Friday, May 27, 2011

Your baby's gender is a secret, too

There's been lots of talk about kids and gender lately - the boy who dressed as Daphne from Scooby Doo for Halloween, the JCrew ad featuring a little boy with pink toenails, and most recently, the unschooling family that has chosen to keep their new baby's sex a secret.

As someone who is involved in both the unschooling and transgender communities, I naturally have a lot to say on this topic.

First, a bit of gender 101: Every baby's gender is a secret, to everyone, quite likely including the baby hirself. What these parents are keeping a secret is their baby's sex - the biological state of having XX or XY (or XO or XXY or whatever) chromosomes, of having a penis or vagina, testicles or ovaries, etc. Gender is a person's internal sense of whether they are male, female, both, neither, or something else. No one is fully sure at what age gender identity actually develops, but it is probably safe to say that newborn infants do not yet care whether they are male or female, because they do not yet know what being male or female means in their culture. And regardless of when a baby understands hir own gender, that gender will remain a secret to the people in the baby's life until ze is old enough to express it. If that child is transgender, then hir gender could remain a secret for many, many years as ze struggles to understand hirself. I did not know my own gender until I was 24 years old. Some people don't know until past middle age. But whether your child is cisgender or transgender is simply not something you can know when the child is born. If your baby is not old enough to say "I'm a boy" or "I'm a girl", then you don't know yet. Period. I don't care how many Barbies or toy trucks or pink clothes the kid has. I had dozens of Barbies and I hated sports and I still came out more male than female. Those things can be clues to your child's gender, but they absolutely do not define it.

Now that that's out of the way, here's what I think of this particular story. It is absolutely wonderful that this family has chosen to allow their children the whole world to choose from, without assigning gender-based rules to anything. If a child with a penis prefers pink clothes, that child absolutely should never be denied access to pink clothes because of that penis. That's something these parents are getting right. And it's something so few parents get right that I think this family deserves lots of praise for that choice.

But I am troubled by this quote:

"Because Jazz and Kio wear pink and have long hair, they're frequently assumed to be girls, according to Stocker. He said he and Witterick don't correct people--they leave it to the kids to do it if they want to."

This suggests to me that the parents are confused about the difference between gender expression and gender identity. It appears that at least one of these children is firmly male-identified and is troubled when he is mistaken for a girl. It also appears that his parents are assuming that because he prefers pink clothes and long hair, his need to identify as male is trivial.

I cannot speculate, based on a brief Yahoo news article, on the long-term effects of this particular family's choices on these particular children. But I am troubled by all the praise I'm hearing for "gender-neutral parenting", because it seems to be based on the notion that gender is a social construct - which is a fancy way of saying gender is not really a thing. As someone who has struggled a lot with my own gender, and someone who has many transgender and genderqueer friends, I can assure you that yes, gender is really a thing. True, I think it is irresponsible to force a child to conform to a gender expression that matches hir birth sex. Children born with vaginas should never be forced to wear dresses and play with dolls, children born with penises should not be forced to repress their emotions and purge themselves of all signs of femininity.

But the key word in all of this is forced. You are not being any more progressive if you force your child to live without a gender when she is clearly a girl or he is clearly a boy. And I think it is equally irresponsible to leave a young child to drift alone through the highly contentious world of gender without giving hir sufficient information or support. If you know good and well that your child identifies as a boy, and an adult comes along and calls him a girl, it should not be left up to him to correct them! As someone who frequently has to correct people regarding my gender, I can assure you it's not an easy thing to do, and often doesn't feel like a safe thing to do. One of your jobs as a parent is to protect your children's space in the world until they are old enough to do it themselves, and that includes protecting their sense of who they are. Allowing other people to misgender your child without defending hir puts an extremely unfair burden on the child.

