Monday, May 2, 2011

When Did You Know Your Gender?

Matt Kailey is a transman living in Denver, Colorado, and an author, public speaker, and trainer on transgender issues. He blogs at Tranifesto. In his ideal world, no one would be equal to anyone else – everyone would just be equal.

I do quite a bit of speaking on college campuses, at businesses, and at various organizations, and frequently an audience member will ask about the subject of children transitioning. The person saw an Oprah or Tyra Banks episode that featured young trans children, and the remark is often along the lines of: “But they’re so young! How could they possibly know?”

My (very polite) response is: “How old were you when you knew your gender?”

The reality for most people is that they become aware of their gender when they start to become aware of themselves as a separate entity from everyone else. Children generally start to recognize gender around the age of three or so – or at least that’s as far back as they can remember. If you knew you were a boy (or a girl) at age three, why would you expect a trans person to be any different?

Many (perhaps most) trans children are extremely clear about their gender from the get-go. They don’t see themselves as being mistaken. They see the world as being mistaken. 

If you are non-trans, try to imagine what your childhood would have been like if your parents, teachers, friends, and everyone else you ran into insisted that you were the gender “opposite” from what you are. No matter how much you argued, no matter how much you insisted, they told you that you were wrong, and they even punished you for acting on any natural instincts you had to express your gender in a certain way.

It probably would have been a pretty miserable childhood, with consequences that reached far into adulthood. And so it is for trans children, but it is made worse by the fact that their body has betrayed them. They cannot use their body as “proof” of their argument, which is something that you, as a non-trans person, would have been able to do.

Luckily, an increasing number of parents are not only identifying indicators that their child might be trans, but are also seeking out help for their child and allowing that child to live in the gender that matches his or her gender identity.

“But a child is not equipped to make that kind of decision! A child doesn’t understand the ramifications!”

A child understands the ramifications of being forced to conform to gender roles and expressions that are completely foreign – misery, anger, depression, suicidal ideation. A child understands the pain and frustration of not being allowed to be him- or herself. 

Like the now-clich├ęd question frequently used by gay men and lesbians when arguing with straight people that sexual orientation is not a choice – “When did you choose to be straight?” – the question of gender identity, when deconstructed, seems to be just as simple and obvious. 

No one chooses his or her gender identity. Most people have a solid gender identity by the time they are three of four years old. And most children can tell you, at that time, what their gender identity is. 

It’s not that these children are too young to know. They do know. It’s just that, too often, adults think they know better. But who really knows who you are better than you?