“Mom! I was leaving the bathroom and someone working there asked me if I used the wrong bathroom.”
“What? What are you talking about?” I inquired of my eight-year-old, who’d just returned to us after using a public bathroom in a market in New York City.
“I was leaving the boys’ bathroom and someone stopped and asked if I used the wrong bathroom! So I told her, ‘No, I’m a boy!’”
I felt my “mama bearness” rise as I started to understand what had occurred.
My son, whom we’ll call Z, is a beautifully carefree kid who identifies as a cis, heterosexual male. One of the most remarkable things about him is that he throws tired gender norms out the door, and by doing so, continually inspires me to do the same.
He has beautiful long blonde hair, his favourite outfit is abstract rainbow leggings paired with a faux pink leather bomber jacket. He openly cries, plays the flute, articulates his feelings, and rocks out to Dolly Parton. He also loves football, Legos, vintage cars and biking.
Do any of these things inherently define his gender? Of course not.
In fact, as Az Hakeem reminds us in TRANS: Exploring Gender Identity and Gender Dysphoria, “gender is a psychosocial virtual entity without location in a person’s body. It solely exists in, and is perpetuated by, the society in which the person lives.”
And as artist and author ALOK further teaches in The Pocket Change Collective: Beyond the Gender Binary, the gender binary is also a construct.
“The gender binary is a cultural belief that there are only two distinct genders: men and women. The belief is upheld by a system of power that exists to create division, not to celebrate creativity and diversity…This false choice of boy or girl, man or woman, male or female, is not natural ― it’s political.”
Even so, we live in a society that thrives on keeping us limited in potential, creativity and beauty by pressuring us to fit into stereotypical gendered boxes. This is forced on us from before we’re born, via “gender reveals,” in the nursery (pink or blue blanket?) and on the playground (dance or football?).
Or through a bathroom attendant questioning an eight-year-old’s choice of which restroom to use.
Though we’re far from perfect, my husband and I strive to raise curious, open-minded, inclusive kids. We model and encourage asking questions and learning why things are the way they are ― and challenge them to imagine beyond the status quo.
For instance, my husband goes to the nail salon more than I do, and often initiates “spa days” in our home modelling for our kids (and society) that anyone can paint their nails, care for their cuticles, and indulge in a good massage.
Or when we’re walking down the street and one of our kids refers to someone we don’t know with a specific pronoun, we remind them that we don’t know their pronouns, so we’ll refer to the person as “they” until we know differently. This practice seems to have taken off – if a conversation I overheard them having last Christmas is any indication.
“What do you think Jesus’ pronouns are?” S asked her brothers while hanging ornaments on our tree.
“Hmmmm, I’m not sure,” L responded. “So they.”
We were proud to hang Jesus (they/them) on the tree.
This type of gender deconstruction happens all the time – when we question sexist remarks made during “iCarly” episodes, volunteer our daughter for tasks of building, or carrying things when someone asks our sons, and point out how important it is that their dad is taking 15 weeks of paternity leave.
Perhaps this is why Z was so offended when the bathroom attendant asked if he’d used the wrong restroom.
“Why do they care?” he rightly questioned. “It’s OK that I have long hair and am a boy!”
“You’re right,” I assured him. “And that’s why I’d like to go talk to them about why what they did is not OK.”
Z said he was comfortable with me talking to the attendant. In fact, he looked relieved. I asked Z if he wanted to come, and while he was too embarrassed to join me, he did point the person out to me.
It was important for me for several reasons to speak up. First and foremost, I wanted my son to feel fully affirmed, not just in the confines of our family, but in the larger social context in which we all exist.
Secondly, I’m an optimist. I truly believe that if approached correctly, conversations such as these can lead to positive change. This is also the reason I chose to post and write about the experience on social media (with Z’s permission of course).
I found the attendant standing with two others, and calmly let them know my son told me he was questioned about his bathroom use. The one who’d spoken to my son sheepishly nodded in understanding, then admitted that they thought Z had a “feminine face,” and gestured to his hair.
“I want you to know that questioning how someone identifies is harmful,” I said calmly, yet confidently, “and my son’s feelings are hurt. I am letting you know this because I hope this doesn’t happen to someone else.”
The attendants were fairly speechless, so after asking if they had any questions, I thanked them for listening and went on my way.
If we’d had all the time in the world (and if we weren’t standing in the middle of a public market), I would have loved to have a more in-depth conversation.
It’s well past time we move beyond our obsession with gender and the gender binary. In addition to the fact that it is illegal in N.Y.C. to discriminate against an individual on the basis of gender identity or expressions, including denying access to bathrooms, questioning one’s gender – nevertheless a child’s – is psychologically damaging.
Gender stereotyping is fuelling the mental health crisis in the younger generation, according to The Guardian. And “is at the root of problems with body image, eating disorders, male suicide rates, as well as violence against women and girls.”
In a USA Today piece, Kristin Mmari, associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, cites a study from the Journal of Adolescent Health that shows when girls conform to gender stereotypes, consequences can include depression, child marriage, leaving school early, and exposure to violence.
Consequences when boys conform to gender stereotypes include engaging in physical violence to a much greater extent than girls, dying more frequently from unintentional injuries, being more prone to substance abuse and suicide, and having a shorter life expectancy than women.
It can’t go without saying that the discomfort Z (and I) have around correcting people when he is misgendered pales in comparison to the violence inflicted on trans and non-binary kids, especially nonwhite trans and non-binary kids. Studies show that “transgender and non-binary youths are disproportionately burdened by poor mental health outcomes owing to decreased social support and increased stigma and discrimination.”
This conversation is more than just a liberal agenda. It’s a matter of life or death for trans and non-binary kids, who aren’t just attacked with micro-aggressions – their very humanity is attacked systemically by legislation and policy. In the first week of 2022 alone, legislators in at least seven states proposed bills targeting LGBTQ+ youth, and state legislators across the country introduced a record number of anti-transgender bills in 2021, many specifically targeting trans youth.
Knowing all that we know, it seems like an easy lift to challenge the gender binary and move toward more inclusive ways of thinking and being. But change is always hard and long.
I posted about our experience on my Instagram page shortly after it happened and unsurprisingly, the trolls who take pleasure in making fun of a long-haired young boy came out in full force.
But there were equally as many parents “concerned” about their child’s safety in the restroom. “I don’t want my young girl using the bathroom next to a pedophile or a creepy man!”
Me either, Karen! But here’s the thing – that’s a fear mongering strawman fallacy. There’s no evidence of sexual assaults increasing in response to anti-discrimination bathroom laws. And working against sexual abuse or violence of any kind and fighting for the rights of trans people are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, both, at their core, centre well-being and safety.
When I came back from my conversation, Z again looked relieved and gave me a silent hug. A few days later, I asked him why he came to me to tell me what happened.
“I was emotional about it, mom,” he said. “And I wanted to tell someone.” (Heart tug.)
I was thrilled that, one, he felt comfortable enough to tell me about it, and two, he knew the behaviour was not OK!
It reminded me of the time we had the pleasure of hearing ALOK speak at Performance Space to an audience of young people. They invited kids and youth to join them onstage to say something they wished adults knew. Z joined the dozens onstage, and when it was his turn, he said confidently into the mic: “I wish adults didn’t assume people’s pronouns.”
Unfortunately, it seems like we’ve still got a long way to go. But Z’s generation has so much to teach us. I am here for all of it.