Is that a boy or a girl?

Have you ever read something that so accurately describes your experiences and emotional reactions that you could have written it yourself? This week I read Even lumberjacks deserve lotion: gender in the locker room by Naomi Gordon-Loebl and minus the Americanisms, this is my life.

In case you’re not going to read it the whole way through, this is the part that most clearly stands out to me:

‘One of the most shameful memories of my early childhood is the repeated moment—in my mind, it happened just about every week, and sometimes more frequently—in which another small child within my earshot would tug on their mother’s hand and ask, unabashedly: “Mom, is that a boy or a girl?”


“I’ll probably never be able to put words to that feeling, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget it, either: the shoulder-tensing, stomach-roiling sensation that made me want to shrink into my own skin and body-slam my own tiny child’s frame into the ground until I became someone else. Embarrassment is probably the closest word, but it’s nowhere near strong enough: utter humiliation coupled with a frantic, desperate desire to disappear is probably closer. There is something wrong with you. Freak.’

It’s not just small children, it’s a regular occurrence for this to happen with adults too. Perhaps not with those words, there’s a particular look that adults seem to have cultivated that asks the exact same question. I usually get that look in public toilets. It happens enough that I have a strategy for using toilets in public places – ask me about it sometime.

I don’t mind the question now, especially not from children. What bothers me is that in 20-odd years I’ve not found a suitable response to it. The comments to this post are really interesting. Most interesting is the dialogue between parents asking how they should respond to their children when they ask this question. My favourite response so far is this: ‘Maybe say something like “not all people are boys or girls”, like not all people are blonds or redheads’

Beyond the gender binary

That leads us nicely on to the idea of non-binary gender and another piece that resonated with me. This time a TEDx talk by Yee Won Chong who gives the clearest explanation of how gender relates to sex and why gender binaries don’t work:

‘We are assigned a sex at birth based on a sex binary, but how we feel internally, our gender identity, and how we express our self externally, our gender expression, are not determined by our assigned sex.’

I’ve been mulling over this for a while and have used the scale that Yee Won uses in their talk to define how I feel about my gender.


Wouldn’t it be refreshing if society got this? Perhaps people like me, and Naomi and Yee Won, wouldn’t need to fear when we use public toilets and locker rooms. Perhaps every parent would be able to answer their child’s questions about other people’s gender identity. Perhaps those questions wouldn’t be asked in the first place?

If you’ve not watched the TEDx talk, I’d encourage you to. Yee Won shares some tips for being a good ally:

  • assume that everyone knows what bathroom they’re in
  • don’t assume everyone goes by he or she
  • ask yourself, ‘would I want to be asked that question?’
  • don’t tolerate any anti-transgender comments/remarks
  • be open to thinking in new ways, start thinking outside the gender binary

I’ve written this post to share my experience. It’s not something I talk about often, but I’ve realised that I can’t expect the world to change if I don’t speak openly. Perhaps by reading this it might make you think twice about gender, stop making assumptions and stand up for redefining gender.

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I am a freelance writer, editor and trainer. A librarian in a former life.

6 thoughts on “Is that a boy or a girl?”

  1. Great post, thank you for sharing it. Imagine how much kinder the world would be if ‘would I want to be asked that question?’ were something more people thought (and acted) on much more often.

    1. Thanks for your comment Katie. It’s amazing how a lot of things that would make the world a better place are quite small changes we could each make in our daily lives.

  2. The advice to “assume that everyone knows what bathroom they’re in” made me pause. I’m definitely guilty of assuming that people don’t know what they’re doing (though to the best of my knowledge never in the situation Yee Won describes). Thanks for the post. Among many other things, a prompt to reassess my assumptions.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I’m glad this post has provoked people to take a little time to consider how they act (or perhaps don’t act) and the impact it has on others.

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