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Dissolving identities

Gender fluidity for preschoolers

Dissolving identities

A British newspaper headline from last summer explains a lot—sort of: “Mother writes children’s book about Tilly the transgender teddy bear after being inspired by her father who transitioned into a woman.” The Daily Mail article reported that Jessica Walton of Melbourne, Australia, was raising money to publish a picture book that would help her baby son relate to his new “grandma.” Walton reached her Kickstarter goal and Introducing Teddy made its appearance last year.

There’s not much to the plot: Thomas the Teddy is moping until his friend Errol (a human boy) asks what’s wrong. Thomas hesitates: “If I tell you, you might not be my friend anymore.” But finally he admits that in his heart, he’s always known that he is a girl instead of a boy. Transitioning means wearing a pink bow and changing “her” name (and pronoun).

One might protest that the anatomy of a stuffed bear doesn’t need changing, and anodyne stories like Introducing Teddy don’t begin to address the complex issues surrounding gender transition in a human being. Pushback against picture-book promotions of transgenderism began in the U.K. almost immediately, with groups such as Parent Power and the Campaign for Real Education reminding the public that (1) children don’t think as adults do, and (2) questions about gender at the kindergarten level are more likely to confuse than enlighten. But Britain’s secretary of state for education enthusiastically backs an initiative called Educate and Celebrate, specifically for “transforming schools and organizations into LGBT-friendly places.” Picture books are a gateway to that goal.

In the United States, LGBT educational initiatives are more often local than national, but influential organizations like the American Library Association highlight “diversity and inclusion” in their mission statements. One means to that end is picture books like I Am Jazz (2014), introducing “Jazz” (formerly Jared) Jennings, now a transgender teen and reality TV star. I Am Jazz was a groundbreaker and is now a staple in school libraries.

More to come: The protagonist of About Chris (2015) is a girl who feels like a boy. Tiny, of Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl? (2017), could be either. Though “they” are continually asked about their gender on the playground, they aren’t telling. The hero of Red: A Crayon’s Story (2015) is really—and obviously—a blue crayon in a red wrapper, who can’t meet society’s expectations for coloring strawberries and firetrucks. It’s assumed that a 4-year-old will absorb the underlying message of learning to act like your true self (even though most 4-year-olds understand that crayons are androgynous).

Young children tend to be concrete in their thinking about the outside world, but Parent Power fears that “children are becoming instruments of gender-fluid ideology, as the social landscapes around them dissolve into a mirroring fluidity.” The stated purpose of most of these books is to help children accept transgender classmates or relatives. But questioning their own gender identity may come first.

A survey released in December by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research classifies a whopping 27 percent of California youth (ages 12-17) as “gender non-conforming.” The designation includes 182,466 teens who identified as the opposite gender and 613,449 who reported feeling equally masculine and feminine. More research is needed, but “fluidity” may be washing away certainty about the most basic factors of human nature.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


  • AlanE
    Posted: Tue, 02/06/2018 02:42 pm

    A few months ago, I was participating in a Facebook group and used the word gender in place of the word sex in a thread that referred to birds.

    It didn’t take long for my scolding to come. The first phase of the scolding came as, “Just FYI, sex ≠ gender. Sex is the word you are looking for.” The second phase of the scolding came in the piling on—a series of likes, some expressed with hearts, were appended to the verbal scolding issued me.

    To be fair, there’s very much a sense in which I was in the wrong. I had subconsciously replaced the word sex in what I was making reference to with the word gender

    Moreover, I am aware of the current drift of the cultural conversation about gender. I get it that the current dominant use of gender uses gender to describe a person’s awareness or identity and not their biological sex.

    But it’s not as simple as that.

    On the one hand, it takes a serious amount of anthropomorphizing of the class aves to come to the conclusion that birds have a gender identity that may or may not correspond to their sex.

    On the other hand, and more important to the present discussion, this distinction between gender and sex is a recent construct. Recent or not, however, it enjoys the solid backing of the online sources.

    Go to and you’ll be greeted with this for gender:

    1. either the male or female division of a species, especially as differentiated by social and cultural roles and behavior:

    the feminine gender.

    Compare sex (def 1).

    2. a similar category of human beings that is outside the male/female binary classification and is based on the individual's personal awareness or identity.

    See also third gender.

    That stands in rather stark contrast to anything I grew up with. I plucked my 1973 copyright Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary off the shelf and flipped through the pages to find gender. There I read this:

    1. SEX

    That’s it! Back in 1973, gender did equal sex, end of question. And, this was very convenient for public speakers and writers. It gave you two words for the same thing, a most useful tool for avoiding the overuse of a word.

    So, how did we get here from there, and why does it matter?

    We got here from there by marching to the drumbeat of a postmodernist culture. If a boy does not feel like a boy, then we must go out in search of a word that describes the condition. Furthermore, the word we are looking for should come without disapproving baggage.

    Back in the day of my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, the accepted word was effeminate. Girls who thought, acted, or dressed like boys were marked as tomboys.

    Perhaps because effeminate and tomboy were sometimes packed with unhelpful connotations, perhaps because “personal awareness or identity” does not necessarily fit a binary model, and perhaps a little of both, a search was made for a construct that would suit the perceived need in an affirming sort of way.

    Gender, then, became the preferred term to describe both sex-related roles (more innocuous) and awareness or identity (less innocuous). Sex remained in place as the word used to capture the biological reality. The battle was won before most people even realized it was being fought.

    Most of us who might have cared about gender being recruited for purposes suited to the normalization of confusion over sexual identity were camped out on territory nowhere near the front lines of this particular battle. It’s important to further note here that the co-opting of gender as the descriptor of choice went a long way toward the sought-after normalization.

    Lumping the issues of identity confusion under the heading of an already esteemed word like gender lent an air of legitimacy and sophistication, both cultural and academic, to the idea of an identity that does not correspond to one’s own sex that words like effeminate and tomboy never could have.

    What is the net result for our culture? We spend time, money, and effort now encouraging gender dysphoria to express itself. People who object are hushed, humiliated, and sent to the back of the room.

    We countenance sexual reassignment therapies and surgeries at frighteningly young ages.

    Eschewing the collective wisdom of long lines of generations before us, we wait breathlessly for children to express their own gender identity rather than encouraging boys to be boys and girls to be girls. While doubtless not a few faults have been propagated through generations under the general heading of encouraging boys to be boys and girls to be girls, it does not follow from that admission that the entire idea is wrong-headed.

    We pay for sex reassignment surgeries for members of the armed forces and incarcerated populations under the wholly unfounded, but broadly accepted, assumption this will make them better people.

    We debate whether men should or should not be reluctant to date transgender women.

    You wouldn’t be likely to think, at first glance, that much of this had anything to do with the definition of a single, two-syllable word. But you would be wrong about that.