Online Gender Workshop: Teaching Gender Attribution for Skeptics and Scientists

Online Gender Workshop, as ever, is brought to you by your friendly, neighborhood Crip Dyke.

In a recent thread, Okidemia posed a question that many parents have these days: When and how should I teach my child/ren about trans* folk?

Okidemia framed it this way:

…kids have not been told about transpeople yet, because we don’t know any. Thus an important educationnal question:
at what age would you* speak about it to kids? (certainly, you* should begin before they meet psychologically transgendering acquaintances –as opposed to biologically transitioning which certainly happens later in life.

One of the reasons this question seems so confounding is that, like many confounding questions, it is the wrong question. It’s rather like asking at what age a mathematician should be taught the hexadecimal times tables. There needn’t be one age to learn the specifics of hexual multiplication, but there’s a problem if you aren’t teaching that number systems other than base 10 exist. Sure, your mini-mathematician might not use binary or hex in everyday functioning, but if your budding boffin doesn’t know that the numbering system you two are using has a base, and that that base is 10, you’re failing to teach some fundamental things about the numbers with which Little Lovelace is already working.

Okidemia’s original question is discomfiting because of our own insecurities about any topic related to sex and because we likely had a delayed awareness of trans* folk and experiences that makes it difficult to use our own reception of a topic as a guide to an appropriate age. (I learned about sex reassignment surgery at 30 and boy did I wig out. But times are different …so is 24 too young?)

To navigate our world in a way that respects themselves and others, our children need to understand not some specific trans* experience, but gender itself. If they understand gender, understanding the concepts used to communicate trans* experience should be no trouble at all. Let the question be newly frocked, then,  and it is much more comfortable.

The question for which we actually seek an answer is this: How do we teach our children their observations are real and categories are useful without teaching them rigid, unrealistic boundaries that lead to stereotyping and harm. Categorization is an important skill, and you don’t want to fail to praise appropriate categorization in a new language learner (new meaning “at all, the very first time” not “any language that is new to that person”). For most, this will be in the 12-36 month range.

The folks justifying withholding information on trans* folk will insist that (too early in childhood) telling a child that they are wrong about someone’s gender or can’t know a person’s gender without asking will produce a nihilism of categories, a muddied mass of indistinct “gender” with no knowledge gained, merely practical categorization lost.

I should be clear that I don’t know of a case of this ever happening. But responding to that fear doesn’t require any more than what I already advocate: teaching gender instead of teaching trans* experiences.

In the earliest stages, gender lessons are simply about rendering gender visible. Your child might declare, in a fit of recognition:

Boy! [pointing at infant with nothing showing but a blue knit hat, chubby cheeks, a pointy chin, and a grey blanket]

But how do we respond? We have many practicalities to juggle, including a desire not to offend the people around us. Could the best response really be:

Maybe. But maybe it’s a girl wearing a blue hat. Or maybe that child will grow up to reject the gender binary! Wouldn’t that be cool?

Well, yes. It could very well be cool. The child might even smash the patriarchy at that. But at this stage your child still isn’t certain how trustworthy human senses and faculties are, or what features the adults around them consider relevant to categorization. Teaching your child the power of observation and confirming when the child has done a good job intuiting rules of categorization is a plus for your child. There is no need for this to also require validation of fixed categories. Why not:

Oh! Did you notice that baby’s blue hat? That was a good observation! Baby boys are often dressed in blue.

Here the parent isn’t saying the categorization is wrong. Given conventions, it’s probably right and a young enough child should be praised merely for making that connection; but neither is the parent reinforcing the idea that blue hat == boy gender. The parent makes clear that the two are engaged in observing and making conclusions. They are actively taking part in hypothesis (blue hat indicates boy gender), observation (Blue hat!), test (Boy?), revise. “Baby boys are often dressed in blue” is a true enough statement in US culture to be useful in tentative categorization, but unhelpful or false frequently enough even without considering the existence of trans* people that this interaction doesn’t create social stress for the child. Nor would it create stress if a child repeated, outside your presence, your statement or even its converse: “Baby boys don’t always wear blue hats.”

