A couple of years ago, when my son Stanley was quite small, there was a media firestorm that started in Toronto and blew across the world about a couple who declined to announce the genital arrangement of their child to strangers, believing this to be a satisfactory way to keep said child from being overwhelmed by people’s expectations about how kids with that genital arrangement should behave.
It sounds peculiar when I put it like that, doesn’t it? What could genital arrangement possibly have to do with what a person, even a small person, does in the world? And yet we are culturally obsessed by this—so much so that these very nice groovy parents with their totally adorable happy little longhaired children got all but hounded back into their house by the insane media attention and oversimplifying. What particularly gets me is that they never said anything more radical than, “We’re trying to protect our smallest person from the cultural pressure around gendering, and here’s our plan to do it.” Meanwhile, all the yelling white guys on the TV started howling “child abuse!” I found this an especially interesting accusation coming from those who endorse spanking young children and hitting older ones with a belt, when “necessary.” Declining to participate in gendered LEGO and rigidly pink/blue clothes shopping equals child abuse, but beating your kid with your bare hands does not. Good to know.
We sure do love our gendered categories, especially when it comes to children, and the wailing of “Won’t somebody please think of the children!?” that religious fundamentalists and other agents of repression like to trot out rises to an especially fervent pitch when it comes to questions of children and gender. Especially gender-independent behavior in children. So Kathy and David, who are quite nice and have three bright and healthy children, became Public Enemy Number One. This is even more hilarious once you know them in person, unless your idea of Public Enemy Number One is two cheerful people in colourful scarves who offer to share their homemade snacks with you at regular intervals. Eek.
Their youngest, Storm, is just about exactly a year younger than Stanley. When the story made headlines worldwide, suddenly, after never having heard a word about it, I started getting the same question—“Are you raising him … I mean, them … gender-neutral?”—over and over. More pointedly, people asked me why I referred to Stanley as he and my son when I didn’t necessarily have that information yet, and what did that mean to me as a trans-identified person and educator? Did it mean that I didn’t support my child if he … if they … wanted to live into some other gender?
It took me some doing to get comfortable with this question. I imagine part of my discomfort had to do with the accusation it came with—I’m never at my best when I’m feeling defensive and accused. But the larger part came as I questioned myself about it. Why wasn’t I using gender-nonspecific pronouns for my son? Was I repressing his natural gender by referring to him as my son? Had I completely betrayed the cause of radical queerness and gender dis-essentialism as soon as I’d spawned, lulled into complacency by insipid children’s music and the fumes in Babies ‘R’ Us? People had warned me about this.
But let me tell you a little bit about my kid. My son is currently, at the exact time I type this sentence, out with his auntie Abi—one of my husband Ishai’s longest and closest friends—attending an event at the High Park Zoo to celebrate the birthday of a llama named Dolly (I snickered too). He left the house wearing an outfit entirely of his choosing, to wit: pink-flowered sunglasses purchased this morning, a tan shirt with a huge blue monster baring its teeth appliquéd onto the front, purple and green corduroy pants with a bicycle screen-printed on them, green socks printed with a pattern of monkeys wearing DJ headphones, sensible Velcro-close Stride Rites in a wide width, and a slightly rusty silver clip in his blond ringlets. Over all of this, he’s sporting a black coat made to look like a firefighter’s turnouts. As he left, he was explaining enthusiastically to Abi that when they went to the big zoo he always had to walk really far, because he liked to see both the tigers and the lions, and the tigers live in the jungle but lions live on the savannah so they were really far apart at the zoo, and were there lions at this zoo too? And how far would they be from the llama? And would they be singing for the llama, and can llamas blow out birthday candles?
If that sounds adorable, it really is. If you’re startled or skeptical that a kid who’s not yet three-and-a-half is discussing the respective habitats of lions and tigers, you’ve just never met Stanley in person. The overall effect is not unlike being knocked down by a little blond earthquake—it can be hard to focus on any single part of the experience the first few times. In time, though, one begins to be able to grasp all of what’s going on. Since I started being asked about raising my kid gender-neutral, I have come to understand most of what goes on beneath the surface of the question. I think it mostly means, “If you’re an expert about gender, then riddle me this: how do we best resist the forces of gender at our house, with our eventual (possibly theoretical) children or niecephews or whatever we have, for as long as possible?”
