are talking about it. And being genderless is very confusing to me. It seems that would be a difficult way to live, in that your existence would end up very much being about gender.

    1. I’m glad you’re thinking about it, Polly! I’m happy to see items posted here and on other outlets that can help educate people who haven’t experienced other individuals who live outside of, or differently from, what many of us have experienced as this country’s “traditional” gender binary. It’s okay to be confused and to really live this question, and I’m glad you feel respect for people who are exploring their own gender identity.

      As far as identifying as “genderless,” it honestly could be that it doesn’t take up much of that child’s inner world. For me, I know I’d be thinking about it constantly, but that’s because I’ve identified as a woman my whole life and I would feel uncomfortable living as genderless. Maybe that child is experiencing the same level of certainty, but about a different identity.

      And perhaps it will raise different challenges throughout that individual’s life, but I don’t think the knowledge that living your truth will be difficult should be a reason not to do it. Otherwise I’d probably still be in a heterosexual relationship and deeply unhappy. Being out as a lesbian has its challenges and hard moments for sure, even in the liberal area in which my wife and I are lucky enough to live, but if it were a choice between happiness and easiness, I’d still pick happiness every time!

      Again, thank you for reading and commenting and keeping an open mind! Discussions and conversations like these are so important.:) I hope you have a great evening!

  2. Thank you so much for bringing up this important topic, Gabrielle! It’s wonderful to get people talking about this, and about how we can better support our friends, neighbors, family members, and children. <3

  3. Excellent and thought provoking.
    These days “anything goes” is the norm. No one should measure their worth by another’s orientation…be it gender, sexual preference, neighborhood, education, race….you get my drift? On the other hand, God made us male and female in order to multiply. That’s basic and essential.

    1. Well, I certainly have experience with multiplying! : )

      But I always worry that when we put such an emphasis on gender=reproduction that it devalues anyone who can’t, or doesn’t want to, reproduce. I’m sure we would both agree that people who aren’t parents are still fully human, still made by God.

      I think too, that as technology changes, and humans have more control of their reproduction, we won’t be able to easily say, God made us male and female in order to multiply. This article came out a year ago and says that same sex couples having biological babies is right around the corner. Maybe we’ll say reproduction used to be the reason?

      1. Excellent response, Gabrielle! I was thinking about this as comment as I was driving home from work yesterday. My wife and I are in the midst of trying to start our family, and while yes, of course, sperm and egg are both integral to this process, it doesn’t necessarily matter how the person they came from identifies, gender-wise. It’s more like, person A has an egg, and person B has some sperm, and together they can become a baby! As hard as it can be to wrap one’s mind around, the gender of the adults involved doesn’t really play a part. Or at least, not the way we thought it used to. At least in our situation :)

        1. Your comments seem to contradict the Mormon church’s teachings and emphasis on male/female marriage. Do you disagree with your church on that topic? If so, I highly respect and applaud you!

  4. Thanks for bringing up this topic, it sure is an important one. Like you I grew up not thinking too much about it – probably because we just naturally felt comfortable within the gender-norms around us. That all changed when I had a child who consistently, from early toddlerhood, challenged those norms and fought against them. That, and all the research I’ve done and people I’ve met since then, has taught me a lot. There’s a great conference held in Berkeley every year called Gender Spectrum. Check it out for a great way to learn more.

    We all fall on the gender spectrum somewhere – most have traditionally felt comfortable at one end or the other, but there have also always been those that are much more comfortable somewhere closer to the middle. It’s nice that it is becoming culturally (and legally) acceptable to show that true self to others, even the young. Oscar’s friend is a great example, but we still have a lot of work ahead of us. Not all schools nor all people or parts of the country are equally accepting. I’ve always liked this simple graphic to illustrate to others who might be newer to the concept of gender: the genderbread person

    It’s important too to remember that a person’s concept of gender, even one’s own gender, can also change over time and be quite fluid. My own child has, at different periods, identified as more masculine or more feminine, or genderless or both, but has never clearly been on one specific end only. For a lot of people it’s just that: impossible to check the box as simply male or female, it’s much more nuanced than that.

  5. I just finished Becoming Nicole, about a family who adopts identical twin boys, and one twin clearly identifies as a girl from very early in her life. It does a great job diving into sex vs. gender. Highly recommended!

  6. Thank you for bringing this topic up for conversation, Gabby! My liberal arts, all-women’s college education gave me a really great understanding of the difference between sex & gender. When I first started discussing it with my mom years ago, who is very open minded, it was really difficult for her to grasp. But she was open to learning about it and being educated, which is all you can ask! It’s ok not to know- just keep asking questions.

    This also brings to mind some funny remarks I’ve run into since marrying my wife last summer. Several people have asked my mom “So, which one is the man?” When I first heard this, I was thinking- Seriously?! People still perceive two females in a relationship like this?- But in the end I just had to laugh.
    To one woman in particular my mom replied “What do you mean? Neither is a man!” The woman was polite but persistent, “No, but really, which one?” “They’re both women!” “But…” And this went back and forth until my mom just changed the subject! The woman could not wrap her head around the absence of the “woman + man = relationship” equation. I should mention that neither I nor my wife are masculine in appearance- we’re both quite feminine.