“Blue hat == gender” is a formula for rigidity and can shut down the process of learning about gender, but our exemplar parent hasn’t used it. “What did you notice? I like your observations,” is an invitation to observe more. One is deontological; Here is the rule, child, use it. The other is an acknowledgement that the child is learning about gender. And as there is a ton to learn, encouraging that learning is a good thing!

The lessons of skepticism give us a push to discard facile answers when we know they coincide with biases…unless and until we have specific evidence to give those answers credit. The lessons of science give us the confidence to use our observations by applying tests and tools to verify what we think we know; it gives value to intuition. As a burst of energy, it is all too likely to collapse uselessly. But in the presence of a scientific field of knowledge, that spark may move us to productive work. There is no reason that gender is any less apt an area to teach your children these lessons than, say, meteorology or biology.

Here doth not endeth the lesson, of course. Children get older and their interactions with gender become more sophisticated, requiring not only more and better information, but more and better practices.

Even without specific encouragement toward observation, children will eventually ask a parent about the gender of someone who seems to that child to give off conflicting clues. When a child of ours asks us, “Is that a boy or a girl?” it seems to us to become harder to avoid the topic of trans* identity and experience. Perhaps it is the time to say,

Hmm. That person might be a girl: I notice some earrings, and more girls wear earrings than boys. That person might be a boy: I notice that their hair is cut super short. Maybe that person belongs to a gender we haven’t met yet, a person that is not a girl and not a boy. The only way to know for sure is to ask. Do you want to ask, or do you want me to ask?

Of course, if it’s not appropriate or not possible to ask – you can hardly ask the bike messenger that is already 100 meters down the road – the last part can be left off. However, modeling that adults don’t always know gender and that it’s okay to ask is an important thing to communicate at some point, so make sure you take the opportunities you have. But there’s another, equally important lesson that can be taught here. Perhaps it is the time to say,

I don’t know.

The rules of gender are stunningly incomplete. There is no reason for any parent to feel confident that there is one right time to teach children about trans* identity or experience. But we can encourage the natural inquisitiveness of children, teach children that being ignorant is not bad, but making new observations, learning new things, can be a fun and fulfilling experience. If we raise children willing to learn, willing to observe even those things others learn not to see, teaching children about trans* identity and experience will be no more or less difficult, no more or less rewarding, no more or less horribly fraught than teaching children why some people choose to become accountants.

Which is, of course, to say: it’s a nightmare of complex, explosive emotion for which one can never be fully prepared, but for the sake of Thanksgiving peace we try not to judge.


  1. Paul K says

    We taught our son to not care too much about gender. When he was younger and talked about his friends, he would sometimes say ‘she’ when talking about a boy, and ‘he’ when talking about a girl. We would correct him but not make anything of it. If he had asked if someone was a girl or a boy at a very young age, we would probably have said, ‘Does it matter?’ But I don’t think he ever asked; he didn’t care. I don’t know if this was the ‘right’ thing to do, but it’s what we did.

    As for discussing trans folks, we didn’t do it when he was young because we were in our bubble of unawareness. Reading here over the past several years has made me more aware. He’s thirteen now, and we discussed it recently. He was very receptive to accepting the idea that folks get to say who they are, and that they should be accepted for it without judgment.

  2. says

    Perhaps it is the time to say,

    “I don’t know.”

    YES! “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable (and, perhaps more importantly, honest) answer!

    It’s okay for us adults* to admit we don’t know everything!

    *I use the term in regards to chronological age. I make no guarantees of mental age.

  3. John Pieret says

    In a somewhat related topic, Rick Santorum, of all people, said something almost sane about Bruce Jenner’s transitioning:

    “If he says he’s a woman, then he’s a woman,” Santorum originally said when asked about the TV star during a roundtable with reporters in South Carolina . “My responsibility as a human being is to love and accept everybody. Not to criticize people for who they are. I can criticize, and I do, for what people do, for their behavior. But as far as for who they are, you have to respect everybody, and these are obviously complex issues for businesses, for society, and I think we have to look at it in a way that is compassionate and respectful of everybody.”

