a blog by J.M. Cottle
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That dreaded question

I was sitting at work one day and a cute little kid, probably three or four years old with huge hair, asked me, “Are you a boy or a girl?”

I panicked. Oh, on the outside I was smiling, and part of me was excited – it was the first time I’d been asked this question, after all – but inside, I was terrified. What was I going to say? I hadn’t prepared an answer for this. What if one of the kid’s moms overheard me? Since I was at work, where I have kept my personal life to myself, what if one of my colleagues overheard – or, worse, one of my teenage clients?

So I said, “What do you think?”

The kid looked me up and down, even bending to look under the table at my legs. “Ummmmm… a boy.”

“Oh? Why do you say that?”

“You have boy shoes.”

I was wearing a fitted t-shirt and I wasn’t binding, but apparently my shoes were more important to my gender expression than my chest. “That works for me.”

I hoped that would be the end of it. I underestimated the power of curiosity.

“But are you a boy or a girl?”

“No,” I said. Hey, it’s the truth.

“Okay… Are you a girl?”

“No.”

“So you’re a boy?”

“Mmm… no.”

“Then why do you have boy shoes?!”

“Because I like them.” I was scrambling. What to say what to say what to say… I was starting to think that it was time for a lie of convenience. Maybe it would be easier to agree and say that I am a boy. Right now, I just sounded obnoxious.

“But what are you?”

I introduced myself and I offered a handshake.

The kid looked extremely confused for a moment, then laughed and flailed in exasperation. “Noooo I mean– tell me the truth! Are you a boy or a girl?”

I laughed too, feeling guilty and defeated, and then I was saved by one of the moms calling across the room that it was time to go. I waved goodbye. Next time, I thought, I’d have a better answer ready.

Yet it’s been almost a week and I still haven’t come up with a good answer for the next time a stranger – especially a child – asks me that dreaded question. A Gender 101 class? A lie of convenience? A “why does it matter”?

Considering my general anxiety in social situations and my complete lack of interest in giving gender lectures on the spot, I may simply ask again, “What do you think?” And when they ask if their guess was correct, whatever it was, I’ll say, “Yes.”

5 Responses to That dreaded question

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever commented on one of your posts before, but I read your blog a little obsessively. This post, I thought, was especially brilliant and I just thought I’d say so :)
    It sounds like you handled that really well… little kids are always so cute and oblivious of what they’re doing… it’s really interesting to see how they react to conversations like that.
    I can imagine how difficult it is to explain “the gender stuff” on the spot… the majority of people are so completely in the dark.

  2. This scene is amazing. I was thinking about how children pick up everything adults do so easily, without really questioning it. If we practice a non-gender system as adults, children will still pick such habits without question (if they’re truly brought up with it). Of course, the disagreeable point here would be whether or not it’s a good idea to teach children about binary genders.

    Children should be taught the truth, not what people think is the truth.

    Thank you for standing up for that. :)

  3. I teach ESL to 3-6 year olds and I give them the same answer (What do you think?)! Regardless of whether they say “boy” or “girl” I respond “maybe” or just shrug, much to their consternation. Despite my efforts, the 3 year olds seem to have unanimously decided I’m a man, one class of 6 year olds thinks I’m a girl, and the 4 year olds are split down the middle as to whether I’m a “princess” or an “오빠” (older brother). Overall though, they’re much more accepting of my gender ambiguity than my adult coworkers. Maybe it helps that their native language generally does not use gendered pronouns or grammatical gender, and that it’s perfectly normalin their culture for boys to wear pink Hello Kitty slippers, sparkly nail polish, and costumes for the school play with enough sequins and eyeliner to make David Bowie jealous.

  4. I don’t think i would come across this situation because even though i identify as a gender fluid i present as a female. This post has given me the opportunity to think about what it would be like if i got the courage to take the next step and look like a guy when i felt like one. I don’t know my situation is a little different then yours, if it was someone i wouldn’t see again i would probable just tell them i was what i am presenting as at the moment. For now i tell strangers i’m female and i let close friends know about my genderfluidness.

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