The Identity Issue: What Does “Transgender” Mean?

Celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner, Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox and Janet Mock are leading the way in creating a more accepting culture for transgender people; and Jazz Jennings — the 14-year-old trans superstar who has her own reality show and foundation to support trans children and their families (TransKids Purple Rainbow Foundation) — is breaking barriers and stereotypes about what it means to be a trans child and adolescent in the contemporary world. But even with increased awareness, many people aren’t clear on what it means to be transgender. Here’s are the basics.

  • For most people, gender identity coincides with the sex assigned at birth. When this is the case, people are referred to as cisgender.
  • When gender identity does not coincide with the sex assigned at birth, people are referred to as transgender. Transgender people are people who insistently, consistently and persistently express varying degrees of gender dysphoria, or discomfort.
  • If a trans person identifies with a category of the gender binary (male or female), the term used is the one the person identifies with (not the assigned sex at birth), and the chosen name, and matching personal pronouns should be used to respect and affirm the person’s gender identity.
  • If a trans person does not identify with any particular gender, this person is non-binary or genderqueer, and the use of neutral pronouns like “they” or “ze” is recommended.

Finally, it is important to note that gender variance is not the undesirable result of environmental factors, parenting styles or traumatic events; it is a normal part of human diversity.


The Identity Issue: Differences That Make a Difference

Imagine you’re a pedestrian at a busy traffic intersection. Some of the roads are major highways, some are smaller, local streets, but in order to cross safely you must pay attention to all of them.

Now imagine you are a driver on one of those roads. You obviously pay attention to what’s going on around you. You know other roads exist, but they don’t matter much to you because unless they cross your path you remain unaffected by them.

Now let’s go back to your original position, that of a pedestrian trying to navigate the complex flow of traffic going in many different— and often conflicting—directions. Because you are standing at the intersection of all those roads, you know that what happens on one of them can affect—and even hurt—you. For example, if you only look in one direction, you may miss the traffic coming the other way and get hit by it; or a major crash can occur where, due in part to a driver’s blind spots or aloofness, vehicles from two or more avenues collide with devastating consequences.

So, in order to be safe and get to where you want to go, you must pay attention to all of them. Now, you can’t focus on all the roads at the same time. That would paralyze you and probably drive you crazy as well. But to remain unharmed and reach your goal, you must be able to recognize the perils and opportunities each of them brings at particular moments of your journey.

This is how intersectionality works.

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle.”

Commonly known as differences that make a difference, intersectionality points to the obvious but often overlooked fact that our identity and social positioning are influenced and curtailed by a multiplicity of intersecting vectors like gender, race, class, ability, religion, country of origin, etc.

The term was coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to highlight the multiple discriminations some people— like women of color—face due to their overlapping minority status. Crenshaw successfully argued that without a nuanced understanding of the ways in which these axes intersect and inform one another, public policy and social movements would remain ill-equipped to serve the needs of, and provide equal opportunities for, an increasingly diverse population. As Audre Lorde summarized it, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we don’t live single-issue lives.”

Since then, the concept has gained popularity, and it is now commonly used to account for the different structural components that shape our understanding and experiences of the world.

Awareness can be helpful for parents and teachers

Intersectionality allows us to find a middle ground between an approach that sees personality, cognitive development and motor skills as traits unique to each individual, and the well-intended myopia of identity politics that sometimes reduces a person to a single characteristic shared with others with whom they have little else in common.

It can be very helpful for parents and educators to be aware of how the unique combination of 1). structural factors and 2). personal attributes that make our personalities affects the distribution of chances and resources available to us.

From the time we are kids, our innate abilities and inclinations overlap with factors like our race, religion, socioeconomic status and even gender identity and expression to mold our personalities, outline expectations about behavior and achievement, and provide differentiated—and often unequal—opportunities.

Kids are not allowed to explore their interests and play with the toys of their choosing equally. Gender, race, (dis)ability and ethnicity, among other factors, impact the horizon of choices available to them, socializing them in ways that pattern their life options and decision-making capabilities.

The consequences can be traced in children and adults alike. Studies have shown that a single factor (like gender or race) does not fully account for entrenched social imbalances like pay inequities or academic achievement. Pay gaps between men and women vary greatly according to race, and when socioeconomic status and gender are taken into account, a much clearer picture of the differences in scholarly outcomes among students starts to appear.

