The elementary school I went to, several decades ago, was built in 1903, a red brick rectangle with limestone detailing. Every morning, we’d line up outside and wait to be allowed entry: Females on one side, under the huge, etched-in-stone “GIRLS” entrance, and males on the other, queued up beneath an equally imposing “BOYS” portal.
How things have changed. No longer can we be divided neatly into those two categories. Last year, a Harris survey conducted for GLAAD found that 12 percent of Millennials identify as transgender or gender non-conforming, meaning they do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth or their gender expression is different from conventional expectations of masculinity and femininity—doubling the number of transgender and gender non-conforming people reported by Generation X (6 percent). Today, many students—high school and college—attend gender sensitivity training and learn about the gradations of gender identity and how best to respect and support those who don’t feel that “male” or “female” describes them.
I have no idea what my child is trying to tell me—I feel so confused.
Perhaps, like me, you’ve met genderfluid people and wondered about how best to interact. At my local supermarket, one of the people at the checkout (my favorite, in fact) is—based on my 50-something eyes and mind—a bearded male who wears lipstick and a dress and has a female nametag on. At work, I receive emails that include the sender’s preferred pronouns at the bottom: he/him/his, she/her/hers, or they/them/theirs.
My friend Cecilia, 61, recently shared with me that her son had recently come out as genderfluid.
“I asked him, ‘Are you breaking up with your girlfriend?’ The answer was no. ‘Are you attracted to men?’ The answer was no. ‘Are you wanting to dress as a woman, live as a woman?’ The answer was no. I have no idea what my child is trying to tell me—I feel so confused and so out of step and old in the worst sense of the word.”
As these experiences piled up, I decided to educate myself about gender-fluidity and share my learning with you.
Does Genderfluid Mean a Person Is Gay?
This is one of the most pervasive misunderstandings about gender identity. A person’s gender identity—how they feel in their own skin, so to speak—is separate from their sexual orientation, meaning to whom they are attracted.
“Gender fluidity is the sense that one is a blend or a mixture of our cultural notions of masculinity and femininity and boy and girl. Some moments, perhaps daily or more frequently, the individual feels more one than the other,” says Ritch C. Savin-Williams, professor emeritus of Developmental Psychology at Cornell University. “Because gender fluidity has little to do with sexuality, it is not a sexual orientation as is straight, mostly straight, bisexual, gay or other places along a sexual spectrum. A transgender person might feel as if their gender is fluctuating but in general, they have a singular gender—the one not assigned to them at birth.”
Gender fluidity has little to do with sexuality.
I spoke to Zanne Nilsson, a genderfluid writer/librarian who authored a great series of articles called “What the Heck is Genderfluid?” Here’s how they look at the matter: “One of the non-binary identities out there is called ‘genderfluid.’ That’s how I personally identify. For me, being genderfluid means that my gender is a moving target, not a fixed point. Sometimes I feel more masculine, sometimes I feel more feminine, and sometimes I feel like I’m somewhere in between the two.
“Here’s an analogy I like to use: Imagine that gender is the entire Earth, with male and female as the north and south poles. You could be at one or the other, you could stay in the northern or southern hemisphere, you could live right on the equator, or you could travel all over the place,” says Nilsson. “For me, there’s a whole wide world to explore between the two poles and I’m always on the move.”
For those of us raised in the world of boy-girl, Dick and Jane, this concept may be a challenge to understand and accept. But the times are most definitely changing, with genderfluid clothing shops opening (check out The Phluid Project), makeup for all (Have you seen Crayola’s gender-neutral line?), and the debate over unisex bathrooms making headlines.
Is This a Trend? Why Is It Happening Now?
The sudden emergence of gender fluidity has some members of our generation wondering if it is a “fad.” I spoke with Samantha, 55—who has a child who recently came out as genderfluid—and she voiced this notion. “I raised Emma with Barbie dolls, a pink bedroom, and endless ballet classes, so I am struggling with her current identity, which involves buzz-cut hair, no makeup, flannel shirts, and black jeans. Where did my daughter go? I think this is the way the younger generation may warm up to the idea that they are gay,” said Samantha. “Or a way to declare your individuality, like how some of us became hippies or punks to show we didn’t conform.”
