“Liam got his period,” my middle-school-aged daughter casually mentioned. That was about five years ago, and it was the first time my brain circuitry fritzed around gender expression. When I was growing up only girls got periods—and girls only used she/her pronouns. But with patience and practice over the last few years, my neurons are steadily rewiring into a whole new network for referring to gender.
In case you’ve been culturally sequestered through no fault of your own, I’m referring to the heightened visibility of gender fluidity and its associated shifts in language. If you’re over a certain age, say 25, chances are you grew up thinking that pink is for girls, blue for boys, and never the twain shall meet except in bold fashion statements. But a growing reframing of traditional gender acculturation is taking hold, and embracing it is a far better use of your energy than resisting it.
When I first encountered gender non-conforming terminology, such as an individual using “they/them” pronouns, it felt like an affront to my neatly categorized, grammatical sense of order. (I mean, they refers to a plurality, not singularity!) However, despite the linguistic and cognitive friction many of us are experiencing, I’ve come to realize we are moving toward a better understanding of each other. The freedom to authentically express gender and sexuality serves all of us.
The last couple of years have greatly accelerated this evolution in how I think and speak about gender. I know of several kids who have come out as transgender, and many people within my family’s social sphere now use they/them pronouns. (Although these are distinct topics, in my view they still swirl on the same dance floor of gender identity.) Between the name changes and the gender reference changes, I confess it wasn’t (and still isn’t) always easy for me to keep up. But my teenagers have helped me to adjust, since this type of language and gender fluidity is a natural part of their world.
When I reflect on the world of my youth, however, I can see how gender expectations were fueled by the passive, automatic language of pronouns. It was a world where boys were always He and pressured to behave as such: The he who wore feminine colors was teased mercilessly; the he who didn’t do sports was peculiar; the he who loved to sing, dance, do theatre and be creative was an aberration; and the he who was gentle was not considered “he” enough.
As for girls, the “girlier” the better and the more social currency she had: She played with dolls and wore frilly pink; she was demure and flirty; she was obligated to help him shine. The she who didn’t embrace femininity was odd; the she who did not want a boyfriend or motherhood was abnormal. The she who did everything in her power to achieve the perfect body shape, style and “look” was the one who reaped social rewards. That was the world I grew up in. Those who fit themselves neatly at the ends of the masculine-feminine spectrum dominated society.
However, the truth of how we express gender is all across the spectrum. I suspect that in the absence of social pressures and norms, there are as many people clustered in the middle as there are clustered at the ends. And the younger generation today is refusing to play by old-paradigm rules that still try to force people into rigid boxes.
Within this changing landscape, language serves as one of the most powerful tools we have to shape our lives. And it’s a tool we can use to loosen cultural rigidity and build a more peaceful society. Instead of continuing to affirm the extreme ends of the gender and/or sexuality spectrum, let’s embrace those who want to express that they are at neither end, or even at multiple points simultaneously. Such expressions have much bigger impacts, as they give us permission to not be fixed when it comes to identity in other forms too: political, racial, philosophical, religious, etc. Because when you “zoom out” in time and space, these fixed identities we’ve adopted are temporary, even illusory—yet they are often the primary cause of wars and division.
Given this bigger picture, I’m happy to stumble through the minefield of mistakes when adopting a new language of non-conforming gender pronouns, because I know it serves a higher purpose in shifting our collective thinking. And I get that it’s not easy to embrace what might be considered “radical” views of a younger generation. But even using the term “younger generation” implies division of an “us vs them” world (not dissimilar to the “she vs he” world). Instead, I’m reframing the way I view the younger generation.
“Kids today” (or however you want to call them) are the product of every generation that came before. They see and feel the toxicity of the polar extremes that previous generations were conditioned to accept without question. In growing numbers, they are responding with a “thanks but no thanks.” And rather than lament a disintegrating “social order” or feel “lost” in a world not of our making, we should buck up. The “older” generation raised the younger one, who are shaping the world with an empowerment we couldn’t access. They are an aspect of us (and vice versa). And maybe a gentle push toward non-binary thinking is exactly what humanity needs.
I personally love the idea of a world where there is no pressure to fit into a box; where everyone has the freedom to be their authentic selves as long as they aren’t hurting anybody. And if it means a period of language confusion to reframe the way we speak and think, that’s a small price to pay.
In the interest of becoming people who put humanity before gender, I’m choosing to support Gender Spectrum in conjunction with this month’s post. In addition to joining me in clumsily but earnestly adopting new language habits, I welcome you to join me in making a donation if you’d like. 🙂