Family / Parenting

Bent Gender Doesn’t Break Recently, I have been challenged on my lesbianism by people who say I’m really “genderqueer” and on my gender queerness, by people who say I’m too girly. Oh, the oversimplifications we deal with as queers! My partner and I have always tried to raise our kids with a complex understanding of gender. What I wrote below, once-upon-a-time, for is a little bit of an introduction to why and how we do that:

Nat with her special friend, Baker, pictured here as male, wearing one of my partner's ties. But sometimes, she is female, called simply "Girl," and wears tutus.

Nat with her special friend, Baker, pictured here as male, wearing one of my partner’s ties. But sometimes, she is female, called simply “Girl,” and wears tutus.

When my partner and I were driving our newly placed, three-day old, adopted daughter home for the first time, my partner looked at the baby in the rearview mirror and announced, “You’re a girl! That’s a really complicated thing. Don’t take it too seriously.”

As soon as we got the baby home, we began to experience the complications. Some people gave us clothing for her that we couldn’t bring ourselves to let her wear. Mostly this consisted of outfits featuring Disney princesses or Barbies. But my partner’s colleagues from the Women’s Studies department added a different complication. One gave us a little yellow dress with tiny, tasteful flowers on the hem. “My 3 year-old daughter picked it out,” she explained apologetically, “but I told her no pink, because we don’t know how you feel about that.” I assured her the dress was darling (and it was). It was also soft and easy to get on and off. My daughter wore it often.

Maybe it’s the Women’s Studies connection, maybe it’s because we’re lesbians, but everyone seemed to expect us to have strong opinions about not dressing our daughter too “girlie.” And in the past several months, we’ve met other lesbian moms who quietly raise their eyebrows when we bring our daughter to playgroups wearing floral prints or shades of pink. One book I read by a lesbian mom even chastises gay men for letting their daughters dress too femininely. “Gender-neutral clothing” seems to be a battle cry of the feminist mothers’ revolution.

This feminist mother begs to differ.

I don’t disagree that babies are mostly genderless. I have always thought those hospital newborn pictures of baby girls with pink ribbons velcroed to their heads were just plain, weird, if not cosmically wrong. And once, an old friend from college sent me a picture of his four week-old son so surrounded by sports balls that it was hard to pick the baby out of the pile.

But the fact that people do this absurd gender work upon tiny new infants is evidence that in our society, most adults find it impossible to relate to a truly androgynous being as a human subject. Because of this, the Intersex Society of North America, an advocacy group for those born with non-typically gendered anatomy, recommends assigning an intersexed child a gender at birth, though it strongly advises against surgical procedures until children are old enough to consent to them.

Of course, children’s clothing attests to this social need to gender babies. As every parent knows, children’s clothing stores are always divided between a girls’ section and a boys’ section. Online, the distinction is even clearer, as browsers often have to choose from a menu that lists “girls'” and “boys'” clothes separately. With the exception of two newborn-sized onesies in yellow and green, everything in the stores is coded for either girls or boys. It can be a simple white shirt, but if it is on the girls’ side, it will have a ruffle somewhere to make its intended gender clear.

Thus, I don’t dress my daughter gender-neutrally; no one does. Like everyone else, I dress her in either “boys’ clothes,” or “girls’ clothes.” And when I dress her in the clothes I purchased on the boys’ side of the store, people misread her gender every time.

“He’s gonna be a bruiser! Aren’t you sonny? You gonna play rugby?” one man said to my 15th percentile-sized daughter on a day that she wore a yellow shirt and blue shorts sans ruffles.

If I correct people who think she’s a boy, rather than re-evaluating their assumptions, they turn the judgment on me for dressing her “wrong.”

Contrarily, when her clothes code her female, women coo and swoon at my daughter’s beauty and charm. “Such a sweet little girl!” they sigh.