    So what did the woman mean? Who’s more emotional? (My wife) Who makes more money? (Me) Who likes watching sports and playing video games? (My wife) Who has more female friends? (Me) I’m guessing she couldn’t unwrap traditional gender roles from her mind. But it also sparked some feminist fire in me- as if two females don’t bring the necessary requirements to a functioning marriage.

    For some, the whole point is that they’re with another woman. For us, it’s just about loving the other as a person- regardless of gender or sex. That’s one reason why I prefer not to say “lesbian relationship”- it’s just a relationship to me. I never dated any women before my wife. I didn’t fall in love with a woman, I just fell in love with Hannah. :)

  7. I’ve been doing more research on this now that I’m a parent of a 4 year old daughter and a 4 month old baby boy. Interestingly when we found out we were having a boy for our second child two different people have is books on raising boys. I really liked the book Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue. One thing that I’ve noticed is that it has become much more culturally acceptable for girls to be ‘tomboys’ but the reverse still isn’t true (at least where I live). My daughter frequently wears ‘boy’ clothes (especially shorts as they’re longer and more functional. She wants to save her dresses and skirts that she’s outgrown for her little brother, but I don’t think I’m that progressive yet…anyways, lots to think about! Thanks for the interesting reading and discussion.

    1. That’s where I got stuck, too, in the process of raising two kids rather than raising a boy and a girl.

      But also, I am way more open than my own boy who edited out most girlish things as soon as he realized that other kids labeled things as boy-things and girl-things. He has a very fine sensor for those messages even though the adults in his life (both in the family, at school and in the neighborhood) are fairly progressive.

      I agree it’s more acceptable in our culture for girls (and women) to wander towards masculinity than for boys (and men!) to wander towards femininity.

      1. So, this is something I struggle with as the mom of a two year old girl when I hear conversations about “gender fluidity”–my daughter wears longer boy shorts and likes them, but in my mind, that doesn’t mean she is more “masculine”–it means that she like longer shorts that she can play more easily in. I don’t think choosing the more traditional boy stuff–be it shorts, trucks, blue, dirt, etc means she is masculine–it means that the definition of what’s feminine is too narrow. I realize this isn’t what transgender is truly about, but I see it creep in to conversations about very young kids and gender and it makes me nervous–it seems too accepting of the narrow definition of boys and girls, and if you wander out of those, you must be gender fluid instead of rejecting the narrow definitions we have between the two, if that makes sense.

  8. Gabrielle, you never cease to open our minds. I feel so blessed to have stumbled upon your site several years ago. You are always enlightening and teach me something new every time I read one of your articles. Like Picasso said “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” The gift of writing & expression is definitely yours!

  9. Thanks so much for bringing this topic to discussion. I feel that one of brilliant aspects of the internet is its ability to give those who have been living in the shadows a voice and, through collective mass, a stance in community decisions. For those who are genderless or don’t fit in the culturally defined gender rules for the sex they are born into, I feel that their time has come to be recognized. They have always been in communities, typically invisible, quietly outcast and with sobering suicide rates. But over time, they have found each other and made connections through the world. Amazing! But, their presence scares those who expect and function with cleanly defined rules. Bit by bit, they are coming out of the shadows, asking for equality and to live, work and have relationships where they want to and not where society has pushed them to. I’m proud of those willing to come forward and the communities who support them and equally saddened and angered by those who continue to shun and ostracize. Humanity is complex!

    1. You are absolutely right, Kathleen! People who don’t adhere to culturally defined gender rules have always been here, and will always continue to be here. I’m glad mainstream society is catching up a bit – although of course there’s still work to be done.

  10. I’ve been thinking about this a lot too. Very occasionally, I read a blog linked below where Amanda writes mostly about her transgender daughter. And then a few days ago she posted about her “new” wife – how her husband transitioned to female and so now she’s married to a woman. Her follow-up post on March 21 outlines some questions that I found very valuable. I of course don’t know these people, but it helped make some sense to how this is all possible. You might also find this interesting.

    Meet My Wife
    In Which I Answer Common Questions

  11. Thanks for this, Gabby. Good stuff. So glad that you are consciously using this platform for honest dialogue on topics like this.

  12. i don’t have anything to add really, other than the fact that i am interested in this topic and am still learning as well. but, what i wanted to say is that i thoroughly appreciate and admire your approach to different (and often sensitive) topics. your outlook is wide and your goal to be empathetic and understanding is very visible. so thanks :) i really enjoy reading your words.

  13. I think about this a lot, too. My 8th grade daughter is in the “queer” group at school and most of her friends are questioning of their sexuality and gender. She is, at this point, cisgender and heterosexual, but she joined this group because they were either friends in elementary school or share other common interests. We have many interesting, enlightening conversations, and I learn so much from my daughter. I am especially impressed with how easily she uses pronouns the way her friends want to be identified. My sister’s five-year-old child is a biological boy who identifies as a girl and I’ve learned a lot from her, too. My main goal is to show compassion and open-mindedness to all who are on a different journey than me.

      1. Thanks, Hannah, I think so, too. I tell her the reason she is in this group is because her friends feel safe with her.

  14. A fascinating read! And beautiful portraits. I have no definitive answers, but I love thinking about the complexities of this topic. I don’t know that I’d be particularly sad if gender lines fade in the future. I’m happy and comfortable being a woman, but I also like the notion of being able to define what that means for me. As you mentioned, it’s hardly one size fits all.

