On millennials, GenXers and Baby Boomers and gender identity

10 Oct

A colleague recently wrote to me, asking my thoughts on something they were experiencing with their friends: a consensus that Millennials are “overreacting” about gender pronouns. I interpreted “overreacting” to indicate a perception that as a group, millennials are “making a big deal” (perhaps insincerely) out of not identifying as “she” or “he.”

What do I think about that perception? First of all, we need to frame whose perception we’re talking about: a group of people who don’t identify as Millennials (as evidenced by their talking about Millennials). I believe the group having the conversation may Gen Xers, maybe with some Baby Boomers in the mix.

Re: Millennials, here’s what they have right:

 Identify as LGBTQ
What this research confirms is that what we’re experiencing regarding gender identification is generationally diverse. (Like so many other things: the #MeToo movement, religious identification and participation, access to and valuation of marriage, employment opportunities…) And what’s true of gender diversity in a generationally diverse society, is understandably not making sense to Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, if our frame of reference for “normal” is limited to and defined by our own age group.

And I get it. Everyone has their perception of “normal”: consider financial diversity. You, like me, like everyone else, has a sense of what’s normal for a person or family financially–and what’s, frankly unfathomable or weird to us. But as Dorothy Parker said, “Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.” Similarly, a particular bandwidth of financial means and limitations is just common for some of us–not normal for everyone. And back to cisgender identity: it’s definitely still common… but that doesn’t make it normal.

So what do I do when I’m having an “oh come on, really?” moment because I’ve let myself believe that my “common” is “normal”? I try to invite consideration of what doesn’t make sense to me (and “my people”) by thinking “yes, and…”

Yes, one theory is that Millennials are “overreacting.” And, what could also explain a trend of preferred pronouns beyond “he/she”?

  • Changing social understandings, norms and ability to identify otherwise these days
  • A greater openness and readiness by younger folks to see themselves in the greater spectrum of boxes than by older folks, who have spent more time in the only two boxes previously available (and may, regardless of how we see ourselves, be habituated to identifying within them)
  • Greater social safety to identify as other than cisgender female or male.  Note: this is not to say that identifying as transgender or non-binary gender is safe. In fact, it’s clear that the social and personal perils and risks persist, with sometimes life-threatening and ending consequences. At the same time, it may be safer for some individuals and groups, whose privileges in other aspects of their identities may create greater perceived or actual safety for them in identifying outside of the cisgender binary.
  • A biological and social truth that gender has historically, incorrectly been oversimplified. Consider race as an example. Some people feel that racial identity is too complex to be simplified into white, black, Latino/a/x, Asian, Native American/Indian and multiracial (6+ categories). Yet, dominant US society has bought into gender being as simple as an “either-or”?
  • Normative developmental identity exploration. Rather than “overreacting,” maybe Millennials are doing what makes developmental sense across all domains of their identities: exploring and defining and redefining not just themselves, but how the world thinks them. Are we as intolerant of Millennials’ work identities shifting, morphing and redefining the old boxes? (Yes, sometimes.) The point is, that we older folks may be more tolerant of some identity exploration than other identity exploration. And yet, it’s all identity exploration. It’s human.
  • Which brings me to wondering whether the perception of Millennials “overreacting” might be about how Millennial bias (more broadly) drives a tendency to dismiss their experiences and perspectives. In the history of generationally diverse societies, there’s a pattern of older generations wondering “what’s up with kids these days?” How Gen Xers and Baby Boomers view Millennials with a touch of disbelief and dismissal is both historic and common… but we don’t have to practice it as normal.
  • And. I can’t help likening the characterization that Millennials are “overreacting” about gender expansion to the impression that people of color “are always bringing” or “making everything about” race. Whether this perspective is coming from white folks or other POC, it’s the same idea, right? Why do those people have to make a big deal out of something that from my perspective (and for that matter “our” perspective) doesn’t matter? I think David Gaider, gamer and game designer, says it best: “Privilege is when you think that something’s not a problem because it’s not a problem for you personally.”

** Thanks, David. And thanks to my colleague KS for the question.

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