Play can help close the empathy gap

People are not only diverse, but also complex and multilayered. Understanding the multiple grounds of identity is key for a society that values diversity and sees it as a major component of critical thinking and creative problem-solving, and play is an ideal space to do this.

People are not only diverse, but also complex and multilayered.

Through play and daily practices that counter stereotypes and promote a non-reductive view of identity, we can help close the entrenched empathy gap toward marginalized minorities and provide a buffer for the multiple oppressions faced by many children.

Recognizing the different avenues that intersect in our personalities and bodies gives us a more nuanced and productive picture of our society and ourselves. Like with traffic patterns, if we are able to identify and understand them, we can put in place a set of attitudes and regulations that, far from being a burden to our society, will allow it to function better. Sometimes we need to follow the rules, sometimes we need to change them, and sometimes we have to create completely new ones. These transformations will not impede our advancement. On the contrary, they will allow all of us to get where we want to go safely and more effectively.

Juliana Martínez, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of world languages and culture at American University. One of her areas of focus is gender and sexuality, particularly transgender studies. She is a member Toca Boca’s diversity advisory board. 

The Identity Issue: 5 Tips for Supporting Kids’ Gender Development

  • Offer variety in toys. Expose your child to a wide range of toys — not just those that reinforce traditional gender roles — and give them the opportunity to play with all of them.
  • Listen to your child. Affirm your child’s interests and capabilities irrespective of their conformity to gender expectations. If your child likes to draw, dance, play with dolls or tractors, support and encourage them. Show them that they are loved for who they are.
  • Don’t be a bystander. Talk to your child about gender stereotypes. Challenge generalization like “all girls…” and “all boys…” and help them focus on a person’s qualities and abilities, not their gender identity or presentation.
  • Downplay gender and be creative. Rebecca Bigler, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, has shown that gender labeling — without explicit stereotyping — in itself produces gender stereotyping. In a revelatory study she found that only after four weeks of children being in a classroom where gender was used as an explicit category to organize space and activities, but where all kids were treated equally, both boy and girls showed increased levels of gender stereotyping. They also perceived less variability between genders, which basically means they were more likely to make generalizing statements such as “all boys like sports” and “all girls like pink stuff.” Therefore, when possible, avoid organizing parties and other activities based solely on gender. There are many ways to create groups and teach kids to relate to each other.
  • Counter stereotypes. Provide alternatives to gender stereotypes through environmental cues, social interactions and diverse cultural consumption. Expose your kids to books, movies and role models that explicitly challenge gender roles and present gender nonconformity in a positive light. Help kids see, in their daily lives, that there is not only one correct way of being a man or a woman; and that diversity, individuality and uniqueness should be respected, affirmed and valued in all human beings.

The Identity Issue: What Parents Need to Know About Gender

Gender is only a part of who we are, but it is a big part. Even before we are born, gender begins its work dictating everything from the color palette of the nursery to the type of clothing the baby will wear to expectations about attitudes and behaviors. However, despite the structuring role gender has in our lives, many of us are barely aware of it.

Gender is not a characteristic we are born with. It’s more like a cocktail of biological and cultural factors that, when not consumed critically and responsibly, can become toxic. More specifically, gender is made up of three related but distinct aspects: biological sex, gender identity and gender expression.

  • Biological sex refers to the anatomical traits (genitalia, reproductive organs, chromosomal makeup and hormonal composition) used to officially classify a person as either male or female at the moment of birth.
  • Gender identity is a person’s inner sense of being male, female, both or neither, irrespective of their physical characteristics. It is unrelated to sexual orientation—which refers to a person’s affective, emotional and sexual response to others—and develops much earlier. Most people have a sense of their gender identity between the ages of 2 and 4 years old, and by the time they reach adolescence it’s usually stable and remains unchanged.
  • Gender expression relates to the behaviors, attitudes and other outward manifestations of gender identity. It includes clothes, accessories, mannerisms and the predilection for activities regarded as feminine or masculine. There is a broad range of gender expression, and—contrary to popular belief—there is no direct correlation between gender identity, sexual orientation and gender expression. For example, a woman can have a gender expression regarded as masculine and be heterosexual; and the fact that a boy enjoys playing with toys regarded as feminine does not mean that he is, or will grow up to be, gay or transgender.

The interplay of these three factors produces a person’s gender. Gender is broad, and there are no inherently good or bad gender identities or expressions. What does exist are socially sanctioned or unacceptable ways of being male or female.