  15. Gabby! I so admire how you can write about difficult topics like this in such a generous way. I’m a fellow Mormon and I think about this a lot! (I think we kind of have to, don’t we? It being baked into our theology and all…) I am so fascinated by that first link you shared! Like you, the more I think about sex and gender, the more struck I am by the beauty of humanity in all its diversity. And the more difficult I find it to pin down any specific gender traits as universally ‘male’ or ‘female’. I also want to be supportive of the ways that gender non-conforming people choose to live, since I can only imagine how difficult it must be to not feel at home in your own body in that way.

    But in spite of all that I can’t say I’m fully comfortable with gender pronoun fluidity – at least, in theory. In real-life interactions, I think I would only ever choose to use a person’s preferred pronoun – to do otherwise would seem to me the height of rudeness and insensitivity. But at the same time, I find myself thinking that the point of language is for words to have actual physical referents that we all agree on – this seems like a pretty important groundwork for clear communication. Is it possible to disassociate gender pronouns with gender without also disassociating them with biological sex? It seems important to me to have a word that clearly refers to people who have been born and lived in a female-sexed body. There are unique circumstances and vulnerabilities that come with living in a female-sexed body, and I worry that those may become even less visible or important to society than they already are if even the language we use to speak about people in those bodies disappears – if we cannot speak of women as women. If we expand the term ‘woman’ to include those who were born in male-sexed bodies, what becomes the common denominator of womanhood? I have heard some people answer the question “What is a woman?” simply as “Anyone who wants to be one” – and I have yet to find that answer satisfying. It seems to render the word meaningless. So yes, I know that sex and gender are different things, but if I ask where is the common denominator of womanhood between myself and a trans woman, I’m not sure where to find it. Whereas between myself and anyone that is biologically female, I can know that we share at the very least the experience of navigating life in a female body, no matter how differently that has played out in our individual lives. It seems important to me to preserve that as a category of commonality somehow.

    Also on the topic of bodies, I have always been of the general mindset that it’s healthy to make peace with the body you were born in, and learn to love it. And (even though I know not all trans people choose it) sex-reassignment surgery seems like such a dramatic rejection of the body you were born in. And I can’t help but feel saddened by it, in a similar way to how I feel when I hear of teenage girls who get surgery to give themselves a thigh gap, for example.

    My ideas on this are constantly evolving, and I am always open to new perspectives. I don’t share my concerns about gender very often as I think there are few communities that are willing to have an open discussion. In conservative circles any movement beyond the gender binary seems threatening, and in liberal ones any thought that seems remotely unsupportive of gender fluidity get pegged as bigoted. I am feeling hopeful though! I’ve been impressed with the civility of the Design Mom community in the past, and I’d love to hear others thoughts about my ideas here, if/how you have been able to reconcile or work through similar issues.

    1. I find your concern with words quite interesting, and yet a little naive… Because it’s the same argument people used before with “race” (some decades ago) and “sexuality” (still today!). People thought they couldn’t call an afro-american, just a man or a woman because it would “make believe” that their experience as a “coloured person” was the same of a “white person”. And white people were sure it wasn’t, for they were the “norm”. Nevertheless, we can say that in our racists societies, just saying ” I am a woman” or ” I am a man” instead of ” I am a black woman or black man” may mean different things. But not in the sense of humanity, but in the sense that black men and women experience prejudices that white people do not. But that wasn’t the point, when society labelled them coloured. The label was to diminish them.
      The same goes to sexuality. Until today, there are people who have a heard time with gay couples or marriage! Because “gay people” do not experience the same marriage then “heterosexual” one. And yes, they have sex differently, but the main difference in their couple’s life is not their sexxual interactions, but the prejudice towards them.. Not that their love stories and commitments aren’t the same as heterosexuals.
      So gender females who do not get their period, do not have an uterus to conceive and cannot breastfeed can still have quite a “female” life experience. And the fact that we respect them and embrace their gender and their life, does not put at risk women with female genitals and problems. It does not put a risk the existence of womanhood that was lucky enough to be born in the same sex-gender body.
      For me, it’s like saying: if we are a family and we adopt someone from a different culture or family , there will be less of our family and our identity will disappear. It won’t! Love and acceptance is something that opens up, that adds to our life and not substract from it.
      We could also think that the fact that there are people who weren’t born with the genitals that conformed to their gender and that have gone through transformation or identification with womanhood are here to enhance and value and validate the womanhood experience.
      It’s like people who say that gay marriage will destroy “marriage and families”… They are/were fighting to have the same rights to live the same values heterosexuals cherish… how could that be “against marriage” ? The same thing for parenting…. actual studies show that gay couples spend much more quality and quantity time with their kids than heterosexual parents – which is great for the kids development. How is that “ruining families”? And how them doing great at parenting is a menace to heterosexual parenting? It’s just win-win to everyone…

      1. While I must admit that I am trying to figure out my own thoughts on gender, sexuality and the differences therein, I love your comment, Karla, that love and acceptance will only serve to add to our lives rather than subtract. There is room for everyone and you’re right – it’s a win-win for all! I appreciate Gabby even broaching this sensitive subject and its heartwarming to see the civil conversations on topics like these here on Design Mom. Honest, open dialogue is the only real way to approach difficult issues in a progressive, productive way.

