“Are you a boy or a girl?”
I caught my breath and looked down at Justin, who was staring at me with intense curiosity. We were standing with the rest of his preschool classmates in the stairwell outside of the classroom, waiting for the head teacher to open the door. All twelve of the jostling, chattering three and a half year olds stopped and turned to look at me. They knew me and accepted me as another teacher at their school—I had been to their classroom several times that year: to build block towers with them, to help them paint, to scaffold their play and their interactions. No one had wondered aloud about my gender until now. I hadn’t had to answer this question yet.
Before I could, the head teacher interceded. “Diana’s a girl! Why would you ask that?” The tension that Justin’s question had created dissipated immediately, my feeling of being put on the spot was gone. But the potential of that moment, the opportunity for learning that might have unfolded from Justin’s benevolent curiosity disappeared as well, bulldozed by a well-meaning adult’s attempt to protect me—from embarrassment? From shame? From having to talk about my gender variance in front of thirteen small new humans? I cannot say for sure what she was thinking, or how she was so certain about me. But I do know that we all—teachers and children alike—could have benefited from a little silence, from the time and space for deeper consideration that it would have allowed. And I do know what Justin was wondering, and why.
Justin was attempting to do what three- and four-year-olds do best: to observe and assess, to categorize and sort. Is this thing black or white? Is this person a boy or girl? Is this good or bad? That’s what we all do: we divide this world up into categories, or binaries, so that we aren’t overwhelmed by ambiguity or, worse, overcome by danger. Can this thing help me or hurt me? Is this thing good or bad? The human capacity to categorize with certainty has served us well: we recognize difference—danger—when we see it. We are safe. We teach our children to sort things because we love them: we are giving them a tool, an illusion of control, helping them to make sense of a world that is full of confusing, overwhelming ambiguity and beautiful contradictions.
I am myself an ambiguous creature, full of contradictions. It has always been this way. And that is why Justin’s teacher’s response confused me: how could she be so certain about me, certain enough to stifle a child’s curiosity, certain enough to curtail his wonder, when I myself am still so curious and inquisitive about what and who I am?
My gender is fluid: that is the only thing I know. As a child, I wanted to be a boy. I was a boy in my mind. Or maybe I was just “not a girl.” It’s hard to remember how I thought of myself, only what I felt and how I behaved. I wrestled with my little brother; I wore boys’ clothes and felt at home in them; I tromped through the woods with my best friend Ricky, looking for mud and building teepees. But I was a girl, too. I mothered my siblings, especially my baby sister, and I loved dressing Barbie in her glow-in-the-dark ball gown and putting a braid in her straw-like hair. There was no category for me.
And there still isn’t. I am a tomboy, a lesbian, a gender fluid person who identifies as a woman but isn’t quite sure what that even means. I got married in a beautiful white gown with diamonds in my ears and I felt like a princess. I wear flannel shirts every day and my hair is so short, I am mistaken for a boy. I wear men’s pants when I can, and boys’ shoes when they fit. I say I am a woman, but I don’t feel the way it seems that other women do. I am a mother. I nurture my children like an animal, giving them every ounce of my love and emotional energy. I am a quiet person, and sensitive; my power is gentle and receptive. I giggle. And sometimes I feel like a boy. I can’t explain any of this; I can only say that it feels true. There is no category for me. And I know that this must be true for others. I am not the only one.
So, a few months ago, when I was making a playdough tea party with a keenly observant and inquisitive little four-year-old, and she asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?” I used myself as a tool. I am a teacher, after all. And what is the job of an early childhood educator if not to articulate questions, to engender curiosity, to encourage wonder, to teach children to consider their world and to understand that it is okay not to know? Just to be curious, and to be accepting of the curiosities that the universe bestows upon us as strange and beautiful.
I didn’t have the answer, anyway. So I asked her my favorite question, “What do you think?”
“Well,” she said, “You wear boys’ clothes, but you talk like a girl.”
“I know. Isn’t it interesting? What do you think makes a boy or a girl, anyway?”
“I don’t know,” she replied, “But I’m a girl.”
“You are? How do you know?” I was genuinely curious.
“I just feel like one,” she said. I nodded. And then I asked, “Do you know anyone else like me?” She told me she didn’t, and then she smiled and poured some more pretend tea into my happy misshapen playdough cup.
As this wonderful little person grows, her world will expand and open up. She will meet other people whose identities are not rooted so firmly in “boy” or “girl,” who challenge her to think about gender and what it means to be a gendered person, who are living their lives authentically and in resistance to a world that seeks to sort them out. I hope that this child and other young children will have teachers who understand that gender is a subject to be approached with the same openness, curiosity, and wonder as any other in early childhood. I hope that she encounters teachers and other grown-ups who challenge their own ideas about gender, and who question the limits that culture puts on identity. These are the adults who will help the next generation to embrace ambiguity in themselves and others, so that we can all move through this world living out our most expansive, authentic, and loving humanity.
Diana Dube received her MSEd in General and Special Education from Bank Street College Graduate School for Education, and has worked with preschool children for ten years. She is the author and illustrator of Mindful Coloring: Calming the Mind Through Art (Norton, 2016)