Last December, 8-year-old Shiloh Jolie-Pitt attended a film premiere with their movie-star parents Brad and Angelina. Jolie-Pitt surprised the world by wearing a suit, and their mother made it clear they prefer the name "John."
While the appearance was inspiring for many, others asked whether or not John has "issues," is confused about gender identity or just wants extra attention as a middle sibling. Such speculation missed the point, and instead reinforced common misconceptions about gender nonconforming people.
As Mic's Marcie Bianco noted in December, experts are seeing more young people question their gender than ever before. Yet common, fundamental misunderstandings about how gender works has people who don't identify as expected encountering a nasty barrage of comments about their identity. Even worse, some people violently attempt to impose their rigid ideas of gender onto these individuals.
In the spirit of clearing the air, here are but a few of the ignorant remarks gender nonconforming people often deal with — and why these assumptions are wrong:
1. "You're just confused."
The idea that someone is "confused" because they don't neatly fit into conventional understandings of gender is degrading.
There's a strong chance that a gender nonconforming individual has dedicated a lot of time and energy to thinking about how they wish to discuss their identity with others. In fact, such thinking affords many gender nonconforming people a level of consciousness on issues of gender that the average person may not otherwise have, because they must navigate a world that privileges people who fit within the gender binary.
2. "It's either man or woman. That's it."
This binary is the product of broader conflation of sex and gender. For one thing, biological sex itself isn't as cut and dry as many think. For example, some people are born intersex (though, to be clear, this wouldn't necessarily bear on such an individual's gender identity).
It's often said that sex is what's between your legs and gender is what's between your ears. Although these categories are related, they don't neatly align for everyone. Gender runs along a broad spectrum of possibilities, and constricting gender options to only "man" and "woman" inhibits the expression of this range of identities. A variety of common descriptors, such as agender, androgynous and gender fluid, may more accurately describe an individual's gender.
3. "How you were gender-assigned or named at birth is how it should stay."
Each individual should have the ability to self-assess their gender identity, something that can't be immediately known solely on genitalia. A person's understanding of their gender evolves over time and may very well run counter to what was assigned at birth.
The same could be said for names, which are closely tied to gender. Babies are typically given names for based on their genitalia. When those newborns age into adulthood, however, those names may not correspond with their actual gender identity, and may prompt concern that continued use will cause others to implicitly associate their name with a set of gendered pronouns. As a remedy, some gender nonconforming people change their name to something that more honestly reflects their identity.
No matter which names or pronouns an individual uses, they should be respected and affirmed, not dismissed.
4. "There's a reason things are labeled by gender."
There's a long-standing tradition of colors, clothing, toys, fragrances, hair products and even office products being labelled along gendered lines. But a high-heeled shoe, tube of lipstick or the color pink aren't things only women can enjoy, and toy trucks, cologne or the color blue aren't just for men.
This unnecessary labeling reinforces the way that most people understand gender as binary and absolute. Thankfully, there's rising popularity in clothing lines and other products created to confront the gender binary, offering styles and options without binary descriptions.
5. "Your pronoun preferences don't make any sense."
Pronouns like "he" or "she" often don't fit well for many gender nonconforming people because they reflect a rigid, binary system that doesn't adequately describe who they are.
That's why it's important to use the pronouns that a person has requested in order to respect their identity. Although "they" is conventionally understood as a plural pronoun, it is also gender-neutral; as such, it's a preferred pronoun for many gender nonconforming people. Other options include as "ze," "hir" or just someone's first name. Others may not have a strict pronoun preference at all.
These options are beginning to be more broadly reflected in mainstream media. In February 2014, for example, Facebook allowed users to select from dozens of gender descriptors that go beyond the categories "man" or "woman," as well as being able to choose "they" as a gender neutral pronoun preference.
6. "Something clearly went wrong with how you were raised."
The fact that someone has a gender identity that isn't normative is in no way indicative of fault within that person's family. For one thing, being gender nonconforming is not a "mistake" to be blamed on anyone. And while an individual's gender may be influenced by environmental factors, it is far more complicated than how they were raised.
Indeed, some parents try to impose a very strict, gendered upbringing on a child, only to face resistance because it goes against that child's gender identity. This leads many gender nonconforming people to encounter extreme stigma, harassment and physical violence, even within their families. The mistreatment often compounds in school or other social settings.
7. "All gender nonconforming people are gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer."
Although gender nonconformity often corresponds with non-normative sexuality, it's important to recognize the difference between sexuality and gender. They are distinct. For example, someone who identifies as a man could present to others in conventionally feminine ways and be attracted to women.
Many gender nonconforming people don't readily identify as a "man" or a "woman" in the first place, and even for those who do, this is a matter of the person's gender identity, not their sexual orientation. Who they're attracted to is a separate conversation.
8. "You should only use the bathroom that corresponds to your private parts."
People should be able to peacefully use the bathroom they feel best corresponds to their gender identity. But the fact that even single-stall bathrooms are often marked for "men" or "women" puts many gender nonconforming people in the uncomfortable position of picking which option will be best for them in that moment, not the one that reflects their actual identity.
It's also a matter of personal safety, as bathroom usage may be policed by others, translating into verbal harassment or physical attacks. According to a 2013 Williams Institute study, roughly 70% of trans or gender nonconforming people reported being denied entrance to, assaulted or harassed while trying to use a restroom. Gender-neutral bathrooms have emerged as a safe, inclusive alternative where gender nonconforming people and others can have bio breaks without the fuss over a label.
9. "Your appearance makes other people uncomfortable."
How someone chooses to appear in public has nothing to do with making other people feel comfortable. Rather, it's about what feels most intuitive and affirming to that individual. Statements like these shame gender nonconforming individuals into wearing clothes or otherwise altering their appearance or behaviors in ways that fit neatly into gendered norms. These individuals aren't trying to make others uncomfortable or afraid, but instead are simply trying to navigate the world in a way that makes them happy.
Ultimately, what other people think of how gender nonconforming individuals appear shouldn't be what's most important. Instead of policing another person's gender, try respecting and forming a connection with them.