So, what first made me think of this topic is this wonderful piece by a school teacher discussing gender variance and gender concepts in small children.  This was my initial reaction:

I think it is important to realize that generally, the more gender variant a child is the worse off they are with respect to bullying. The code phrase here is “gay or perceived as gay” – and I don’t think that reflects the underlying issue. It’s not always about “the gay”. The more we understand gender variance, the more we realize that forcing conformity is not the answer to social trouble – and doing so may cause extreme harm. This should not be controversial. I am not, in any way, advocating some sort of backlash against those who are gender conforming – there is no need to shame girls that love pink princesses. I am not, in any way, suggesting that we accept only androgyny or hate-on housewives. I’m suggesting that we stop bashing round pegs with a hammer in order to distort and mangled them enough to be shoved into a square hole, because we’re just too simple-minded to deal with reality.

I have two relatives who are gender variant and my nephew has been living with us for the last four months, so I’ve learned a great deal.  I’ve stumbled along the way, but I’m hoping that I’m at least getting close to being able to support the well-being of children and adults who are gender variant without putting my foot in my mouth too badly.  Trust me, my nephew lets me know when cis-gender people, however well meaning, are being stupid and terrible (although he sometimes uses more colorful language).

I absolutely loved the article, but the title of one of the books that the teacher read to the students made me pause a bit:  “It’s Okay to be Different” by Todd Parr.  I looked it up on Amazon to see the preview.  The body of the book includes phrases such as “It’s Okay to be embarrassed” and “It’s Okay to be adopted” and “It’s Okay to have wheels” (showing a child using a wheelchair).  I don’t have any of Todd Parr’s books, but he has been highly recommended to me by my friends.  I don’t have a beef with the book at all, don’t get me wrong, but the title “It’s Okay to be Different” implies that there is a standard normal against which to judge someone as “different”.

There is no denying that sometimes there is a prominent “normal”, in that the vast majority shares a trait with little variation of that trait.  For example, it is “different” to be conjoined with your twin.  However, the “standard normal” of some traits is complete fiction and the variance of a great number of traits is so broad that there is no clear distinction where “normal” ends and “different” begins.  Dividing the world into “normal” and “different”, where the “different” people requires validation (of being “okay”), is completely unreasonable and I can guarantee not what Todd Parr was going for.

If “It’s Okay to be Different” is taken in the spirit is was intended, it would mean the same as, “It’s Okay to exist”.  I’m pretty sure that is the message the children reading the book will take away from it, as the traits listed in the book are broad enough that at least one of those traits will apply personally to the child being read the book.  They will, at some point, realize that they are “different” just like everyone else!

A problem still remains when we categorize the traits of other human beings and label them, because one of those categories or labels is inevitably going to be considered the “normal” one.  So, now we’re back to the creation of the mythical “normal” human – or at least a list of “normal” human traits.

The desire to label may arise simply for sake of brevity in communication.  It’s much easier to simply say that someone is straight for example, without getting into the details of the person’s personal experiences or attractions.  Parents I met at the playground mentioned that their daughter was autistic, without giving me a detailed explanation of the behaviors, their frequency and severity, that led to the diagnosis.  Someone may say zie is Christian, without giving a run-down of hir personal theological stances, church affiliations, or personal religious experiences.  Without using labels and categories, we would have a very difficult time – however, the labels and categories are invariably insufficient to communicate the nuances of human variance.  Those labels and categories take the fuzzy spectrum of human existence and artificially delineate and parse it into recognizable distinct illusions.

So, at what point do these categories simply become unacceptably non-representative?  I suppose they do when someone stands up and simply asserts, “No, that’s not me”.

So, at what point is our insufficient language forcing conformity to conceptual models and ignoring reality?  I suppose it is when someone takes the time to explain who zie is, what zie thinks, or how zie feels….and the person who should have been listening looks confused or annoyed and says, “I don’t get it, are you an X or a Y?”