This is a legitimate concern. Once we know a kid’s sex, we think we understand what they should wear, how they should behave, what they should like to play with, and so on. In short, we think we know how their gender should look. If you are someone who is worried about the forces of gender working on young people generally—pushing them toward some activities and away from others based on gender expectations, reinforcing a heterosexual future, narrowing their choices of clothing or hairstyle, and so on—then having an actual child of your own kicks this concern into overdrive. The very first thing anyone asks you when you say you’re having a baby, or just had one, is: boy or girl?
Everywhere you go, everywhere you look, things are gendered and the boy or girl reductionist question just keeps coming. I had a really regrettable tantrum in front of a pharmacist’s assistant a year ago when Stanley got lice. I went to get some of the special shampoo you have to use and when I said I needed children’s lice shampoo, he asked, boy or girl? When I asked what possible difference that could make, he explained that girls would need a larger bottle to coat all of their hair, and boys could use the smaller one, because they have less hair. I pointed out that boy or girl was probably not then as useful a question as, “Does the child have long hair or short hair?” since—as he must know—there were sometimes known to be longhaired boys and shorthaired girls in the world. He replied by saying, “Whatever. Do you need it for a boy or a girl? I have a lot to do.” (There, in case it wasn’t clear, is when the tantrum started.)
Baby clothes are terrible. Everything on the boys’ side is blue and red and black or printed with cars or sporting equipment. All the shirts say allstar and grandpa’s mvp and #1 on them in Varsity font, and anything that’s not adorned with a racing stripe has camouflage on it. The girl’s clothes are all pink or purple or, uh, pink, and they all have rhinestones and glitter and a cap sleeve and a ruffle and a kitten on them. When Stanley asked for a purple shirt with flowers on it, it took a hilariously long time to find a purple T-shirt with flowers on it that didn’t also have any embellishments deemed “itchy” (e.g., lacy trim, cut-out necklines, or shirred sides). And forever we were bringing home packs of innocuous-seeming onesies or sleepers only to discover that they had some message on them like “Mommy’s hero” or “Grandma’s flirt” in small print, just to be sure no hour might pass in a tender young life without a vigorous dose of gender-reinforcing messaging.
Then comes everything else. Recommendations from the children’s librarian? Boy or girl. Tiny bicycle, bouncy ball, backpack, socks? Boy or girl. The day I took Stanley to the store for a small-sized kid toilet he could use without needing a boost, I arrived to see the limited selection laid out for us with a certain grimness. He had been quite clear that he wanted the sort with a back and a “flush”-handle, just like the real thing (a stipulation to which I cheerfully conceded with visions of abolishing forever our cloth diaper pail dancing in my head). But when we got there, the only such items on display were from our friends at Pixar Studios: one red, Lightning McQueen, Cars©-branded potty with a stick-shift handle that revved for you when you pulled it, and one bubble-gum-pink Princess potty adorned with moulded-plastic flowing skirts and a bejewelled sceptre that played a royal fanfare when you pulled it. My heart sank. Stanley ran to them, revving and fanfare-ing simultaneously, starting to declare his choices back and forth (“This one! Wait, this one! Wait …”) while I searched in vain for my alternative. A frog potty that briefly looked promising turned out not to have a back to it. I started to prepare to tell him we could look at another store when I saw, shining like a beacon in the sun, my salvation: Elmo.
“Look!” I shouted like I’d seen Bette Midler. “Elmo!” To my enormous relief, Stanley went for Elmo (who giggles and plays a flushing sound when you pull his handle). Crisis averted.
