Children don't care that I'm non-binary. So why do so many adults?

‘Are you a boy or a girl?’, a six-year-old child asked as I was working as a camp counsellor recently.

As a trans educator who sports a buzzcut and gender neutral clothing, I’m used to all sorts of questions like these so I replied as I usually do: ‘No, I’m not really a boy or a girl.’

That’s because I’m non-binary, meaning I don’t see myself as a man or a woman, and I prefer that others don’t either. 

The kid’s eyes widened, as they asked: ‘Are you allowed to do that?’

I simply explained that I’m a grown up so I can do whatever I like, as long as it’s not hurting anyone. They nodded, then returned to their colouring in.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about trans people in schools and around kids. But as a trans person who is also a youth worker and camp counsellor, I find that the children I work with usually couldn’t care less.

So why do some adults seem to have such a problem with my identity?

When I was growing up, I didn’t have trans role models in my life to look up to. So when I first started questioning my gender as a teen, I discovered my identity online, which meant that I struggled to picture what my future could look like as a non-binary adult.

I sometimes even wondered whether that meant I would just have to ‘grow out of it’ eventually. I can only imagine the difference it would have made to have a happy, engaged trans adult – like I am now – to look up to.

Since my own coming out at 17, I’ve been able to find community and role models, as well as been lucky to have very accepting parents. But I can’t help but think about my younger self, and how lost I felt for so long.

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I only got into youth work last year, after deciding that I couldn’t keep hopping between office jobs that started to bore me after a few months. Part of what I hoped for was a more dynamic, varied career, and youth work has definitely given me that.

I enjoy having serious conversations with young people because they can often be much more honest than adults who have learned to filter more – and that means you can get to the interesting stuff right away. 

But before I started working with children, I thought a lot about how open to be about my gender identity. I wondered whether I could just pretend to be a baby-faced man or a deep-voiced woman. I considered even just ignoring the issue altogether and hoping it never came up. 

As it turned out, that was largely a useless mental exercise. That’s because kids’ curiosity means it’s impossible to avoid the conversations – and it’s never a huge deal.

Whether I bring it up or not, my gender non-conformity is clear to them and they want to understand it. It usually takes less than 10 minutes for a new group of kids to enquire about ‘what’ I am, so I try to be honest with them. I think they appreciate that.

Most of my conversations about gender with kids go something like this.

Sometimes they’ll ask me further questions on top of whether I’m a boy or a girl, with some wondering what pronouns I use. Once, a 12-year-old girl casually responded: ‘Oh, I have a friend who likes to be called “they” and “them” too.’

One child has even asked me if they can be like me when they grow up. I told them they could be whoever they wanted to be and advised speaking to their parents about their feelings.

Not once have I experienced a young child who couldn’t accept my words at face value.

Even the older kids I support, who are up to the age of 13 – and who have been exposed to more of the conversation about trans people – tend to have a lot of unanswered questions. Sure, sometimes their questions are a bit rude – like, ‘what bits do you have though?’ – but they ultimately accept me for who I am.

I think that, once there’s a trans person in front of them, the reality of my humanity and their relationship with me becomes more important than whatever hate mongering TikTok video they might have watched the night before.

Despite all the ‘concern’ about confusing or scaring them, children seem to find my gender a lot easier to wrap their heads around than many adults.

Maybe it’s because they’re still at a time in life where they don’t expect that they already know everything there is to know about the world, so they’re more open to understanding new things.

Plus, it’s a lot easier to start these conversations with them since they’re totally straightforward about their curiosity or not yet worried about ‘getting it wrong’ in the way many cisgender adults are.

Or maybe it’s just that hate – including transphobia – is not instinctive, it’s taught.

I hope that with more and more people like me in youth work and education, we can teach the next generation a little differently. 

Maybe I could even be the adult trans role model I wish I had growing up.

Pride and Joy

Pride and Joy is a weekly series spotlighting the first-person positive, affirming and joyful stories of transgender, non-binary, gender fluid and gender non-conforming people. Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing [email protected]

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