My dad and I entered the steel yards reception area. A large, burly man with a beard stood up from behind the desk.
“Can I help you?” he asked my dad.
“Ya, have you got a washroom we can use?”
“Oh, for your son?” he asked.
To which my dad replied with a snicker, “No, for my daughter.” They exchanged glances and chuckled out loud.
It was 1987, and I was eight years old.
On that particular day, I had been trekking around with my dad in his transport truck for hours. I remember it clearly. My hair was short and messy. I was wearing a black Chicago Bulls T-shirt, red Chicago Bulls sports shorts and a pair of beat-up high tops. Covered in dirt from head to toe, I was your stereotypical tomboy, and it felt like the most natural thing in the world.
That day I realized for the first time that what made me feel comfortable made others feel uncomfortable. My choice of clothing, hairstyle and interests were not common for other girls. I was making choices that were “beyond the gender binary” before I knew the term or what it meant. Choices I made caused confusion for others and sometimes for myself.
This was the first of many more encounters over my lifetime where I would experience mistaken identity, and I still do. As I got older, I realized that having short hair, wearing “boy’s clothes,” playing in the dirt and doing laborious jobs with my dad wasn’t what most other girls did.
We’re taught from early on to place individuals and things into boxes and categories. It’s part of our unconscious programming as humans. It can help us make sense of the world but it can also be the very thing that perpetuates rigidity and societal expectations.
To better understand gender, let’s take a closer look at a few terms.
First of all, gender is a range of characteristics that relate to an individual’s masculinity and femininity and the differences between them. This pertains to our socially constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities as girls, women, boys, men, and gender diverse individuals.
Sex looks at certain biological factors, such as our reproductive organs, genes, and hormones. Like gender, sex is not binary. Individuals may have the genes we associate with being male or female but their reproductive organs and genitals may look different.
Gender identity is a person’s internal experience of gender. It relates to feelings of being male, female, both or neither. Whereas gender expression is a person’s external or outward expression of gender.. Gender expression is how a person displays their gender publicly through things like hairstyle, make-up, clothing, body language, voice, name and pronouns.
The term binary means having two parts. Therefore the gender binary refers to identifying as female or male. This form of classification is limiting at best. It does not account for individuals who do not feel or identify as male or female. What’s even more interesting is that the term non-binary or outside the binary has been around since 1400 B.C., since the 15th century and the time of Joan of Arc. Non-binary individuals are not “New Age” nor is the term itself. It’s simply become a bigger part of our everyday language than it was previously.
Another term to note is 2-spirit. 2-spirit is a term that has been present in Indigenous communities for countless generations that predate the use of LGBT terminology. Among its many meanings, the term is used for those known as the balance keepers. An individual who identifies as 2-spirit may be gay, but a gay individual may not be 2-spirit.
Some Indigenous people use 2-spirit to describe sexual, gender, and/or spiritual identity. Historically, individuals who showed great skill at both masculine and feminine tasks were referred to using this term. As an example, a boy or girl who was great at weaving and cooking, as well as hunting and gathering, would be revered within the tribe and therefore be known as 2-spirit. The same could have been true of girls showing similar skill. Once again, this is an identity that is outside the gender binary.
To further give context to these terms, let’s look at the spectrum of human identity below.
(your sex assigned at birth)
(your internal experience of gender)
(your outward or external expression of gender)
(your emotional, physical, or sexual attraction toward another person)
Sometime in the 1990’s other gender-neutral terms like gender-fluid, gender creative, or genderqueer began to gain traction and are now a more common part of the our language. These terms allow individuals previously confined to the pink or blue box to break free and self-identify in a way that’s both fitting and liberating.
Truth is, like many others I know in the LGBTQ2+ community, I’ve lived the majority of my life trying to force myself into the female box that the doctor decided I was at birth while vying to embrace the masculine parts of my identity. I felt challenged for years to understand and accept my androgyny. Sadly, I held this negative view that it made me “weird” or it confused people.
It’s only in the past few years that I’ve come to embrace that cooking, cleaning, and nurturing my son displays my more female attributes while chopping firewood, doing minor household repairs and coaching his sports team showcases my more masculine ones. I’ve come to accept these as positives instead of negatives.
I now fully embrace that I’m non-binary and that’s freeing!
Heck I’ve even written a kid’s book all about being yourself (I Will Be Me) and a chapter in my adult non-fiction book about breaking the binary (Dismantling The Obstacles To Workplace Inclusion – Chapter 5). While I’m not going to get upset if someone refers to me as ‘she’, the pronouns they/them/theirs feel much more fitting.
In closing, a person’s choices and interests are fluid, not fixed.
A person’s sense of being male and female are fluid, not fixed.
Gender is fluid, not fixed.
Get out there and be exactly who you were born to be because as Lady Gaga says, you were “Born this Way”.
Enjoy this blog? I invite you to check out my book, Dismantling the Obstacles To Workplace Inclusion, where I take a deeper dive into this topic and several others.