It’s safe to say that I’ve done more thinking about gender – mine, and other people’s – in the last year than ever before in my 40-year-old life.
At work, I’d taken on an informal gender equity initiative with some women colleagues, stimulating regular discussions about gender representation across our theatre field. I’d attended an all-women leadership summit in the fall, and helped to facilitate conversations around gender and intersectionality. I’d co-launched a women’s affinity space in my office. I’d written articles for supporting parents at work, regardless of gender, but in service of gender parity. I’d flown to California for a conference in which I joined a session focused on what the speakers called “trans competency,” which was shorthand for “learning how to be truly inclusive of trans and gender non-binary people.” And somewhere in there, #metoo and Time’s Up exploded into the headlines, and my department became responsible for our external professional development programming addressing sexual abuse and misconduct across our industry on a national level. Which, of course, has led my winter and spring to be consumed by even more conversations about gender, power, and the privileges and challenges that befall everyone on the gender spectrum.
So yeah. It’s been no small part of my day-to-day.
Then there’s the less intellectualized, more intuitive feelings about gender that have accompanied the birth of my daughter. Namely, I’ve been disinclined to dress my daughter in pink from the beginning, and have asked her grandparents not to buy her pink clothes. (I won’t even get into the exchanges I’ve had about not piercing her ears as an infant, which is customary in my in-laws’ culture.) I admittedly haven’t gone full gender-neutral when it comes to her wardrobe – all my resistant energy has for some reason been focused on pink. The pervasiveness of fuchsia frilliness and ballerina tutus and bedazzled Disney princess pajamas in the little girls’ section of most stores is just a little barfy to me. We’ll probably fall victim to the fru-fru phase at some point, but in the meantime, I’ve tried to keep it at bay. So, while this probably has nothing to do with what she wears at 21 months (today!), Miss Nina has turned out to be quite the rough-and-tumble, skinned-knees, dirt-and-sand type of girl, which gives me great joy. And when her brother announced that his favorite colors were pink and purple, I smiled with some kind of norm-defying satisfaction. In his first years, I’d avoided sports-focused onesies, and anything that said crap like, “Daddy’s Little Dude.” But most of his clothes have been inherited, and there we found ourselves, on the road to “overgendering” our first kid; now all he wears is blue. I was determined not to go down this same path with our second. Her autonomy about her own definition of – and relationship to – womanhood, femininity, and gender at large has been a sticking point for me.
With all of this backstory, you can imagine how I did a doubletake the other day when I heard my beloved weekday morning radio host interviewing parents who were exploring something they called “gender creative parenting.” The segment was inspired by a recent article in The Cut, “It’s a Theyby! Is it possible to raise your child entirely without gender from birth? Some parents are trying.” by Alex Morris. After listening to some of these parents, and the article’s author, describe this practice, I immediately Pocketed the article, and read it on the train on the way to work.
I’ll let you read it for yourself, but essentially there’s a movement of parents gaining momentum, who are focused on not gendering their child from birth. Meaning, they don’t identify or attribute meaning to the anatomy of their child (“anatomy” is used very consciously, I learned, because “sex” is so intertwined with gender expression in our culture) until their child is old enough to opt into their own gender identity, which usually happens by preschool age. As the title implies, these parents generally use they/them pronouns for their child, and do their best to remain neutral on the gender front in all settings – including, in a lot of cases, trying to get their daycare on board, and getting into relationship-threatening fights with family members.
I admit here, not proudly, but humbly, that– even as someone who is accustomed to giving my gender pronouns in meetings – my first reaction to this idea was one of skepticism. My own interest in gender autonomy falls so short of this lifestyle – it is awe-inspiring and radical, to the point of almost being intimidating. I’m sure a lot of people roll their eyes when they hear about gender creative parenting. There’s probably an episode of “Portlandia” dedicated to it. I mean, a Theyby? Isn’t this a little over the top, even for liberals?
Listeners called into the radio show as I got dressed that morning. I casually counted how many of them began with something like “I’m as progressive as they get, Brian, you know, I voted for Bernie, BUT…” before they offered some explanation for why this was where they drew the line in the sand. One woman insisted that this was just another ideology these parents were enforcing on their children, to replace an existing ideology that they didn’t care for, but that it was still introducing a rigid belief system to your household and family about which your children have no real choice. I paused to consider that.