      2. Hi Karla! Thanks for such a thoughtful response! It gave me a lot to chew on. I do love the sentiment that love adds to our lives and doesn’t subtract. It’s my nature to be want to be loving and accepting of all those around me. But I also have a very analytical side, and a very strong need to make sense of things intellectually too.

        I know it’s common to compare the LGBT fight for civil rights to the 1960’s fight for racial equality, but I think there are important differences. People who used race to divide people up into different biological categories of humans were just flat out wrong – the science is not there. There is not a ‘race’ gene – in fact there is much more genetic variation between members of the same race than there is between different races as groups. So race is much more clearly a social construct, something not rooted in biology, but that we as humans made up. Gender is another story – it is socially constructed to a great degree, but also plainly rooted in the biological reality of our very different male and female bodies. These differences have been overplayed, for sure, and used to justify discrimination all too often, but I think in our desire for equality, we sometimes go too far in the other direction and deny that these differences exist or that they have important bearings on our lives.

        I wonder if you (or Gabby! Or others!) saw this article last year? I have thought about it a lot since I read it, and some responses in the letters to the editor here.

        I am still figuring things out, but I feel like the letters objecting to the article still didn’t answer the question for me – What *does* make a woman? If it’s not clothes, not mannerisms, not biology – what is it???

    2. This is an excellent and well thought out comment. Thank you for putting many of my same feelings into such articulate words.

    1. I second this! It’s an important look into another culture and how they interpret and modify gender in order to function in their current political/social circumstances.

  16. This “It’s a boy” , “it’s a girl!” thing at birth is so funny! We had a baby girl (born a baby girl) and since the first message to announce her birth we said: her sex is female, her gender is yet to be known in the years to follow! ; )
    Whenever a friend says: I have a nephew, a son that is really nice, maybe they will date and marry when they get older. We also respond: ” well, we will see what kind of gender they will identify by then and if they will be heterosexuals”…

    Very good links:

    Raising My Rainbow

    Raising Ryland

    I actually find the whole pink and blue thing quite sickening. It’s so hard to find more color variety in clothes and toys and here’s some visual proof.

    Can we even say that they like more this colors or do we only offer them these colors?

    When kids start saying “this is for boys and this is for girls” , it’s our chance to say: this is for children (boys, girls and gender creative kids). We reproduce it and the world offers them very little openness, so we have to talk about it.

  17. A friend of mine had a 12 year-old girl and one day she said: “Mon, I’m in love”. Her answer was: “That’s wonderful! Are you in love with a girl or a boy? ” I loved that! Now her daughter is 20, still dating males… but she says that she loved her mother’s openness that day. I hope I will be able to do the same, when my son falls in love for the first time…

  18. Thank you for posting this – it is an important topic.

    At the university where I work, we now have a third option for declaring gender on students’ and employees’ files, which has been such a positive thing, it turns out.

    We’re also in a battle with a school board who is resisting allowing a transgender child to use the bathroom of their choice. Why this is even an issue, I have no idea. If I were to stick my nose into what is underneath someone’s pants to the degree that this school board has in regards to this child, I would likely be arrested. Why are we not framing the treatment of transpeople in this light? Why is it socially ok to consider it our business what is underneath their clothing?

    Where I also struggle with this is that if gender is beyond the male/female binary, then why are we so quick to squeeze someone into that binary if they don’t identify exactly with the sex they were born with? Are children capable of determining their gender definitively while they are still developing? If we intervene too soon with hormone therapy supporting a transition in children, what are those implications down the line? Why are we not pushing (very hard) for acceptance of gender fluidity along the spectrum rather than sometimes irreversible biological alterations?

    Oh that we lived in a world where people could express themselves however they should want to and that gender wouldn’t even be a consideration.

      1. It is a dropdown menu option on our online application, tick box on our hard copy application and if a student or employee wants to change gender on their file, it is self-declared. We only require a letter of request from the student and then the change is made on their permanent file.

        And FYI, Gender is self-declared in the United Kingdom, by law, but don’t know if they have a third option as yet.

  19. I was just speaking to my husband about this last night. I’ve been struggling with the mormon religion for quite a while now and I stumbled across a blog about why I should stay a mormon. One of the reasons was because the church reinforces gender roles. (oh it was SO bad.) I was so appalled. So then I decided to review the Proclamation to the family. And after reading it closely I walked away being so confused. How can it/they assign my primary responsibility as being to “nurture and care” for my children, and then in the next line say that it is an equal responsibility of mine and my husbands? Does that just mean I’m in charge or seeing that it gets done? Or am I responsible for it? And why would it change if there were certain circumstances? Suddenly my gender role changes even though my gender has not? So is it based on gender or societal norms…
    In our home I work outside the home and my husband is a stay-at-home (really dislike that term. There must be something better) parent. We constantly battle gender norms inside and outside our faith system. And thats WITH us identifying on the traditional sex binary. Yeesh! I truly cannot imagine what its like for those with more complicated sex and/or gender identities.
    Anyway, I’d love to hear how you traverse gender roles within your religion, especially with your children. Thanks you for bringing up this topic.

    p.s. There’s a ted radio hour on the topic of stereotypes that is really fascinating. Our brains are unconsciously programmed to identify gender, age, and race within 10 – 15 seconds of encountering a person. I suspect undoing our ‘programming’ will be a fascinating process both culturally and physiologically speaking.

