I was visiting a friend who has two kids, both boys, holding my son on my lap. My son was wearing a pink onesie and a pair of dark blue overalls.
“I think she wants to play with this!” the younger one squealed, holding a toy car in the air.
The older of the two stared at his brother, “that’s a BOY!” he announced, “you say ‘he’ not ‘she!'”
“Well that’s ok, he doesn’t really care yet,” I said to both of them.
A few more minutes passed, and then the older boy said “but how can you tell that it’s a boy?”
It was a loaded question for me. Some of my closest friends are transgender, as is my child’s generous sperm donor. I am constantly aware that any identity we put on him may be discarded by him at any time in favor of something else. His other mother and I, we are just his parents, we don’t own him. He may not be a boy. He could be a girl, or even something else. That is ok with me because I love him for who he is, I love him just for showing up to this amazing world, not for any particulars about him that I pretend to know.
I looked at the child standing in front of me “well, you have to guess.”
It made sense to him. It makes sense to me too, actually.
At least two adults in my child’s life currently use gender neutral pronouns. More than that identify as some form of transgender or genderqueer. So unlike the typical nuclear family, it wasn’t necessarily obvious to us that penis = boy = he pronouns.
The decision to gender our child is not one we have taken lightly. First of all, we recognize that it is just that, our decision.
We could have chosen a different way. We could have chosen to give our kid a more gender neutral sounding name, and to insist upon gender neutral pronouns until they were old enough to articulate what they would like to be called and how they would like to be addressed. In many ways, this idea was attractively radical. Instead we chose to allow him to be labeled “boy” and use masculine pronouns, but while constantly providing him with other options and reinforcing that we are ready to switch at any moment.
Calling our kid “he” may be an educated guess, but it is a guess.
So why’d we do it? Here’s a few reasons:
1. Babies do not self identify, at least not as far as we know. All parents, to some degree, project an identity onto their very young children. I DONT THINK THIS IS NECESSARILY A BAD THING. Projecting a placeholder identity onto a baby helps us to think of them as whole people, and to relate to them and empathize with them. Empathy is probably one of my biggest goals as a parent, and I want to give myself the tools to do so. It is really really hard to relate to someone without an identity, which is part of the reason we name our children rather than waiting until they can name themselves.
As long as we recognize that the placeholder identity is just that – a placeholder – then I think it can be a very good thing, and that can include gender. The problem arises when we, as parents, become so attached to the placeholder identity that we won’t listen to our children tell us who they really are.
2. We have to live in this world now. Raise your hand if you remember baby Storm. I fully support Storm’s parents decision to do what they believed to be best for their child, but to be perfectly frank I simply am not equipped to deal with that level of negative attention.
Our child has to live in the world as it is, right now, and so do we. We are already asking his extended family members to get used to a lot of ideas and practices that aren’t totally familiar to them. Gendered pronouns feels like an area where compromising with wider culture is ok for us.
3. Baby names are hard. We needed to pick a name that we both liked, and that we would still like after saying three thousand times a day. There were very fee named that fit that bill, it turns out, and there were absolutely zero gender neutral names that did.
4. Odds are we are right. Most people are cisgender, and so it is very likely that won’t ever mind the pronouns he has been assigned or wish to change them. Obviously there is no guarantee, nor should there be, but if we are going to make a guess, statistically this is the most likely option.
5. And if we’re not right, we’re ready to be flexible! I am able to feel good masking a guess about my child’s gender that is just that – a guess – because I know that I am ready and willing to be wrong. My wife and I work very hard to avoid making assumptions about who he will be in the future. It’s actually easier than I thought it would be. Babies change every single day, why in the world would I think I could predict who he will be or what he will like five years from now?
As soon as he is old enough to start exploring and articulating his own identity, we plan to follow his lead as much as possible. But until that time, we have to call him something. We had to guess. Our guess is “he.”
Note: this post was inspired by a question from a reader. If you have any questions about queer families, this particular queer family, or the rejection of nuclear values, feel free to leave them in the comments, or ask on social media. It just might become a blog post!