Why gender matters, still 

In a world where women seem to be breaking all glass ceilings, men are more involved in activities historically regarded as feminine like child care and cooking, and Caitlyn Jenner has made it practically impossible to be unaware of the many challenges faced by transgender people, particularly women, do we still need to talk about gender?

We may think that kids are growing up in a world where personality, not gender, is what determines hobbies and toys. But the increasing visibility of gender-reveal parties—with their cupcakes filled with pink or blue cream and invitations that read, “What would it be? Bouncing little he or pretty little she”—tells us that we are far from a gender-neutral world.

Despite the many advances in gender equality, gender continues to be one of the most resistant categories used to label, sort and classify people in our society. We would be hard-pressed to come up with a good reason to divide toys or clothing based on other physical differences among humans such as hair and eye color, or even race and ethnicity. However, we routinely—and inadvertently—segregate our daily lives according to gender.

Furthermore, studies indicate that, counterintuitively, children’s toys, clothes, bedding and accessories are more segregated by gender today than 50 years ago. In a study that compared catalogues for toys, Elizabeth Sweet found that in 1975 only 2 percent of the toys in the Sears catalogue where explicitly categorized as “for boys” or “for girls.” In contrast, nowadays all the toys on the Disney website are divided along gender lines.

In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein also showed that what we now consider the status quo of gender segregation for all things related to kids in department and toy stores is actually the result of a marketing strategy that started in the 1980s and was consolidated in the 1990s. The trick is simple and profitable: By tying toys and accessories to popular films, and color-coding practically all products targeted to children and teens, companies managed to double their sales in very little time and with very little effort. If all baseball bats were created equal, a parent with a boy and a girl could buy only one bat and have kids share it. But if the bat has the faces of Elsa and Anna stamped on it, chances are the boy will not want to play with it and the parent will buy another bat with more virile-looking characters for the boy.

Ellen DeGeneres mocked this trend with her now-classic skit about Bic’s pens “just for women.” Through her unique sense of humor, it’s easy to see how ridiculous gender-coding can get. However, gender is so ingrained in our culture that we often fail to see it, and when we do, we tend to regard it as either natural or harmless. However, more often than not, when we think we are describing, we are actually prescribing behaviors and characteristics.

Kids pick up on cues in early childhood 

During early childhood kids are highly focused on adults because they are their main source of information about the world. Children see many differences between people, and by looking at adults they learn which ones are important and which ones not so much. In this way, they soon learn that gender is one of the most meaningful categories and that there is a wide set of behaviors and emotional responses associated with it.

Our assumptions as adults model and curtail children’s expectations about themselves and others and can potentially limit their ability and/or confidence to freely explore their creativity and interests.

For example, by orienting children toward certain toys and away from others simply because of their gender we can hamper the development of their innate potential, lower their self-esteem and creativity, and reinforce biases against minority groups that include—but are not limited to—gender and sexual diversity. This will make it harder for them to be happy and confident adults and to perform in a world where the ability to relate to people of different backgrounds and cultures, and to think outside the box, are highly valued skills.

Play is the space of possibility

Fortunately, things are starting to change. Thanks in part to the work of organizations like Let Toys Be Toys and No Gender December, in 2013 the British branch of Toys R Us stopped labeling their toys by gender and started categorizing them by age, brand and type instead (in contrast, the first two categories in its U.S. counterpart of the toy giant are still “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys”). And in 2015 Target made headlines when it announced that it was removing all gender labels from kids’ toys and bedding because it considered them “unnecessary.”

More and more parents and toymakers are starting to realize that play is the space of possibility. While playing, differences are set aside. Kids of the most diverse backgrounds can work collaboratively and enjoy each other’s presence disregarding for a few hours the limits and differences that we, as adults, impose on them. This includes freeing themselves from gender norms.

Allowing kids to explore and express their gender identity during play can have a powerful impact on kids’ lives. Through play we learn the skills and values that will allow us to function as adults. Modeling games that are affirming of difference and encourage creativity can contribute to more innovative and inclusive societies. If through creative play we are free to imagine a world less bound by harmful stereotypes and limiting gender roles, perhaps one day we will also be able to create it in real life.

Juliana Martínez, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of world languages and culture at American University. One of her areas of focus is gender and sexuality, particularly transgender studies. She is a member Toca Boca’s diversity advisory board.