    1. The Proclamation can be such a source of pain for so many people. When it talks about the role of women I can’t even relate. This is how I sort it out. I take the line about gender and ask: Does the information help me be a kinder, better human? No? Then I discard it. I can also take a line like “Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities” and ask the same question. Does it help me be a better, kinder human? Maybe? Then I try to learn from it.

      I imagine, if it was written today, that the word gender wouldn’t have been used. Maybe it would be sex instead? Because what definition of gender are we referring to? Victorian notions of gender? 1950s notions of gender? Non-American notions of gender? The definition of gender is constantly changing.

  20. I think this might be one of my favorite articles I’ve read on your site in the 4+years I’ve been following you. So thought provoking. So researched but ready to admit where our (yes, definitely mine also) ignorance lies. So hard to let go of or forget. I think this will sit with me for a long time, not because it’s the first time I thought about it, but because it’s the first time that someone else took all the questions out of my head and put them all in one place in such a concise and well-thought manner. Very well written. I believe I’ll reference this many many times in the years to come!

  21. Thank you for addressing this out, Grabrielle!

    I’m so glad that finally people start talking about this issue. Thank you so much for bringing up this important topic, Gabrielle! I’m indeed to agree with you on “gender is more fluid and less important.”

    Fortunately, we’re living the modern world where our children can express themselves however they want. We simply can’t force them to be what we want, so why not accept and embrace it.

  22. I always enjoy when you’re thinking about things!

    If you haven’t already, look into Thailand’s recent moves (2015) to legally protect kathoeys, transgender women / some gay men, often considered a third gender. I don’t know how Thailand feels about transgender men or gay women and find it interesting that I’ve only seen reference to one side of the gender/sexuality coin in my, admittedly casual, research. Wikipedia says it refers to any transgender individual, but the former teacher in me balks from just accepting what Wikipedia says!

    Here’s a traditionally conservative society that has a long, long tradition of acknowledging, it not outright protecting, those outside of the gender and sex binary. There are kathoey celebrities and models and actresses who are popular and not at all “hidden” in their identity. When I was traveling through Thailand we went to a cabaret (no, not in the red light district) and some performers appeared with a traditionally ‘masculine’ chest (though no chest hair) some I believe chose to pad their tops, some appeared to have had breast augmentation (thought that doesn’t mean they were transitioning of course). I didn’t realize the English phrase often used, which I’ll omit, is actually considered a slur.

    It’s another chance for those of us firmly rooted in, even if we’re pushing back against, Western concepts of gender to learn more about how gender, sexuality and sex evolve and unveil themselves in all parts of the world.

    1. Oh! This is fantastic. A traditionally conservative society with an accepted third gender? I am totally intrigued and want to learn more. Thank you for the info!

  23. This is a very personal topic for me – my nephew (as he now wants to be called) is in the process of transitioning to a male from a female and is also a Mormon. Personally I have had to think about so many details that we all take for granted…names and titles and even terms of endearment are so based in gender. Growing up with a androgynous name probably made me more aware of the conflicts…but this is a whole new level. He has been documenting his transition on YouTube – it’s interesting.

  24. Gabrielle, your content is always so intelligent and thoughtful. Agree that the book Middlesex is excellent – really helped educate me, too.

    A light also turned on in my head when I first heard the phrases “gender spectrum” and “gender fluidity.” Made so much sense to me! As a parent, I see the “spectrum” among my children’s friends. I am so happy for those children who have parents respecting and honoring their choices, like Oscar’s friend. Thank you for raising these modern conversations!

    1. I agree. The terms gender spectrum and gender fluidity are terrific because it’s so easy to think of the real people we know, and see the spectrum demonstrated. Everyone knows a masculine girl. Everyone knows a feminine boy. The spectrum is so obvious to us, even before we had a term for it.

      1. But see, isn’t that interesting that even thinking of the spectrum we are still trying to define it in terms of traditional gender identity. Masculine (gender) girl (sex). This is where I get confused. Do we drop the language convention all together? or just always use quotation marks? …

        1. Human language is constantly evolving and changing, as it has been since its inception and I’m sure as it will for eternity. Perhaps these terms will come to mean something different, or maybe other existing words will be repurposed, or new words created! I can’t wait to see. In the meantime, I try to be as respectful as possible…to follow someone else’s lead in how they self-identify, and to couch adjectives like “masculine” or “feminine” with “…in the conventional sense.” If the name of the game is to help people feel as supported and respected as possible, mistakes and slip-ups will for sure happen, but we just have to remember to live that support and respect as honestly and ardently as we can.

  25. Thank you for this! I will use the resources you’ve listed as a springboard to further conversations with my children on the topics of gender and sex.

    I am sincerely hoping we can create a world where everyone knows, believes, understands that how they personally experience gender is valid and beautiful. Narrow definitions and black/white thinking create us vs them dichotomies. It’s difficult to love someone who you view as “other”.