    Of course, since the frothing-at-the-mouth-hater wing of the Republican party got wind of it, he has had to walk back the comment but, given his history, surprisingly not as far as might be expected.

  4. unclefrogy says

    this is as wonderfully an expressive way to say a simple and profound thing as I have ever heard or read.

    but for the sake of Thanksgiving peace we try not to judge.

    uncle frogy

  5. Bruce says

    I don’t know hardly anything about gender.
    But I do know that to say: “I don’t know” is the mark of the beginning of scientific thinking. To begin to face any issue from a rational and scientific perspective, one must start by acknowledging that there are some things that we don’t already know, and that there’s nothing wrong with admitting that fact. This is a key difference between science and religion. To do science, one must start by admitting that there is a topic where we do not know things. But to do religion in the conventional, it seems one may never admit to not knowing everything.
    So it is good to learn that “I don’t know” is a useful phrase both for science and for a sensible approach to gender awareness. Thanks.

  6. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    Crip Dyke,

    Thanks for keeping the workshop going.

  7. says

    I often use the formulation “most”. Children are totally able to understand exception of the rule.*
    At some point many children will happily tell you what they think about gender, learning some very rigid ideas from the constant stereotyping in media and culture.
    What is most telling are the stereotypes that are most obviously not true. Most women do not have long hair, many men have long hair.

    *Which is problematic as such, since it implies normativity, othering the person who doesn’t fit the stereotype.

    Over time we expanded the discussion. From “you cannot tell from somebody’s clothing what genitals they have” to “you cannot tell by somebody’s genitals what gender they are.”

  8. mudpuddles says

    Hi folks, this is not 100% OT but it is related, and I’d be interested to hear perspectives.

    I will be designing some social research surveys over the summer. In these surveys, there are some standard questions to gain some demographic details, including a question to identify the respondent’s gender. In many such surveys, the typical gender question just has two answers the respondent can select from: “Male” or “Female”; occasionally we might see a third “Prefer not to answer” choice. But last year I saw a scientific survey (about opinions on nature conservation) that had four answers: “Male”, “Female”, “Trans” and “Prefer not to Answer”. This is very unusual, and I thought it was pretty cool to see some recognition of gender as non-binary. However, I mentioned it to a trans friend of mine, who actually got rather annoyed and said it was othering and unnecessary to pose the question with a non-binary answer. Yet, more and more I am seeing increasing social demands to consider gender as not simply binary.

    So I’m not sure how I should phrase the gender question on the surveys I am developing. On the one hand, I should of course take the opinion of a trans person into consideration – but is that opinion unusual? I’d love to hear what others think!

  9. azhael says

    Thank you Crip Dyke for another great post :)
    I’m a big, big fan of the “i don’t know” and also the “does it matter?”.

  10. wilydairygnome says

    Mudpuddles, if I were designing your study, I’d guve the options for male, female, other, and prefer not to answer. This is mainly based on anecdotal evidence, so is in no means authoritative. The few trans people I’ve known well enough to talk about such things have said they would generally click the binary gender they identified with, while the genderqueer or genderfluid people have been the ones who want a nonbinary option. In addition to the risk of othering, a lot of gender formulations are left out if the options are male, female, trans.

  11. mudpuddles says

    @wilydairygnome, #11
    Hi there and thanks so much for your reply :)
    I have been thinking of using other, my main concern with the use of “other” was that it sounded like literally “othering” respondents. But then you’re point on trans leaving out other formulations is something I hadn’t recognised. I think “M, F, Other or No answer” is probably the way to go. Thanks again.

  12. says

    Jason Dick, you’re lecturing CD, a trans person, on how to refer to trans people properly? Bad form, pal. For the record, I (another trans person) rather like the asterisk, and so do many of my friends, allowing transgender, transsexual, transvestite, and other forms of transition to live under a simple umbrella. Yes, there are a few activists who don’t like it, but it’s hardly as cut and dried as you’re painting it.

