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What I Learned from a Green Alien

Lucy picked out the monsters from my bucket of toys: a werewolf, a vampire, and an alien. “Is he a boy?” they asked, holding the werewolf. “I think so, he’s wearing jeans, a belt and a shirt and tie”  they added. “Hmmmm?” I wondered aloud. The vampire was wearing a purple suit; boy material Lucy concluded. The alien, green with big eyes, was harder to pin down and ultimately, Lucy seemed to be indifferent about determining its gender. We moved on.

I’ve thought about this exchange with Lucy many times since the session. Initially, I was thinking about it in terms of a particular client, who has been expressing their own gender exploration. On reflection, I missed an opportunity to reinforce the concept of asking versus assuming an individual’s pronouns. With that in mind, I find myself hoping there’s another opportunity in a very near future appointment.

On a larger level, however, I realize how this interaction has played out with so many clients over my 20+ years in practice, never with a second thought. My heightened awareness of gender with Lucy enabled me to notice the encounter. If gender was not already on my mind as the therapist in the room, I may have carried on unchecked.

The concept of asking versus assuming an individual’s pronouns isn’t reserved for gender-expansive kids like Lucy. If I don’t think to ask someone for their pronouns, then I assume them, based on the same kinds of markers Lucy was using in their play. Those assumptions then guide my interactions, not just as a clinician, but also as a person. We regularly use shortcuts to assess people we encounter in order to put them into a gender category. Lucy knows that gender markers: jeans, belt, shirt and tie equal boy. Lucy also experiences the world assessing them: short hair, t-shirt, and jeans equal boy. 

Lucy, who uses they/them pronouns, likely gets misgendered a lot. In part because the biased markers don’t match up with their identity and, in part, because societally, we aren’t conditioned to think of nonbinary as an option. Therefore, even if Lucy answers someone’s questions about their pronouns, it wouldn’t be unheard of for them to be misgendered anyway. 

My own nonbinary kid talks about this dilemma. Their markers: name, hair, clothing, voice and demeanor are read as feminine. Therefore, even though they have repeatedly informed or corrected people about their pronouns, they are frequently misgendered. They have wondered aloud if it would be easier for others to shift to using he/him vs they/them simply because of the unfamiliarity most people have in using they/them in this way. I’m guessing they’re right because I misgender them at times. I don’t want to do it and I know better but I still do it.  I’m guessing my error is only part of some larger problems. 

One of those larger problems is the automatic categorization into gender that we do to make sense of new people or even new toys. While the categorization is automatic and hardwired, the need for knowing gender isn’t. We learn the societal importance of boy vs girl by the age of 2, according to research.

We also learn to ask a person’s name; we don’t assume. What would it take for our cultural norm to become asking someone’s pronouns? This practice wouldn’t necessarily tell us an individual’s gender identity, and we’d have to learn over time to tolerate that. Tolerance would mean a combination of things; such as, recognizing our discomfort as our own and not the responsibility of another. Tolerance might also require managing our own internal dialogue and associated feelings in thought bubbles and deep breaths. I’m making some rather large evolutionary leaps here, assuming large swaths of society would do the emotional work of knowing their biases and managing their own emotions. Nevertheless, please stay with me …. If not knowing an individual’s gender became tolerable, is it safe to assume gender would become less societally relevant? Imagine that. We could act like Lucy regarding the green alien and just get on with the play.

This post is part of my series about cis parents of trans, nonbinary and gender-expansive kids: Parenting Through Transitions. If you liked this post, please subscribe so you won't miss the next one. If you are interested in learning more about my writing project involving interviews of parents of gender-expansive kids, please go to this page to get the details


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