The author of the article noted that most of these parents have heard some criticism like this, as though they were inducting their children into some kind of cult. Rather, they insist, this is an opening-up, and as close as they feel they can come to real liberation from potentially damaging societal constructs. The whole basis of the movement is that gender is socially constructed (so, if you don’t believe that, there’s little hope of you sympathizing with them). The shared goal of these parents is “to create an early childhood free of gendered ideas of how a child should dress, act, play, and be.” And, isn’t that the same basic theory that underscores my distaste for pink clothes – just demonstrated with a kind of purity, and a lot more commitment?
Another point made in the piece was that someone’s gender, in nearly every society on earth, is probably the biggest determinant of their future, outside of family wealth. (I’d argue that race should be on this short list, but you know, splitting hairs.) I think about the stat I often hear echoing through my work: the average life expectancy of a trans woman of color in America is 31. The sad truth of present-day America, especially with the clowns currently running it, is that if you are someone who outwardly identifies outside the gender binary in this country, your safety is automatically in jeopardy, and your psyche is in for a beating.
As the article goes on, “For [these parents], society’s gender troubles cannot be solved by giving all children dolls and trucks to play with or dressing them all in the color beige; the gender binary must not simply be smudged but wholly eradicated from the moment that socialization begins, clearing the way both for their child’s future gender exploration and for wholesale cultural change.”
They want a clean slate. And as a cultural change, this is clearly not going to happen overnight. I think this comment in the response thread encapsulates a lot of what I heard on the radio show, and a lot of what these folks hear every day: This strikes me as monstrous egotism on the part of these parents. To impose something as fundamental as “deciding” on your gender, on a developing child, is the height of arrogant progressive egotism. How much damage will this child suffer as the result of “their” parents’ experiment? This is the obvious end result of the transgender bandwagon, and I fully support transgender rights and dignity. But relegating gender to a choice is pointless, precious and selfish in the extreme. Choose the kind of person you want to be. Let nature continue to play its role.
If I was going to get on my quasi-activist soapbox, I’d point out the cis fragility dripping from these words, but those of you who might be agreeing more with that commenter than these parents would probably stop reading right now if I said that.
My response to my own initial discomfort is, what if I take a side road and simply approach this idea with curiosity and compassion? When marriage equality was the hot topic, I remember thinking that, even if someone was morally opposed to two people of the same sex tying the knot, what the hell do they care what other people do with their family lives if it’s not hurting anyone? It’s just not any of their damn business.
And if were to make it my business, as conservative America is wont to do, citing the possible damage to the children at hand (have you noticed how all bigoted ideologies rest their laurels on saving the children?)…well, let’s look at that. What is more damaging: raising a child to be as unaware as possible of the constraints of their gender identity, as determined by their sex, so they might discover for themselves what they like and who they want to be? OR raising a child, like my son, in a typical gendered environment, and then contending by preschool age with the emergence of play gun-shooting and aggressive friends who “hate girls” and think he should too?
I look at the difference between my kids, determined by just a small amount of extra effort to protect her gender autonomy, and I think these radical hipster parents may be onto something. (And if you think I’m making assumptions about their hipsterism, please note that the two most talked-about kids in the article are named Scout and Zoomer. Carry on.)
So many of us have lately yearned to be liberated from overly binary systems, each end of which seeming dangerously extreme. So what is it about freeing ourselves from the duality of gender that pisses people off so much, even self-identified progressives? What is it about the pull of expected gender roles that defies even our politics? Would this world have so many school shootings, or #metoo, or Donald Trump, if we’d all been free from our genders for the first years of our lives?
I don’t have an answer, but these are questions worth thinking about.
I’m not going to go full gender creative on my family. Besides that I kind of missed the boat, and not for lack of empathy for the people trying it out – I’m just not there yet. Really, if I’d known this lifestyle choice was a thing before I had kids, would I have adopted it? It’s unlikely. I know, at 40, that I’m not a radical. I also know that it will take the rest of my life, and then some, to unlearn the many destructive systems that I’ve been socialized into.
Yet I can’t help but hope that someday – maybe by the time my kids have kids – this kind of “opening up” won’t seem so radical at all. And maybe my first grandkid will be a theyby named Freedom.