  26. I am born as a girl and always felt comfortable with it. But being born in the 70ies, I also always had the very strong impression that I would be more seen as what I truly was, if people would think I was a boy. Girls were not taken as seriously back then. So I always wore my hair really really short. And it worked out well for me. Until this day I feel I am 50% male and 50% female although I could never tell you what this means. I really like my body but I had a deep identity crisis in my teenage years, when I was suddenly seen only as ‘the girl’ while before I was kind of both.
    What I still don’t understand (but also don’t judge) is, why people would change their bodies with surgery. It seems to me that it is easier to keep your body and fill it with whatever gender parts feel right for you. I don’t think anybody is 100% male or female. (Whatever male or female means.)

    1. Oh Maike! I relate to your comment so much. Especially these lines:

      “But being born in the 70ies, I also always had the very strong impression that I would be more seen as what I truly was, if people would think I was a boy. Girls were not taken as seriously back then. So I always wore my hair really really short. And it worked out well for me. Until this day I feel I am 50% male and 50% female although I could never tell you what this means.”

      Yes! I think I feel very similarly. I’m comfortable being a girl, but I feel like I could be comfortable being a boy too.

  27. I think the real question is a question of who “determines” reality. Does God or do we? I’d like to respectfully ask you Gabrielle, if you think that “male and female He created them” might no longer be relevant, why do you think so? Is it because it is no longer true, or because we no longer want it to be true?

    1. Hmm. Perhaps it’s not a matter of true or untrue. Perhaps it’s just incomplete information. We could try: Male and female and everyone-in-between He created them.

    1. I think “that’s not what he said” presumes that what is written in the Bible is a word for word dictation of the mind and will of God – I’m a believer and a Christian, but it seems more accurate to me that the mind and will of God are always filtered through human consciousness and therefore cultural constructs. That would include the writers of Genesis, who also, after all, were not writing a scientific document. :) I can see “male and female created he them” as a cosmological truth setting the scene for people to multiply and replenish the earth, while also accepting the clear scientific reality that beyond what he “said”, he DID in fact make humans who don’t fit genetically or biologically into one of those categories.

      1. I wanted to clarify the verse. I don’t think its appropriate to insert our own words into scripture. I think that we’d agree that if you try hard enough the Bible can be interpreted to mean just about anything you want. I think we need to be careful about letting our own “cultural constructs” color how we perceive reality. Check out the link in Christina’s comment below.

  28. This podcast the one on ‘The power of categories’
    presents an interesting case study of someone who frequently switches the gender that they identify with. Human beings are so fascinatingly complex.

  29. I think you must have the most wonderful community of readers on the whole Internet, Gabrielle! I’m loving this respectful discussion, even as many different viewpoints and ideas are put forth. Way to go DesignMom readers!

    As for myself, I’ve been pondering it, too, but looking forward to learning more from this discussion because I am really not as educated as I would like to me. I hope I am kind and understanding, but I know that my ability to be compassionate will increase if I know more.

    I am reminded of when my first child was born 7 years ago. I had a really, really difficult time using gendered pronouns to refer to him (I no longer do, obviously). We had learned his sex at the 20 week ultrasound so it wasn’t that. But for several weeks, like 4 or 5, it just seemed like such a foreign and weird thing to me. I’m not sure why, but it was just easier to say “the baby”. He just seemed like so much more than just a “he”- so many possibilities, such an eternal being that was suddenly in this earthly state.

    1. Oh my goodness. Flashback! Yes, I would do the same thing with my babies. I couldn’t even call them their given name, I would just say baby or little one for several weeks: Well hello, Baby. Let me hold you, Little One. Let’s change your diaper, Baby. Good morning, Baby!

  30. I am very glad that people of your religious group are speaking out loud about this topic. It is time to let people be who the are.
    Thank you.

  31. OK this is my last comment. I promise. Ha.
    In so many ways the question of gender identity reminds me of the greater question of human identity as in Descartes Evil Demon or Plato’s Allegory of the Cave or the Brain in the Vat thought experiment. Have you seen the documentary called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly? It will challenge your ideas of what it means to be human in a profoundly beautiful way.
    I think gender is much like this. It cannot necessarily be defined, and yet, we are programmed to stereotype for our species survival. How do we meaningfully move beyond the traditional assignments respectfully? I don’t know but I have to think that this conversation is certainly a fabulous start! (ok. over and out. :) )

    1. I’m not sure how creating and adhering to stereotypes helps our species survive. Can you elaborate on that?

      I mean like, I can see how emphasizing rules and similarities solidifies social groups, and strong social groups enable a greater chance of survival for the individual. But there are plenty of social groups, like the one in which the Sworn Virgins of Albania (mentioned above) live, that continue to thrive even though theirs are not what we might recognize as conventional stereotypes.

      It also occurred to me you might mean that we need gender stereotypes in order to continue procreating. It’s been mentioned a few other times in the comments, but the gender stereotypes you do or don’t fit into really don’t have much to do with getting pregnant (or adopting, or fostering, or any of the myriad other ways to start a family and continue our species) – nor has it traditionally. Different family structures abound across the world, and beautiful families have been created outside of conventional gender stereotypes for decades, if not centuries.

  32. I am so interested in this topic and impressed by the comments of your readers, Gabrielle! I appreciate that people recognize that we can BE understanding without HAVING full understanding of these various situations (though “situations” feels like entirely the wrong word)! I, too, have so much to learn and grasp.