  13. says


    But last year I saw a scientific survey (about opinions on nature conservation) that had four answers: “Male”, “Female”, “Trans” and “Prefer not to Answer”.

    That phrasing indicates that trans people aren’t male or female. Not all are, of course, but it feeds into the narrative that trans women are not actually women.
    “male, female, other, prefer not to answer” sounds fine. If you want to know about trans, have a seperate category that says “cis or trans”

  14. chigau (違う) says

    The old design for our sport organisation membership form had a blank
    sex (M/F) _____
    the new design has
    gender _____

    We were trying to track the changing make-up of the organisation, answer questions about why there are so few girls and women, etc.
    We can still do that without forcing the binary.

  15. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says


    I wouldn’t use “male” or “female” with gender at all.
    You might use them with “sex” but not with “gender”.

    I agree that “Gender: _____________ ” is preferable: you can code the answers as best makes sense with your data.

    Although “other” allows a certain freedom and **appears neutral to us as researchers** because we use it on all sorts of questions, whenever we’re not sure we’ve covered all the bases, not every respondent is familiar with survey design, and it does prioritize the binary, even if it doesn’t enforce it, when we use formulations like, “Man, Woman, Other”.

    So in my opinion a blank to be filled in, though it means very slightly more coding work for you later, is preferable to any use of “other” in relation to sex or gender.

  16. mudpuddles says

    Hi Giliell, chigau & crip dyke and many thanks for your replying, its very much appreciated.

    The main reason that I had not seriously considered the blank option up till now. In some of these surveys we will be inviting respondents to participate in follow-up surveys, for which they can enter an email address for further contact. I was hoping that giving an option of “trans” (or even “other”) would show a recognition of non-binary identities on the part of the researchers, and encourage honest answers, whereas with the blank option if respondents were considering providing their email address for follow-up then they might feel more pressure to just answer according to a binary and thus be less willing to be honest (the surveys are targeted at specific and rather small groups of scientists – environmental biologists, social anthropologists etc – so I was afraid that people might fear being outed e.g. “I’ll provide my email but then I’d better just say I’m male”). But maybe I’ve been over-thinking this, and blank is maybe the way to go.

  17. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says


    Obviously no one can speak for an entire group, but very, very many people in trans* communities appreciate the opportunity a blank provides to write in exactly how they identify.

    If people are worried about outing themselves, that concern will affect your survey on pre-coded answers as well. You can’t erase the anxiety trans* hatred instills. The best you can do is promote trans* autonomy and safety. People will notice if you do.

  18. Okidemia says

    Drifty thinking. (Maybe I should have commented on previous OGW, dunno).
    The main issues with gender (at large) arise because many people want sex and gender to correlate in an (almost) perfect fit, including behavorial norms. (I put the other cases aside for a moment). Gender perception thus has a strong social component (independent of self gender perception).

    This lead me to consider kids age gender ‘socially perceived misfit’. English has ‘tomboy’ word for girls behaving within boys norms (French has something that appears dismissive but is certainly a language gap, and call tomboys ‘failed boys’, but this should be understood more as “a boy soul that ended up in a girl body by mistake”). On the other hand, there are boys “that are not like the other boys” (that’s also the French expression for the reverse situation).

    Please let’s note that:
    1/ It’s pre-sexual ages (there is normally no sex yet, but there’s a lot of normative gendering social ‘pressure’),
    2/ There is nothing definitive about later actual gender expression.

    Should these situations be considered (socially perceived) transgender or not?

    This was more precisely what I had in mind, in an even more restrictive way: whenever young teenage people are realising they might belong to a gender opposite to their biological sex (we’re still dealing with extremes, I let the greater diversity aside for convenience). As you tell, this is undissociably related to gender expression and gender identity, both things kids can be educated about in an open setting.

    Ideally, I intuite that it should start slightly before real life cases are possibly encountered (or lived), i.e. at the difficult age where kids transition from presexual to full adults.