Don’t think—or say!—that gender fluidity is ‘just a phase.’
No! say the experts about this idea that fluidity is a fad. Comments Professor Savin-Williams, “My guess is that historically and across cultures there have always been individuals who feel genderfluid. They and we might not have recognized them because either the person hid their internal reality of fluidity or there was no name for it, so we simply chalked it up to ‘their (weird) personality.’ I believe, but have no scientific evidence to support me, that gender fluidity is created by biology—it is simply given a voice by culture.”
Which brings up a vital point: Telling someone who’s coming out as genderfluid that “it’s just a phase” or “You don’t know how you really feel” is a hugely hurtful thing; it belittles or invalidates their identity. Nilsson cautions about the following kind of comments: “Rejecting it (‘That’s not real’), making fun of it (‘So what, am I supposed to call you “it” now?’), and dismissing its importance (‘It’s just a phase’). Saying this person isn’t ‘really’ genderfluid just tells them that you don’t really care about them. Because even if it’s not important to you, it sure as heck is to them.”
Watch Your Words
Which brings us to the problem with pronouns. Says Cecilia, “I am trying hard to respect my child’s choices but using ‘they’ instead of ‘he’—that is hard after years of conditioning … and it just sounds wrong!”
If you make mistakes with pronouns, correct it and move on.
So, how would you like it if someone started calling you ‘Sir’ or ‘he’? Because that’s how it feels to a genderfluid person when the rest of the world doesn’t make the effort. Explains Nilsson, “Use whatever pronouns the person asked you to use for them. Don’t argue about grammar or complain about how hard it is. Just do it. It’s literally the least you could do to support them. And when you make a mistake, don’t make excuses—just correct yourself and move on. I make mistakes on pronouns all the time. It happens. Don’t get defensive or make a big deal out of it. The important thing is that you’re trying.”
Show Your Support
If someone close to you has come out as genderfluid, what else should you know? Professor Savin-Williams advises, “Accepting gender fluidity will tax many in our culture who prefer to see a world of simplicity, of a binary perspective; those who struggle to understand and accept complexity. But we need to be open and welcoming.”
Nilsson says there are three components to the ideal coming-out reaction:
*Listen carefully to what is being said before you react; make it clear that you support them. “A loved one especially may be worried that coming out will damage their relationship with you, so make it clear that you still care about them.”
*Make it clear that you support them and still care about them.
* Accept them as they are, which can take some time, especially if you’re new to this whole concept. It may help to remember this isn’t about you, Nilsson cautions: “They’re not trying to attack you or reject you or upset you; they’re trying to share an important part of themselves with you because they trust you. So don’t try to blame them or yourself or ask if you `failed’ them somehow. Just take a deep breath and let them do this for them.”
Don’t try to blame them or yourself or ask if you ‘failed’ them somehow.
My friend Cecilia is trying harder each day to do exactly that. “I tend to look at my child and revert to seeing this bearded guy in a button-down shirt and jeans and think, How can he not still be the boy and the man I raised? But little by little, I realize there’s so much going on inside them that I’m not aware of. I’m asking myself if some of the moodiness that defined my child’s adolescence could be due to this feeling of a different gender identity. It’s a lot to think about. It will take time as their—yes, I must say ‘their’—gender identity evolves. I notice they sometimes now wear dark nail polish or one long, dangly earring. That shows me that my child is exploring and getting comfortable in their skin. I will do my best to be there and be supportive, even if I don’t fully understand all the nuances yet.”
Janet Siroto has held the Editor-in-Chief position at Time Inc.’s Family Life magazine, as well as senior editorial positions at Cosmopolitan, Redbook and Good Housekeeping. Her writing work has appeared in New York, The New York Times, Vogue and many others.