    Real Simple’s podcast The Labor of Love had an episode Monday called “The Chore Challenge” that talked not about gender identity as much, but gender norms as it relates to the division of household chores. It was so interesting! They cited research that showed that men who took on more of the household chores raised daughters who ended up being more ambitious. I love the exploration of how the cultural definition of gender affects us as individuals and society as a whole.

  33. I think it is amazing how we are able to learn and grow, even when we did not know that we needed to. If you had asked me these questions three years ago, I would have answered according to the way I was raised. Biologically male equals a man and biologically female equals a woman. End of story. How can you even think that the world works otherwise?

    Anyone who did not conform to standard gender roles must be a deviant…a bad person…you would be able to tell just by looking at them what they were, and how poisinous they would be to interact with.

    Then, I met Selena. Actually, then, my daughter started dating Selena, and was going to bring her to meet us when she came home to attend her younger brother’s graduation. I had to ask myself…what did I believe about the immutablity of gender? I decided before I met Selena, that I would treat a person as they presented themselves, no less and no more.

    I know that I am a woman, but I asked myself why I know that. It was not because of my physical parts, or my role in my family, or any other external thing. I am a woman because that is who I am. I decided that if I know that I am a woman, who am I to assign a gender to someone else based on their physical parts? I no longer do. That is not to say that I don’t stick my foot in my mouth upon occasion…I am still human, after all. But I do my best to accept others as they present themselves.

    Meeting Selena was an opportunity for me to learn to love more of the human race I share the world with, without preconcived judgement. I’m glad that I accepted.

  34. Thank you for this wonderful forum; it lifts me up to hear so many open-minded questions and comments. I am a high school teacher who has recently taught two transgender students, and I am learning a great deal from them. (When one of them wrote a short essay using “their” instead of “her,” I was so confused. I called the student aside and asked why she had used a plural pronoun when she was talking about an individual. And that was my first lesson in evolving pronouns. Yikes! I still have much to learn…)

    To those who worry about the perpetuation of the human race, I’d say we aren’t going to have any problems with that! It’s not as if there is a lack of eggs and sperm out there.

    In closing, I realize that there are many who grapple with these issues due to religious beliefs, and though I don’t agree with them, I sympathize with that fact. I feel incredibly blessed that I was raised by open-minded parents and that I am a member of a church that is “open and affirming.” We believe in a loving God who accepts us all for who we are.

  35. Thank you Gabby for the information. My oldest child started transitioning last January. It has been a dark and uncomfortable road for our family,parenting this child. We are open and accepting. She lived as a gay woman until then. She has struggled against her gender all of her life. I thought dressing her as a tomboy, letting her join the football team, and loving every inch of her was going to be enough. We started to lose her around age 14, when boys started to be attracted to her and she couldn’t understand why they couldn’t just be friends. Fast forward a horrendous 10 years and she decided to step into the light. He now is in the process of truly understanding himself. No one would wish this pain on another human willingly. But the saving grace for me is that when I see my child, he is everything familiar to me once again. I recognize him and see him for who he is. I only want everyone else to do the same. Open conversation is a start. I wrote our family and friends over Christmas so that it wasn’t a secret and they would know his name. Our Catholic priest was the first phone call to offer support and a welcome hand. Change in this world is possible.

  36. This was an excellent, informative, and interesting post. How’s this for a safe statement? All women are human!

  37. I think Donald Hallstrom says it better than I would be able to, at this time.
    “Our identity then becomes first that of an eternal being–a son or a daughter of God–and of a grateful receiver of the blessings of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.”

  38. I want to make a point about our natural programming. We are programmed to stereotype for survival? Sure. We were also programmed to stock food in our body in order to survive winters and moments without food… That doesn’t mean that we have to keep on doing it, now that we can find food all year round. yet, this is a reason some people get fatter than others…Their body is programmed that way. We are programmed to when feeling menaced be able to respond with force (or violence) if that means our survival (Have you seen videos of moms turning a car by themselves to get their kids from beneath it? Yep, nature provides that) . Yet, we don’t get physical every time our natural program tells us we could/should. We are programmed to feel fear in certain situations for survival reasons also. And we can manage to rise above fear and make more rational decisions. Man and woman are also programmed to want to have sex (for procreation purpose: survival of the species) and yet we don’t have sex every time we feel the urge and differently from some other animals we do not do it anyway (well, most animals have lots of rituals of courting though), we do not do it with anyone, anywhere at any moment. So nature programmed us for lots of things… but then there is consciousness, there is culture and all that. Even if we are programmed to stereotype, we don’t need to keep doing it in all levels. And let it rule our lives…

  39. Appreciating this post and the thread of discussion so much. In reading about pronouns and social constructs, I’m so interested to know how gender is understood when female/male pronouns are not in the vocabulary. Likewise, I wonder how Biblical texts are conveyed for the same verses that become so prominent in the gender discussion for English speakers. Any readers here have insights to share?

  40. I greatly appreciate this post and all of the thoughtful comments. I am a parent of a non-binary teenager who has at least 4 close friends who I know personally who are transitioning/have transitioned female to male and all identify now as male. She has one male to female trans friend. I have learned so much in the past 3 years from these kids!

