When I got pregnant, my partner and I knew we wanted to be thoughtful about the ways we helped our kids construct their gender and the way they viewed gender in general. Whatever sex our baby was born, we had every intentions of gender-bending the hell out of it. We toyed with the idea of raising a gender neutral child. But between the confusion and protests it would incite in our families and all the extra work it involved, we decided it wasn’t for us. What we really wanted was to find ways to equip our future children with the tools to think critically and the ability to challenge the notions of gender dichotomy that society would inevitably be pitching to them from womb to tomb.
Much easier said than done.
When it was time to find out the sex of our baby, we decided against it. This would be our first mandate as gender-bending parents. We figured if nobody, including us, knew the sex it would prevent everyone from intentionally or subliminally transmitting their gender based hopes, dreams and stereotypes through my belly.
Inexplicably, friends and family still lovingly whispered, shouted and rain danced nonsense at my stomach whenever they’d get the chance. It usually sounded something like, “Hey baby boy in there! Hurry up and come out so we can play ball!” SMDH.
Our next gender-bending challenge was clothing. As soon as our son was born, we were bombarded with utterly boring “boy clothes”. I had to lay down some rules. No sports! No “macho superhero’s”! And nothing with the words, “champ”, “all star” or anything of the sort. I was really hard core about this. I planned to balance out all the blues and greens with lots of pinks and purples and was ready to go to war with anyone who had a problem with it.
Turns out, it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Even as a “progressive” parent, these binaries are still hard-wired within me and require some serious unlearning. I couldn’t fathom putting a dress on my son! If he asked for it, that’d be one thing. But doing so as a regular practice of gender bending? I wasn’t nearly as bold as I thought I was.
Part of the difficulty was navigating the space between challenging gendered boundaries and inviting scrutiny that my son was too young to understand and I was uninterested in dealing with. Part of it was it just made me uncomfortable in public. Once I stopped feeling guilty about being brainwashed, I realized that gender-bending doesn’t have to be about making my boy “dress like a girl” but more about keeping his gender identity and worldview fluid and free of restrictions. And about giving him equal access to all the colors in the rainbow.
Once my partner and I finally stopped orchestrating schemes, we actually did something that stuck. We never planned on not teaching our son gender pronouns, it just happened. Once he started trying to talk and would point to a random person on the street with a question mark on his face, we’d say, “Oh, that’s a person”, as opposed to, “that’s a man/woman or girl/boy”. When he actually started being able to verbally ask about people, we’d either tell him the person’s name or we’d say it’s a person and groups of persons were people.
At two and a half the terms: his, her, he, she, woman, man, girl, boy are not part of his vocabulary. At first I wasn’t sure if it would make a real difference in his gender understanding. But recently, I’ve started realizing that long term, it may have a profound impact. He is currently at the stage in his gender development where he would be categorizing people in his life as boys or girls. While he may perceive a difference between the sexes based on the sounds of voices or faces, he doesn’t label them. In fact, he doesn’t categorize anything based on gender. While the long term implications of this are yet to be seen, I think (hope) at the very least, it’ll make him a kid who sees people first, before their gender, and who can eventually more easily accept the fact that gender and sexuality both exist on a spectrum. And that that gives him permission to exist wherever he chooses to within it.
Even though I always played it off like I didn’t care what sex my baby would be, I secretly wanted a girl. But as soon as my son was born, I realized that not only did his sex not matter to me, it didn’t matter to him either. My son doesn’t know he’s a “boy”, he doesn’t even know what that means, and he especially doesn’t understand it in opposition to a “girl”. As parents, we’re the ones who define these terms for our kids and pick and choose what we put in their respective gender boxes. They can either accept it rigidly as, “man” and “woman” or as fluid and flexible. What I want for my son is for him to fully actualize as a human being, whatever that means for him. And if one day he asks to wear a dress or a tutu, I’m totally down for that.
(Image: getty Images)