I am hanging out with my nieces and my nephew at a small café in Addis Ababa. As we are waiting for our food to arrive, my niece very randomly tells me that I am a boy. I am used to these statements as I have a number of nieces and nephews. I tell her I am a woman. She insists that I am a boy because my hair is short and I am wearing boys’ shirts. I ask if she would become a boy if she cut her hair. She instinctively touches her beautiful braids and is horrified at the very suggestion that she cut her hair. She then points to a woman sitting close to our table and points out how someone must also wear eye shadow to be considered a woman. We go back and forth and she continues gendering me male and giving me multiple reasons as to why I cannot be considered a woman. I know that she will vacillate between gendering me male and female for sometime before she starts using the she/her/hers pronouns. So, I let it go.
As a maculine-of-center lesbian who lives in Addis, I always wonder if we could somehow understand that sex does not equal gender.
But it reminds me of another conversation I had with one of my nephews when he was around the same age as my niece. He used to articulate how I must be a woman because I wear certain things but how I must also be a man because I wear certain things. I have had these conversations with so many children and have had well meaning parents scold their kids for either asking similar questions as my niece and nephew or for gendering me male.
As tiring as it often is to engage with adults around these issues of gender, I find talking to kids refreshing. The questions come with zero judgement and with a need to align my gender with what they see around them. As a society we hold stringent views about the relationship between gender identity and gender expression and our kids slowly learn to internalize this view based on what they hear from the society and their immediate surroundings.
When engaging with children, I am always left wondering what it would mean if we as a society were to answer these questions in a meaningful and constructive manner. Even better, what it would be like if we never had to make them ask these questions by providing a world free from the binary of male/female. As a maculine-of-center lesbian who lives in Addis, I always wonder if we could somehow understand that sex does not equal gender.