    Gender identity and expression is a huge topic in our town right now. The high school in town as a long-standing tradition (nearly 100 years, I believe) of requiring ALL graduates at the senior graduation to wear the following dress code. And it is an absolute requirement, the child will literally be prohibited from participating in the ceremony is they don’t comply fully with the dress code. Females: full-length white dresses and carry a dozen red roses. Male: dark suit with red rose boutineer. Several years ago they began to permit women to wear a white pants suit. But there is no “in between” option and all male students must wear the dark suit.

    This year a group of LGBTQ students an allies went before the school board to request a switch to cap & gowns, all one color. They explained that non all students “fit” into male or female categories and asking a child to declare their gender status in public on their final day of school seems odd and could be hurtful. Especially since this is a highly-supportive school with a large LGBTQ population (students/staff/parents), gender-neutral bathrooms, options for kids to select which gender PE they will take and they permit kids to join which ever choir they feel they fit into (we no longer have a “boys” or “girls” choir) just kids who sing high and kids who sing low ranges. Kids of both genders and “in between” are on the drill team, football team, synch swim team. So why on their last day of school in front of their families and community would they have to 1) select a gender and 2) dress in a way that might not feel appropriate.

    Heck, I identify as female but have never worn a full-length white dress in my life, not even on my wedding day! And I think I’d look ridiculous in a white pants suit! This rule also doesn’t take into account not all families can afford a fancy dress/suit. Also, the requirement that all females wear “white” gowns makes others uncomfortable as the girls do look like a line of brides, which I agree is kind of creepy in a mass-wedding way.

    So the students voted and cap & gowns won. But now there is push-back from parents who are saying “Why should this one group of (trans) kids ruin a nice tradition for the rest of our kids.” It has caused quite a debate!

    I would love for each of those parents to read your post today!! Thank you for sharing Gabrielle. I learn so much from you!

    1. Right! Wow! That dress code, aside from being exclusionary to transgender and non-binary kids, is also pretty sexist. Very glad to hear the students were able to tackle and resolve it. Hope some of those parents get a life soon.

  41. Thank you for bringing up this topic! I feel like society (in general) is more accepting and comfortable if they can fit everyone in a box. You’re dating? When are you getting engaged? You’re married? When are you having kids? You have a boy, when are you going to try for a girl? You have three kids? When are you going to stop having kids? This has been the “norm” for generations, and we are so fortunate to live in a time where we as a society can create a new normal and decide how we want to orchestrate our own lives without restraint. Gender fluid individuals have traditionally never fit into our constructed “boxes” and I think that that has made certain people uncomfortable. I am so happy to live in a time where gender fluidity and sexual orientation will not only be accepted, but also celebrated. There is still a long way to go, but I am confident that there is enough open-mindedness to continue our progress to accept everyone and realize that at the end of the day, we are more the same than we are different.

    This is a very interesting article about the Guevedoces of the Domincan Republic which really makes you think about the “born this way” aspect of gender.

  42. Gender is a social construct to me, but I don’t have a full picture of how I should modify my behavior. I do think we’re raising great little humans, I think they are going to make the space in the world to figure this all out.

  43. I find it fascinating the the Albanian individuals depicted here had to take an oath of celibacy to assume the role of men. It is not unlike what some religious traditions ask of their gay and lesbian members–they may openly identify as gay or lesbian but risk punishment if they engage in sex with a same-sex partner. Some may find the trade-off acceptable, others may not. I find that so many of humanity’s hang-ups about gender roles and sexual identity are directly tied to its conception of the sex act itself.

    I sometimes wonder if 500 years from now we will look back at history and consider our struggle to accept non-stereotypical gender identity and/or sexual orientation as bizarre as historical (and, in some countries, ongoing) efforts to isolate or “reform” left-handed individuals.

    1. I wonder that too, Cat! I was talking with my wife the other day about what it will be like to help our grandchildren with history projects and recall for them the days when same-sex marriage was illegal in this country…

  44. I am loving reading this thread! Thank you Gabrielle for such an inspiring post. So much thoughtful discussion and openness about how much we all know and don’t know. My daughter came out to us as a lesbian at age 11. Yes! We could hardly believe it ourselves, and yet the language she used to tell us was so incredibly thoughtful and profound that there was no was we weren’t going to hear what she us telling us. She is now 13 and part of a kind and loving group of queer and not queer friends. I think what strikes me is how the younger generation is really steering this gender fluidity boat. I marvel at their courage, depth of acceptance and unabashed stance on how we should treat one another. It really brings me such hope and joy that I (and my kids) were born in this day and age.

  45. Great discussion! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I took a culture and identity class last semester at a junior college and we had a transgender guest speaker. It was such an informative presentation and answered lots of questions for all of us. The speaker was a former lesbian woman, who discovered she was actually a straight man. His wife was supportive of the transition and they are happier than ever. He said he told his wife “hey you’re not a lesbian afterall!” And she said “neither are you!” We had written anonymous questions on index card and he answered all of the questions and it was fascinating. I do have a question about the gender less child in your sons class. What pronouns do they use in reference to the child. If they don’t say he or she, what forget say when referring to thechild? They? For example instead of saying it’s her turn or its his turn, do they say it’s their turn? Or it’s? Or do they just avoid saying anything other than the name? Just curious, as I’m still learning too :)

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