Posted by: Ophelia | July 7, 2008

On Gender Identity in Children

In my summer job I’ve had constant exposure to young childen (between the ages of 8 and 11) on a daily basis. Already, the traditional ideas of what makes a boy a boy and what makes a girl a girl have taken hold. One boy is constantly the butt of jokes and insinuations about his gender because his hair is long enough to be pulled back into a ponytail. Likewise, a young girl with a short haircut has been consistently mistaken for and intentionally called a boy. (I  have to admit here that I made the same mistake, her hair, clothes, and voice all indicated a male child and I gave some serious thought as to my pronoun use before I addressed her fearing that she was actually a boy but was too shy to correct her peers that were referring to her as “her”. Bit of an overthink on my part that ended up with the same crappy result of mistaking her gender). Luckily, both children are mature and take the mistakes and the jokes at face value, not as a commentary on their masculinity or femininity. At the same time, being the butt of jokes is no picnic and the boy eventually broke down in tears after constant harassment from one boy in particular. As for the girl, after the first few days of camp, her parents sent her in pink tops and flowery prints and the misidentifications stopped.

The misidentifications served as an impromteau tool for bullying and served as personal insults to be used against the kids. Our identities are carefully crafted around our genders and failing to adhere to them properly enough rendered these kids easy targets. Fortunately, the kids saw the teasing for what it was, unfortunately the fact that one can even be teased for having a “boy” haircut or “girl” hair is problematic and sad. At the same time, it is difficult to step out of preconceptions about gender–even if you write for a feminist blog.

So how do you go about brining an end to confining gender stereotypes? Do you worry about confirming your gender id or that of your children? Would it harm your self esteem if someone mistook you for the opposite gender, and do you let that affect the way you dress or speak?



  1. I’ve had similar experiences tutoring middle school children. They’re fascinating.

    A big part of the problem lies in the inability of our language to express gender ambiguity. “He” or “she” are strict language dichotomies. This is both rooted in and a reinforcement of our limited conceptions.

    The NGLTF has this little ice-breaker they use when working with a new group of volunteers where you go around the circle and say 1) your name, 2) your preferred gender pronoun, and 3) why you’re involved.

    It’s an interesting exercise. I tried using it a couple times when I was organizing against Wisconsin’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and people were for the most part taken aback by the question; like, “My name is Jack, um, I identify as ‘he’… obviously… and I got involved because…”

    The collective conscience moves very slowly. But it is impossible to break down sexuality without breaking down gender, and since the former process is well on its way, I think we can expect to see more of the latter.

    I feel like a great many people haven’t even considered that gender is a construction. So matter-of-factly pointing out that nothing is set in stone can be great. People familiar with the ambiguity of sexuality are capable of more serious discussions, because the basic concepts are the same. And people who identify more in the middle are likely hosting these conversations.

    It would still be nice to have a gender-neutral pronoun.

  2. Delurking! 😀

    I’ve been mistaken for the opposite gender many times. I have short hair, androgynous clothes, and no makeup (usually). Typically the moment I speak people realize I’m a woman, since I have a very feminine voice. Not always, though. It doesn’t offend or insult me; I just find it endlessly amusing.

    One incident was pretty over-the-top. I was in a Walmart restroom and a custodian informed me I was in the wrong place. I assured her I wasn’t, because it was the women’s restroom. She looked at me for a long time and then declared loudly, “No — you’re a man!!”


    I’d like to say I was cheeky enough to open my blouse for her, but I’m shy and was more astonished than anything else.

    But to answer your questions, no, I don’t let it affect the way I dress or speak. I identify firmly as female and dress however I darn well please. It’s lovely. It does confuse the narrow-minded. It also gets me the most fabulous compliments on occasion. I highly recommend trying out men’s (or women’s, or whatever) clothing on occasion and not giving a fart what others think of you. If they think less of you for it, they’re not worth your consideration anyway!

    And I agree with Jackvalentine. I’ve often wished for a gender-neutral pronoun.

  3. This issue is really close to home for me. Destruction my seven year old refusing to take singing lessons because he has been told that he sings like a girl and yet he loves to sing. I am trying my best to have a gender neutral environment and I find in the household they are okay but the minute they leave the security of home they start performing gender. To not perform your gender is to risk ridicule and as we all know kids are cruel. I certainly don’t have the answers but I know that if more parents don’t commit to gender balanced parenting we are going to get nowhere.

  4. In that vein, we can work together to create more open communities. I suppose this is a neotribalist argument, but we can network with other families at first, and eventually create alternative institutions and keep ourselves and our children away from the corruption and ignorance.

    Meanwhile, put pressure on mainstream institutions.

  5. Ico and Jack,
    I too would really like a gender neutral pronoun, of course I’m sure some people would take offense if it were used in reference to them. Can you imagine, “how couldn’t you tell I was a man/woman!?” It’s such a touchy subject–given the way we’re socialized.

    Ico, your story reminds me of the woman who had a similar experience at a restaurant and was actually escorted from the bathroom and booted from the restaurant even after showing her state id that identified her as a woman. Never let the facts stand in the way of discrimination I guess.

  6. […] seem so strict, that crossing a gender line can earn a kid punishment from parents, teachers, and peers. This hostile situation makes life particularly difficult for transgender children, for at an age […]

  7. […] can be so strict, that crossing a gender line can earn a kid punishment from parents, teachers, and peers. This hostile situation makes life particularly difficult for transgender children, for at an age […]

  8. “…her parents sent her in pink tops and flowery prints…”

    Ouch. Apparently this girl liked wearing her “boyish” clothes. Maybe she doesn’t mind pink tops, but they sure weren’t her first choice.
    It’s too bad she ran into the gender police at such a young age.

  9. I’ve occasionally encountered this – as a child and an adult, obviously handling it better now. I remember being at a family get-together and having my great-grandfather tell me I looked like a boy (I was about 11, and I like to wear hats – still do). Despite my mother’s assurances, it was an eye opening experience. Of course, I am now an adult, a lesbian and I choose to have short hair and still frequently wear a hat anyway. I’ve occasionally been addressed as sir in a restaurant or similar setting and it doesn’t bother me. The waiter/waitress is usually embarrassed and apologetic and it’s hard to explain that it really doesn’t matter to me. Male, female or otherwise – I am comfortable with who I am, and gender is nothing more than a biological way to discriminate and stereotype.

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