Keeping people from getting their gender expectations all over your kid is a full-time, elbows-out kind of a job. Our idea is that Stanley should get to wear and do and enjoy what he actually enjoys, regardless of who thinks it’s appropriate for whatever gender they imagine him to have. Seems straightforward if you’ve never parented, but in fact it’s an exhausting pursuit. Any commercial item—toothbrush, nightlight, bug spray, bath bubbles, even snack foods—gets printed with either a car or a princess on it. If you want an un-branded one, you’re definitely paying more once you eventually find it. At any little kid’s class or activity we’ve been to, the teacher or coach instructs and encourages the kids in gendered language—Be strong like a king! they say, or Be graceful like a princess! Our only respite was a circus class for little kids, where the instructor just asked them to straighten their backs like a ladder or to be limp and loose as a bowl of noodles. No imaginary regents necessary.
After a couple years of negotiating this, eleventeen times a day, simply refusing to say a word to anyone one way or the other about your kid’s sex sounds pretty good. It sounds even better when you realize it means you don’t have to spend any time receiving the unsolicited feedback of people who have had a thought they would like to share about your child’s gender.
Ultimately, there are plenty of ways to raise a kid in a world of abundant, freely chosen gender. I respect and support the choice of Storm’s parents to raise hir without publicly identifying hir gender as a way to make lots of room for that. Ishai and I, as two trans people with a lot of queerly gendered and trans-identified friends and family members, feel fairly certain that we will be able to make a space for Stanley where he knows he can wear what he likes and do what he likes without making a commitment to gender-neutral words, even if he hasn’t yet asked to use them (to which, if he does, we’ll cheerfully switch). Pronouns and gendered words aren’t enough to constrain even a kid who knows the word savannah (he also said “cacophony” recently, and used it correctly. I mean, while I’m bragging).
In some measure, I think this question about gender neutrality also means: “Are you being true to your values about gender, even when it’s your own kid on the line?” and to that I can easily answer yes. It feels fair for this to be a concern, and it’s a valid one. Certainly, as a parent, there are days when I have to bite my back teeth together hard and take deep breaths in order to let Stanley give things a try. I’m proud of his fearlessness, even when it gives me hives. So I think calming thoughts and watch him climb up things, jump off things, pour his own juice, and wear fourteen necklaces and a superhero cape out of the house. It’s part of the parenting deal.
There are days when it takes a lot of deep breaths to help me be as easy with gender-independence as my three-year-old. The day he requested the princess-patterned pull-ups I balked, I have to confess. My enthusiasm for gender-independence extends pretty far, but when it extends all the way into the hyper-feminine Disney realm of wasp-waisted whiteness, it makes my teeth grind. But our policy with regard to child raising is to say no only when we mean no, and then be unwavering in our noes, and I would only very strongly prefer he not choose things with princesses on them. I can’t really bring myself to forbid it. I imagine there will be plenty of time for forbidding later, when he wants even more problematic (and expensive) things.
When Stanley came home this afternoon from his outing with his auntie Abi, he had in his hand a bag containing five rubber toy bugs representing the five stages of butterfly metamorphosis and was full of news about the llama, who turned out to be named Holly and who Stanley requests that he be allowed to invite to his birthday party in return, as seems only fair to him. He’d peed his pants, and returned home in his backup outfit: a powder blue baseball shirt with red sleeves emblazoned with the signature graphic from Abi’s clothing design company, which reads “What’s Your Mix?” in relief among the leaves of a complex and lush tree, along with gray pants and socks patterned with cupcakes. Although the shirt was originally intended to represent pride in being racially mixed, as Abi is, this kid’s not afraid of his mix, either—his gender mix. Because of this, and also the bugs and the cupcake socks, the monster shirt and the pink sunglasses, I’m going to say that whatever relationship he has with gender, he’s the one directing it for now, sometimes in a different direction than the last hour and sometimes in three places at once and sometimes nowhere at all, splashing and singing a little song about Alligator Pie quietly to himself. That—as far as his other dad and I are concerned—is as it should be.
Excerpted from Blood, Marriage, Wine & Glitter (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013)