Are You a Girl or a Boy?

5th Grade, 1988

“Are you a girl or a boy?” You’d think I’d have gotten really good at answering that question by now. People have been asking me that question for over 30 years.

“Are you a girl or a boy?” On the playground. In the library. At birthday parties. In the grocery store. On vacation. It was evidently very important for everyone to know. A simple curiosity to be quenched. But for me, it became a question I anticipated with a certain sense of dread. A question I felt obligated to answer correctly.

As a kid growing up in the 80s in New York City, my world was filled with diversity of every kind. Like most people, my environment influenced my understanding of people and how we often categorize them in stereotypical ways. I knew what gay was and listened to little cisgendered boys call each other “faggots” and tease little cisgendered girls about being “lesbos.” I observed masculine presenting people (who I perceived to be women) with buzz-cuts and carabiners with countless keys that jingled as they walked. I remember my fifth grade art teacher, Sid, who had spiky hair and an androgynous sense of style. Sid complimented me on my drawings and encouraged me to try out new techniques. In the art studio, there were those wooden figures of the human body that artists use as a reference point for drawing people proportionately in different positions. They, too, were androgynous. Looking back, I can see now that Sid’s studio was pretty close to what I’d later come to know as a “Safer Space.” The sense of support and encouragement I got from being in the presence of a teacher who didn’t seem to fit the binary and the feeling of comfort I associated with the “clean slate” of those genderless wooden bodies have stayed with me all these years. It was a space I can remember feeling at home and even a bit “normal.”

“Are you a girl or a boy?” I asked myself that question just as much as others did. In my head I’m a boy. In the shower I’m a girl. In my imaginative play I’m a boy. In my classroom I’m a girl. There didn’t seem to be a clear answer — and as a result I developed a sense of being in limbo; incomplete. I gathered that there must be something wrong with me. I spent a long time trying to figure out how to fix myself.

“Are you a girl or a boy?” The reason it hasn’t gotten any easier to answer isn’t because I don’t understand myself. It’s because of the question’s formatting. Despite the evolution of the ways in which I’ve gone about explaining my gender identity over the years, the options given within the question itself have stayed the same: girl or boy.

“Are you a girl or a boy?” Most people still see these as the only two options. They still use these words to categorize people. Many of these people are educators.

“Are you a girl or a boy?” There are still many children and adults who are struggling to answer this question for themselves.

Nowadays, there are various pronouns and words that people can use to indicate their gender identity. The development of this language is extremely useful to and widely used by those who struggle with the binary system. However, despite there being more research, more language and more exposure around non-binary gender identities in recent years, unfortunately the larger percentage of the population in this country is not accessing this language or taking part in these conversations. I now work primarily as an educator and presenter as well as a volunteer counselor. My commitment is to support children, teachers and families in developing an understanding that there are more than two answers to the question, “Are you a girl or a boy?”