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  • Mx. Tooley

What is gender?

To be seen as female is to be seen as weak, at least that's what I started to believe in elementary school.

I adored basketball. Absolutely loved it (and still do!). I played on the playground, practiced at home, in my room, and adored the Chicago Bulls (and eventually the Sacramento Kings...Nor Cal person here!). It was the start of 4th grade, and recess had started up. The blacktop was sweltering already in the heat of the hot September, summer day. It was one of those days that boasts a California fire is going to happen soon, but I headed to the melting blacktop to shoot hoops anyway. After a minute or two of shots and most likely a lot of misses, a group of boys came over to take over the court. Some from my class and some older than me, they begin to situate for a game. I actually was excited and didn't mind the complete disregard that I was on the court. I wanted to play a game. I dropped the ball and headed to the line up for teams to be chosen.

I wasn't chosen. I was told girls can't play basketball. I was told I couldn't shoot high enough to hit the rim. I ended up pushing back and playing anyway. Showed off my layup and my shot even if I was a short, 9 year old 'girl'.

At that moment, I realized how being seen as female made me look less, weak, not good enough. This idea was stemmed through our society that gender determines who you are. Not just any gender, but two genders: male or female. One is seen as dominant, while the other submissive. I realized that day, that the way you look and present determines the limits or possibilities of your life.

So what is gender?

First, let us define what it isn't.

Gender is NOT the definition of what someone is biologically born with. The term 'sex' defines our biological makeup. "In general terms, "sex" refers to the biological differences between males and females, such as the genitalia and genetic differences" (Newman, Medical News).

Gender on the other hand is defined as "either of the two sexes (male and female), especially when considered with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones. The term is also used more broadly to denote a range of identities that do not correspond to established ideas of male and female"(Dictionary Definition).

In other words, gender is connected to how one sees themselves in the world which is why you may have heard the term gender identity. It is not based on the genitalia you were born with.

So why is gender seen as binary?

The gender we define around us has been carefully constructed by our society down to the clothing we wear, the toys we play with, and the products we buy. When we see a dress, we think female. When we see certain colors, we associate them with gender. Rather than see the world around us as versatile and non-binary, our perspectives have been shaped and warped since birth. If we were born as female sex, we were dressed in what? Pink or purple or something that is 'girl'


The World Health Organization helps break down gender as a social construct by defining it as this: "Gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men – such as norms, roles and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed"(World Health Organization).

Our society has defined what gender means for us, but it can be changed, and it slowly is. I am not an expert in this, but I know having language to define who I am is powerful. I, also, know this language is not accessible to everyone, yet, and wasn't accessible to me just a few years ago. Our society has deemed that you must be male or female acting and presenting and there is no in between. However, there is so much in between! There is a beautiful array of humanity that has been shoved aside because it's seen as abnormal. It is normal. It is normal to be a guy who enjoys wearing dresses. It is normal to be a girl who is muscular. It is normal to use the pronouns they/them to present yourself. It is normal to not be defined in the binary. At least it will be soon.

So what is gender identity?

Gender is constantly evolving. It was never meant to stay stagnant in a binary construct. History shows us other instances of the binary being broken and accepted in past societies.

Gender identity "is our internal experience and naming of our gender. It can correspond to or differ from the sex we were assigned at birth" (Understanding Gender). This is you, looking at your body, identity (internal sense of self), and social presentation of yourself, and saying, "I am...".

Pronouns are one example of how one may present socially.

For myself, my exploration led to answers to these three parts of gender identity. As I explored who I may identify as, I tried different pronouns. I never had the option or the feeling of power to explore this. The same is with my own gender and gender identity. I did not feel I had the power or options to explore this. Now, I can say, "I am non-binary. I identify as genderqueer." This is my identity. I see my body as something that may change. It is something I am not entirely comfortable in. I socially present myself more and more masculine with some feminine outliers. I present myself with the pronouns they/them. Right now, each day and each week can be an ease or challenge. I am relearning myself, who I am, and what I like. There is a freedom in this, but there is A LOT of uncertainty. When I came out to my friends, this uncertainty was eased as they accepted me and welcomed my new pronouns. There is also the daily uncertainty of how much do I show to society, and how much will be accepted in the places I go to, work at, and meet in. I am rediscovering how I can present myself, but that daily struggle brings along its own questions and feelings. Some days are jubilant, and others, I am fighting to stay above water. I know this is not the same for everyone who identifies as non binary, so I only speak for myself.

Once again, I am not expert. I am learning and unpacking a lot of my own misunderstandings about gender, myself, and society. It is a journey. By writing, I hope to share my journey with you and open up a space for dialogue, understanding, and possible discovery. It has helped me so much to understand that gender is NOT something I am born with. It is something I have the power to define. It is not something society can demand I be, but, today, I have the privilege (yes, it is a privilege) to define it for myself. I know many do not have this privilege.

To end, it is important that we continue to speak, discuss, and normalize conversations that go beyond the gender construct. By stating your pronouns in emails, conferences, sites, you normalize a way to present yourself to society. By supporting others doing the work beyond June, you are helping normalize conversations, laws, and push for acceptance. By researching and creating space in your home, classroom, and workplace for these possibly difficult conversations, you are beginning the process of normalizing that gender is NOT binary.

I encourage you to check out the following sites and learn, grow.

Let Toys Be Toys: Raising Your Child Without Gender Stereotypes

Trans Educational Resources

Gender Spectrum

10 Ways to Raise A Gender Equal Child

Understanding Non-Binary and How to Support

Now, move forward and do your own research!

Here for you in your journey as we learn and grow together,