In the news coverage of the controversy at Nova Classical Academy, it’s really clear to me that some people have no earthly idea what “gender nonconforming” is and how it differs from being trans, so let me talk about that, just briefly.
I think most people have at least some idea what it means for a person to be trans. A trans person identifies with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth: if at birth, people thought you were a boy and gave you a male name, and have always used male pronouns for you, but despite this you know yourself to be a girl, you are trans. (If at birth people thought you were a girl and you agree with that assessment, the word for feeling comfortable in that identity is “cis” or “cisgender.” I am cisgender, or a cis woman.)
The best example of a gender-nonconforming or gender-creative kid I can readily point to is C.J., the son of the blogger at Raising My Rainbow. C.J., now eight years old, likes dresses, wears his hair long, wanted a Bitty Baby for Christmas, and prefers things pink or purple or covered in sparkles (or all three). He went through a brief period of requesting that his family call him Rebecca and use female pronouns, then decided this didn’t feel right. His mother, in a recent blog post, wrote about the fact that she’s had people insist that her son is trans, and pressure her to transition him: “My son no longer wants to be a woman when he grows up, like he did when he was four. He didn’t feel comfortable during those days when he was six and we called him Rebecca and used female pronouns. And, after watching his friend transition he declared that he couldn’t imagine being a girl every day.”
One confusing factor here is that a lot of trans kids start out presenting as gender-creative kids, then transition. But if you’ve got a boy who loves to wear sparkly purple dresses and identifies as a boy, that’s also fine. The appropriate pronoun is “he,” the appropriate word is “boy,” and his communities (school, preschool, day care, church…) should take steps as needed to make sure he is safe and respected. It is no more okay for people to tease a boy about wearing a dress than it is for people to tell a little girl, “you shouldn’t play with that lightsaber; Star Wars is for boys.”
It’s a lot rarer that you hear people talk about gender-creative or gender-nonconforming girls, in part because the idea of a “tomboy” is so solidly part of our culture. We have narratives in which tomboys grow up and put away their blue jeans and join the world of ladylike girls — Katie John, Caddie Woodlawn — and narratives where they hold tightly to the empowerment offered by “masculine” behavior — Tomboy, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. While there are many ways that society squashes girls who want to resist the “feminine” box, society in general these days is overall kinder to little girls who want to wear pants and play baseball than it is to little boys who want to wear dresses and play with dolls. Even the 1970s-era empowerment story (and song, in “Free to Be, You and Me”) William’s Doll shows William as reassuringly masculine other than in his desire for a doll, and assures both readers and the other characters in the story that nurturing behavior is still appropriate masculine behavior.
The two books My Princess Boy and Jacob’s New Dress are both about gender-nonconforming boys. The boys in these books are creative and exhuberant dress-wearing boys. (Here’s a really lovely interview with the author of My Princess Boy, by the way.)
In creating safe schools, we need to protect and empower both gender-creative kids and trans kids. (We also need to recognize that protecting a gender-creative kid may mean something different than protecting a trans kid — just as it’s unacceptable for a peer to say to a trans kid, “you are really a boy!” it’s unacceptable for a peer to say to a gender-creative kid, “you are really a girl!”)