    I realise this comment is still completely confusing some aspects. But also, I came to realise that part of it arise from the “benefits” of living in an already “open” (or opening) society where gender norms are already quite relaxed (though recently). I mean, blue or pink clothing does not occur since over two decades in some places, adult clothing is very liberal (thus allowing for greater gender flexibility accomodation), sex/gender roles have greatly evolved recently, and so on. (Beware I don’t imply everything is easy, we’re still quite far from any easiness, I’m just comparing to relatively recent past).
    As a closing slightly irrelevant note, a short story about a local first name custom here: parents usually happen to chose future baby names before they are sexed, or despite actual sex, and this results in guys with female firstnames and gals with male firstnames quite often. As a result, first names are independent of sex in a very enforced way.

  19. rq says

    Thank you for this, Crip Dyke. A while ago I had a discussion with a very dear friend via other channels about the asking-about-someone’s-gender part, where it was noted that it may be actually quite anxiety-inducing for the someone whose gender is in question, due to past experience of abusive follow-up.
    In any case, since then, I’ve become a firm believer in the ‘I don’t know, does it matter?’ line of thinking. I already have one child who defiantly says ‘Not all boys!’ or ‘Not all girls!’ every time the younger siblings ask questions or say statements about external signs culturally accepted as pointing to one’s gender (i.e. “Boys can wear pink too!” and “Girls can do bobsleigh, and they’re even pretty good at it!” and my favourite, the shock of realizing that, yes, there are also women’s hockey teams (Home Country is rather… unsupportive… of certain kinds of women’s sports)).
    So… while trans issues or questions have not yet come up directly, I’ve been trying to instill values of self-identification (which can apply to anything from nationality to gender to… well, all kinds of things!) and exceptions to social rules. I have huge doubts about how well this will go, as the rest of society here is fairly rigid, but there is some small hope.
    So we’ll see!

    In any case, CD, once again, big thank you. Love reading your explanations and thoughts, and as always, it leads to more thinking on my part (always a good thing). :)

  20. Pen says

    I don’t recall my child ever asking any questions about an individual’s gender as a very young child. I’m afraid we were still very much in the trenches of ‘if they (other kids) say you can’t do x because you’re a girl, tell them to get lost.’ She herself was taught not to formulate expectations or demands of what other people might do or wear on the basis of gender by the time she was quite young.

    The subject of transgender came up in our household since she was about eleven or so, in the context of transgender adults we knew from work, then (at age 13) a child in her school transitioned. Apparently, the school handled it quite well? At any rate, they explicitly encouraged the peer group to behave supportively. Possibly adolescence will prove a good time to transition for many people and that does create a need for explanations aimed at that age group. I can’t say my daughter really understands the nature of gender dysphoria (or gender identity as something separate from traditional gender roles), but what she understands very well is the reasonableness of respecting other people’s preferences and requests, especially in matters that have no impact on her whatsoever. Good principle, that: teach it once, apply it everywhere : ) We could be having the same discussion about sexuality, couldn’t we?

  21. Pen says


    The few trans people I’ve known well enough to talk about such things have said they would generally click the binary gender they identified with, while the genderqueer or genderfluid people have been the ones who want a nonbinary option.

    Just to support this, I desperately want a nonbinary option. I’ve reached the stage where I’m extremely reluctant to tick either of the male/female boxes, except on medical questionnaires that aim to treat any physical characteristics I might have.

  22. says


    Please let’s note that:
    1/ It’s pre-sexual ages (there is normally no sex yet, but there’s a lot of normative gendering social ‘pressure’),
    2/ There is nothing definitive about later actual gender expression.

    I don’t quite inderstand what you mean here. Could you clarify “presexual ages”, please?
    Do you mean a time when kids are very small, with very little autonomy?

    Personally, I hate terms like “tomboy”. Kill them, kill them with fire. I want people to stop. making. assumptions. about. children’s sex, gender, sexual orientation depending on the toys they pick.
    Yes, many children will pick things that conform to their gender identity. Some children don’t. Some spaces are more open than others, so kids feel safe at picking different options.
    I was one of those “gender non-conforming” children. First of all, it was the 80’s when Lego was for kids and clothing was made for kids and there was just one kind of Kinder egg.
    Second, I was wild, independent, a dare-devil and I had short hair. And people called me a boy. When corrected they’d say something like “a boy had been lost on me.”
    That fucking hurt. I’m cis. I never felt any urge to be a boy, yet I was not allowed an identity as a girl, because apparently that was too much for adults to think about. Yes, some children who choose toys and behaviours that are not in allignment with their assigned gender are trans. Others are not. The only way you can find out is to listen to the person in question.

