Growing up in Southern California in the ‘80s, I learned that there were three categories of people: boys who played sports and liked girls, girls who wore Bonnie Bell lip gloss and liked boys, and everyone else, who we lumped into a catch-all category labeled “gay.” This “gay” bucket included everyone from Martina Navratilova to Boy George to George Michael (breaking my 14-year-old heart) to this kid Stuart who wore a scarf to our eighth-grade graduation dance and busted out some kooky strip-tease-like moves.
Prince, of course, messed with our taxonomy; what bucket you put him in depended on whether you put more weight on the frilly cravats (gay) or the lyrics to Raspberry Beret (straight), because it obviously had to be one or the other. You were a boy or a girl. You were straight or gay. And you needed to fit yourself into one of these boxes or we would do it for you.
But when I jumped into conversations with my kids wearing my old ‘80s Ray-ban knockoff lenses on gender and sexuality, I got a tidal wave of eye-rolling, because so much of what we were taught isn’t true. Here’s what my kids and their friends (and some articles and maybe a gender conference or two) taught me that growing up in the ‘80s didn’t:
1. Sexual orientation, biological sex, gender, and gender expression are four separate — often unrelated — concepts.
What we labeled “gay” was actually a mash-up of different things that didn’t conform with the expected likes-girls/sports vs. likes-boys/lip gloss dichotomy. “Gay” — as most of us understand by now —is a sexual orientation category. Sexual orientation is who you want to kiss (or in George Michael’s case, meet up with in the Griffith Park public restrooms); think of it as what’s in your heart.
Biological sex is chromosomes and hormones and what type of equipment is visible (or invisible) between your legs; the combination of these factors makes you male, female, or intersex (to oversimplify).
Gender is whether you feel on the inside like a boy/man, a girl/woman or something else. Notice I said “you feel.” It’s not what others think you are or what bits are between your legs but what you know to be true about yourself; think of it as what’s between your ears.
Gender expression is how you express yourself to the outside world; you might dress and groom to appear masculine, feminine, somewhere in between or something else.
As this adorable gender unicorn shows, people can mix and match combinations of biological sex, gender, gender expression and sexual orientation all they want. So someone’s gender expression — their eye liner and shiny pants, in the case of Motley Crue — doesn’t tell you anything about their biological sex or their sexual orientation (although, in hindsight, the hair bands I was obsessed with in middle school used aggressive misogyny to avoid being labeled “gay.” This wasn’t particularly healthy for anyone). The same is true for gender and biological sex. You can have male parts between your legs but know you are a girl on the inside, or vice versa. And neither sex nor gender tells you anything about who a person wants to kiss.
These four attributes come together in expected, traditional ways for some people: Madonna, for example, since she looks like a girl, dresses like a girl, married Sean Penn and then her male bodyguard, and (I’m guessing) has female parts between her legs. But others mix and match in less traditional ways. Boy George’s gender expression, for example, was decidedly feminine, but (again I’m guessing) he probably had male parts under his caftan and may or may not have been gay (a question of deep interest to Monica Runkel whose locker was next to mine at gymnastics; she hoped he wanted to kiss girls in general and her specifically).
Basically, what this means is that we have to work a little harder than chucking anyone outside traditional expectations in a bucket labeled “gay.”
2. Binary categories are as dated as big hair.
So far, my examples stuck with two categories: male/female, man/woman, gay/straight, masculine/feminine. But that’s not actually how humans work. Even biological sex, which seems like the most clear-cut binary, is pretty arbitrary. As Liat Wexler, trainer and consultant, describes: if a doctor looks at the ultrasound and sees a little dangly bit, they say, “Congratulations! It’s a boy!” regardless of what other body parts and chromosomes that baby may turn out to have. No dangly bit? “It’s a girl!”
But one in 150 people are actually intersex, meaning their hormones, chromosomes, and physical parts don’t all match up on one side of the male/female tally sheet: they might have XXY chromosomes or ambiguous genitalia or ovotestes. Most intersex people don’t know they are intersex so you likely know someone who is neither male nor female if you have more than 150 friends on Facebook (or on Instagram, but as a Gen Xer, you probably still have a larger Facebook following since Instagram is uncomfortably fake and shiny for those of us culturally encoded by Beck and Green Day) .
