“I’m so sorry,” the friendly lady behind the cash register starts, staring apprehensively at my kid, “but I can’t always tell at this age – is that a little boy or a little girl?”
I get apologized to a lot these days. I look down at the baby in my arms. He is wearing a white onesie covered in giraffes, offwhite pants, and is wrapped loosely in a muslin swaddle covered in gray stars. It registers in my brain that her eyes are carefully scanning his outfit for potential gender markers. The uncomfortable expression on her face is that of a human trying desperately to sort what they see into a familiar category, but also it is the awkwardness of a woman raised to be polite who just doesn’t want to offend anybody.
I’m just trying to buy some candy before my next doctor’s appointment, so like I usually do, even though I think of a handful of responses that range from a lecture of gender self determination to a quippy “why does it matter?,” I say “Oh, no big deal, boy.” And then I shrug.
I’m a queer mother who lives in a community that includes a pretty wide variety of trans and gender nonconforming people. Human variation is staggering and beautiful. We like to imagine that there are two distinct sexes that feed perfectly into two distinct genders, but it isn’t so and it shouldn’t have to be. Respecting my community and chosen family means honoring everyone’s identities, not halfheartedly but all the way.
And so, although I may, in a quest for simplicity, tell strangers that my child is a boy, I always think “well, maybe not.” Because of course that is ultimately up to him.
I’m struggling to write this. The truth is that gender is a rich, varied, and complex web. The truth is that I do not want to have to write out an introductory paragraph explaining the difference between sex and gender. The truth is that I’m not totally confident in my own ability to do so. But as I sit here, moving back and forth between compromising with the world as it is and attempting to rebuild it as it should be, I feel the need to explain and justify some things I should never have to explain or justify.
People are obsessed with my baby’s gender.
No, people are obsessed with babies’ gender.
“What a handsome little man!”
“Look at that hair, he’s gonna get all the girls!”
“Now I can’t remember, what did you have?”
and once, walking down the street, after passing the stroller, a man excitedly shouted “boy or girl? BOY OR GIRL?” over his shoulder at me and my wife.
I find myself using the word son more than I thought I would. I find myself intensely attracted to it. I like it because it is relational. It is so much different than baby or child. He can be “my baby” or “the baby” or “a baby,” but the word son is exclusive to the relationship he has with my wife and I am damn proud of that relationship. I find myself wishing there were a less gendered word that did that, but that’s how it goes. Anyways that’s punk for you, we do what we can with what we got. That includes babies. That includes gender. That includes flawed language.
I’m not arguing that babies shouldn’t have gender. I am arguing that the way we gender babies, by pushing them aggressively into one of two boxes at or before birth and constantly reinforcing that with a flood of carefully chosen gender markers, is limiting and unhelpful to all children, and potentially devastating to those that might need to choose the other option (or a third or fourth or fifth option). I want my child to have options. I want him to feel free to express himself. Really and truly free, not just hypothetically free.
In the world of my dreaming, my son will grow up knowing that I think whoever he is deep inside is beautiful and strong and wonderful and amazing. He will know that gender variance is not something his parents will deal with, and love him in spite of, it is something we will embrace wholeheartedly the same way we will embrace so many other things about him.
Are you gay? We think that is fantastic!
Are you straight? We think that is fantastic!
Do you love spaghetti? We think that is fantastic!
Want to be an astronaut? Fantastic!
Want to be a farmer? Fantastic!
Want to be a stay at home parent? Fantastic!
Kids aren’t stupid. They pick up on their caregivers preferences, and those preferences can create barriers. If you only ever dress your daughter in dresses, she’s going to have to screw up her courage to ask you for a pair of pants.
And so my son wears pink. He wears pink and purple and red and blue and green and black and white and gray and orange and brown yellow and rainbow. He wears pastels and he wears earthtones and he wears stripes and he wears plaids. He wears onesies and he wears overalls and he wears tshirts and he wears shorts and he wears dresses and he wears these adorable little rompers. But he wears pink. And we’re not just talking salmon colored golf shorts. We’re talking pink, pink-pink even.
In a world full of subtle and not-so-subtle gender markers, a world where strangers congratulate him on what a big boy he is, a world where everyone is already constantly pushing the idea that he should be in greens and blues, that he’s made of snails and puppy dog tails, in this fucked up cisnormative heterocentric world, I need to be constantly showing him that our family is a safe place. In our family you are allowed to like trucks or dolls or both or neither. In our family sometimes girls shave their head and boys can have long hair. In our family you can marry whoever the hell you want but also you don’t have to ever get married, not ever. And in our family you can be a boy or a girl or both or neither or something else. And you can wear pink. Or not.
And my son, my child, is going to grow up knowing that is true. He’s going to know it from his earliest memories. It has to start today. It has to start right now. Because all of the other gendering has already started.
PS – Post Nuclear Era is now on the twitter, under @Postnuc_mama!
Part quippy parenting observations, part social justice related rage, all fun all the time!