Rather than focusing on gender then, I dress my daughter according to the criteria of comfort, ease of movement, and fashion appeal, in that order. All of her clothes fit all three criteria, both her “boy” outfits and her “girl” outfits. She is too young to express an opinion about what she wears, so my partner and I choose according to our own tastes. This means that we dress her from both ends of a gender continuum. My partner tends to buy her miniature Hawaiian shirts and denim overalls (no ruffles or pink embroidery). I tend to buy her floral print sundresses and cardigan sweaters with heart-shaped buttons.

My partner and I are committed feminists. We are hoping for the great feminist revolution as much as any bebirkenstocked, androgynous lesbian separatist. But ironically, I think we believe both more in gender and less in it than those mythic separatists. We don’t believe that “gender-neutral” options exist in this culture, but we do believe that actual gender is dynamic and can’t be reduced to anatomy.

We believe that all children should be treated as intersexed, or at least as potentially transgendered. My daughter is a girl for now (albeit, an occasionally cross-dressing one), because having an assigned gender is a critical tool for being introduced to the world she lives in. But she may not always be a girl or quite a girl or quite the girl I make her out to be today. So I don’t strive to dress her outside the codes of gender. Even if it were possible, it would be an unfair attempt to force a certain gender expression — or rather, expressionlessness — upon her.

Gender isn’t going anywhere. If that revolution happened tomorrow, gender per se would not disappear. It may be an invention used to create hierarchies and oppress those on the bottom of them, but it is also a tool of self-expression, rebellion and desire. When my daughter is older, she will decide what her gender is. And when she is a little older than that, she might re-decide. There is no benefit as I see it, in artificially denying her the opportunity to experience the world through the lens of gender now. Her gendered experiences today will give her that much more to go on when she is determining who she is tomorrow.

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  1. Feminist. Liberal. Lesbian. Transsexual. Those things amongst others describe me. A fifth isn’t so nice, but it’s fact I’ll leave for another time.

    None of us exist in a vacuum. None of us can reset and relive. There are experiences in my head related to gender that go back to before this country elected JFK. Gender is complex, and so is the world. We seek our place, to find some truth that gives us a core identity that can withstand, for if we have a shaky identity built based on how others see us or wish to see us, trouble ahead.

    We didn’t have that ability to suss it out back then. We do now. People are always ready with an opinion on the best course, and I suppose I’m no different (on things like spanking children, my feet take root in opinion.) On most other things, parents need to follow their own guidance, not what is en vogue for everyone else. Most of these things are trendy, don’t do this, don’t wear that… find what works for you and your child.

    • Here, here, Nelle. The peace my partner and I have negotiated with gender, vis-a-vis our kids, has so much to do with observing our them carefully, providing them as wide a range of choices as we can (clothing, toys, activities, etc.), and being truly responsive and supportive of whatever it is they gravitate to. In my daughter’s case, that has included way more girlie-ish stuff than I would have ever thought a “free choice/ free range” sort of girl child would have gone for. But then, I was operating out of my own childhood as a tomboy. By the same token, I can’t get my son to play catch with me for love nor money. Each one in their own way is giving me a re-education.

      Yes, they will be guided/ pulled/ harassed into some choices by the social-cultural forces around them. (As you say, “None of us exists in a vacuum.”) But it’s a long, long trip to adulthood and full self-posession. Took me to thirty, near about, to come to a rolling (and, finally, contented) stop where I did on the gender spectrum. What I don’t want to do is stress these little critters too much too young.

  2. Eight years later and the kids are pretty flexible in their gender. They like their twirly dresses, the more flounces, the better…but they like to be super active, too. I am certain the little one is going to be a rugby player in a tutu.
    These days, I feel I have to protect them in the dumbest-sounding thing–their favorite colors.
    Big sister likes purple, little sister likes blue. But every damn time they meet a stranger, the stranger will say “what’s your favorite color? I bet it’s pink!” and gush self-gratifyingly when the girls nod because, obviously “pink” is the right answer.
    I’ve got nothing against pink–we have some pink stuff, to be sure. But really, when left to their own devices, the kids want everything to be purple and blue.
    It’s ridiculous that something so small can feel so tyrannical. but it does. It seems like there’s been some take-over of pink since I was a kid…

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