Letting your child pick clothes from every department is good. Never explaining to your child that clothes carry gendered connotations is not good, because you are withholding vital information about the world from your child. If your teen came up to you and wanted to know if he could dread his hair, and you also knew that he wanted to get a job soon, it would be irresponsible to let him make that choice without ever discussing the way his hairstyle may impact his job search. In the same way, it is unfair to let your male-identified child wear a dress without any warning that most people will think he's a girl. Whether or not you leave the final choice up to your child is the difference between traditional parenting and unschooling; whether you offer your child the guidance and information they need to make that choice is the difference between unschooling and neglect.

So what do you do? How do you help your children be exactly who they are in a world with such rigid gender roles? There's no easy answer to that question for adults, let alone kids. I'll be writing a follow-up post giving suggestions for how to talk about gender with your kids in a respectful way, but the main principle to remember is to help children be exactly who they are. That's the basic principle behind unschooling, and if you're living that principle in other areas of life, it shouldn't be too much of a stretch to apply it to gender as well.


Marie-Terre said...

Wow! This is such a great post. Thank you for sharing these words that resonate so much with my way of seeing this. I couldn't quite put the right words together to explain my point of vue when the storie of that baby came up on the news. Reading you today is a gift. Thank you :)

Debbie said...

Great post Elisha!

kelly said...

This is a wonderful post, and I"ll be sharing it around!

I am somewhat of a newbie on transgender, transsexual, and intersex issues. So there's that caveat.

I have a child who identifies as a girl, and one who identifies as a boy, and in both cases these correspond with their birth sex. However my son Nels wore frocks for about a year, and often has his hair long. I have seen people misidentify him as a girl, and I've seen him correct them (and sometimes, not). I haven't stepped in much because he did not seem at all troubled by any of this. He'd say, "Yes, I'm wearing a dress, and I like it." and that was the end of that. I also ask your thoughts on how transmisogyny comes into play when children behave "off-gender" (or the gender roles people assign them) - as in, it's more "shameful" for a boy to dress as Daphne than it is for a girl to be a "tomboy" etc.

My point is, I hope you are giving these children's agency their due. I wonder if a family that is unschooling and raising their children with a high degree of awarenesss on social issues (or social justice issues), they may be raising their children progressively too - which means, to simplify it, the children, haven't been squashed - they have more agency, strength, and specific awareness. I'm not sure about it in the case of this family - like you, it's hard to tell from one article.

By the way, this is by far and away the best article I've yet read on this family.

Rebecca said...

Really strong post. Two points, especially, are right on.
a) Gender is a thing.
b) Parents shouldn't withhold information about the world.

Michael said...

Very well said indeed.

Anonymous said...

One of the best most well reasoned pieces on this I've seen/

mamapoekie said...

Great post, will be sharing this in Sunday Surf. For how we deal with gender, I can best use this anecdote from a while back:
My daughter was asking about make up and my very gender rigid FIL said only women wear make up. I corrected him and said that wasn't true, going on by giving him examples of men who do use make up.
I said to my daughter, that yes, most men do not wear make up, but some do, as a way to express themselves, or as stage make up, that there is a great tendency of trying to sell beauty products to men, but that for the general public, this is still not very accepted.
And that not all women wear make up, that it consists of a choice, and that make up is certainly not necessary

My daughter can choose her clothes from either 'side' of the store, but I will tell her that this section is aimed at girls and the other at boys. She still picks from the boys section very regularly. SHe's 3

Hope that was helpful

Momma Jorje said...

Great post! My ex & I gave our daughter a very unisex first name and a more feminine middle name. For a while, she chose to use her middle name because her first name wasn't girly enough for her.

I grew up as a tomboy with short hair and was VERY often mistaken for a boy. In fact, my father liked to joke about it himself.

I am lucky in that I am very secure in my gender identity and that it matches my sex.

I think that it is great that people are following their hearts and instincts and allowing their children freedom, but worry about children being pushed into the spotlight to make a point about gender. A child's struggle with their gender identity should be a private and protected thing.

Missy said...

Thank you so much for posting this!!!