  23. Okidemia says

    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk- @24
    Well, following the original comment, I started thinking harder on the subject, because, well, it is time. Consider it online loud thinking (probably a bad habit, but I’m also considering thoughts from others to fix things I’d have wrong in the process). Whenever I need to put something out for what should be the default average thought about some point, please do not consider I’m defending the default (you did not, thanks! I’m just scared over misreading overreactions).

    In my comment I’m really only trying out on the perspective from outsiders, i.e. the social perspective, at very early starts (and actually somewhat out of the point). I’m doing it, because social gender characterisation, and expectations of gender conformity is -in my current opinion- part of the issue with how people deal with transfolks. And I’m also exploring at the same time boundaries of definitions (but my own, it’s also self correcting over further thinking, but since I’m processing the subject it the defs sometime relax out temporarily). I guess weighing in makes me feel like from this perspective things are undefined/undefinable, just as there are physical conditions for which matter is not under straightforward states such as water/gaz/solid. (Yes! I found a possible analogy between gender identification and physics :).

    I don’t like the tomboy word neither. I ‘explored’ it because this could be a starting point for developing habits that further develop into gender dysphoria (and actually, because I know at least a case where this was what happened). Of course, gender dysphoria can also develop later in life independently of the early thing, both ways (I try not to deal with all the possibilities at once because I’m a very low working processor).

    Actually, I’ve been a boy “that was not like the other boys”. And I later turned a straight cis male, though I did not take it for granted (I was really scared to have my orientation wrong, note that orientation is outside the explored subject, but it is important when considering the social perspective, because it has it as a default and it has it wrong).

    From a social perspective, this is considered “gender misfit” (and with a very loose/liberal/broad definition of gender, “socially perceived transgender”. So kids perceived as misfitting early in their life do experience at least partially their outfit, usually in a negative way, and repeatedly. (I did, but I was a zen master, since I was not like the other boys).

    Of course, this is only part of the issue. But I have no idea as to what the inner side of gender dysphoria means (apart from what transfolks express about it).

    This lead me to two things:
    – gender attribution is partially social pressure since it can start before gender becomes part of adult identity.
    – in a strongly gender-neutral environment, socially perceived gender misfit is more strongly attenuated. (leaving the subject to the inner prospects of gender construction, about which I know nothing).

    As a closing slightly irrelevant note, a short story about my kids. We just dress them with whatever we have that fits them well. My boys are regularly dressed in pink or pink tones. Some people are really lost on it. It’s only now that she’s 11 that our daughter begins to conform to social pressure about pink being not a boy thing, so I guess that social peer pressure increases highly at that age.

    Oosh! See what happens. Comment size inflation. Sorry, back to w.

  24. Okidemia says

    Oh, and “pre-sexual” is a really badly framed thing: I mean before demonstrating “recurrent reproductive behaviour patterns”, or sex, to put it simply (In my comments I’ve constrained the settings in the pre-teens for both the convenience of exploring social perspective on gender and my own parenting needs to adopt a reasonnable educative time frame on these matters). Of course kids do have a sexual life, very early. It’s still social and exploring. But what if I framed it as pre-reproductive? Still not good enough… :-)

  25. says

    Ah, now I understand you better.
    Yes, gender and gender performance is quite arbitrary, yet within a certain matrix very powerful.
    My kids picked up on gendered norms as soon as they started preschool and we’Re now slowly getting past that stage.
    As for the “pre-sexual” thing: kids get enrolled in the heterosexual normative long before they really understand “sex”. Look around you: Men and women are clearly defined very differnt being and they end up married to one another.
    Sad, isn’t?