For sexual orientation, those of us who’ve followed Debbie Harry, Michael Stipe or Alanis Morisette know that there aren’t two boxes — gay and straight — but instead an entire universe of options: bisexual, pansexual (which removes the assumption of only two genders), asexual, etc.
Gender expression is also obviously non-binary, as David Bowie illustrates.
But this non-binary thing is also true for gender, which is harder for some folks to wrap their head around. Let’s start with understanding where gender comes from. Most societies have pretty strong cultural maps of what it means to be a man/boy or a woman/girl. For example, if you ask a broad group of Americans to describe what men and boys are supposed to be like, you’ll get a very consistent set of answers: strong, hairy, good at sports, never cry, eat hot wings, understand how mechanical things work, wear comfortable pants, etc. And we collectively agree that ideal girls and women smell good, are nurturing, are sexy, are dainty, have long hair on their head and no hair anywhere else, talk a lot, and wear makeup and sparkly things. Remember that these maps are cultural, not biological; the list would look different in 1800s America (see: Thomas Jefferson’s long hair and high heels), in other countries (see: French men) and outside white communities within the US.
Some people look at their body parts and this cultural map of gender and think, “Cool. Totally works for me.” Some people — probably most of us — think, “Okay, sure. I can live with this and maybe just ignore the few expectations that don’t work for me.” These folks whose biological sex and gender match up (generally speaking) in traditional ways are cisgender (“cis” is Latin for “on the same side”).
But some people look at their body parts and this cultural map of gender and realize, “Yeah, no. I’m in the wrong box.” These folks are transgender (“trans” means “across from” in Latin). People who are transgender might change their name and gender from the one assigned at birth (by the doctor who did or did not see a dangly bit), they might change how they dress, they might have medical interventions like hormone therapy or surgery. Or they might so none of those things, but they are still transgender.
And — because the whole theme here is tossing out constraining ‘80s labels — some people look at the cultural map of gender and say, “I don’t want to choose. I’m both (or neither).” These folks might call themselves genderfluid, gender non-binary, agender or use queer as a catch-all.
3. You should believe people when they tell you who they are.
Sometimes, folks get a little passive aggressive in their language about people who don’t fit neatly into our cultural gender boxes. There’s no such thing as a “real” woman; anyone who says they are a woman is a woman, regardless of the sex they were assigned at birth. It’s not the “name they go by”; it’s their name. They aren’t “preferred” pronouns; they are that person’s actual pronouns.
At the end of the day, it’s none of our business what’s underneath someone’s underwear or who they want to kiss (unless it’s specifically us). So if someone says they are a boy, treat them like a boy. If someone says their name is Jessica, call them Jessica. If someone says they use the pronoun “they”, use the pronoun “they.” (And before anyone gets all hot about “they” as a singular pronoun, reflect for a minute how often we already use “they” when we don’t know the gender of the person we’re referring to: “Someone left their jacket” or “We’ll meet the doctor later and they’ll tell us what’s next” or this entire paragraph… So let it go.) If someone says they are a glitterbutch fairy who uses the pronouns ze/zir, you can say, “That’s new for me. Can you explain what a glitterbutch fairy means and show me how to use your pronouns correctly?” But if you want your kids to stop rolling their eyes at you (and to be a decent human being), take people for who they say they are.
Think this is all weird and uncomfortable? Wonder why it’s such a big deal? I get it. But it’s even more weird and uncomfortable to live in a body that doesn’t match who you are in a society that insists on your dangly bits defining your identity, which partly explains why 42% of non-binary youth have attempted suicide. Let that sink in for a minute: 42%. So it’s worth the discomfort of letting your either/or, biology-is-destiny narrative go the way of my hair circa 1987, because it is equally out-of-date.
How to be a Girl is a seven-minute video that describes a transgender girl’s journey. (I’m not crying; you’re crying)
This New Yorker cartoon uses an analogy to explain how disconcerting, rude and bizarre it is when someone refuses to use your pronouns correctly.