It’s not my job to guide my child when it comes to her gender—it’s my job to hold the space for my child to express her gender however she wants to, whether she ends up gender non-conforming or not.
My youngest child, a 4-year-old, is really into tiny things lately. Beads and rocks are particular favorites. My child sees roly-polies (or pill bugs, depending on your region) as pets, and is likely to have four or five of them in hand when outside. My kid has a special interest in making things. Like houses for roly-polies out of popsicle sticks. Wading in the creek, sneaking another show on the iPad, hoarding candy, and penguin pajamas would be on my child’s list of Best Things Ever.
Can you tell if my child is a boy or a girl?
Yet people ask my child and me that question all the time. “Is that a boy or a girl?” My child is what you might call gender non-conforming, or gender fluid. You could also call it being a kid. She’s OK with the female pronouns, but she consistently requests short hair “like a boy.” The haircut seems to throw people off most of all, because it does look very much like a typical boy haircut. And if she is mixing what you would consider “boy” clothes with her gold shoes? It seems to really confuse people. They can’t tell if we have a boy who is wearing girl clothes, a girl who is wearing boy clothes, or if we are just hippies.
She has equal amounts of pink/purple clothes with butterflies, clothes with dinosaurs and cars, and gender-neutral clothes. She obtained this wardrobe because she chose it herself. When it became clear to us that she wanted to have “boy” clothes, but still wanted “girl” clothes, too, we weren’t sure how to approach buying her new clothes. At the recommendation of our therapist, we gave her three choices: a “girl” shirt, a “boy” shirt, and a neutral shirt, and told her we could only keep one. We did not call the shirts by gender, but simply arranged them next to each other. She would pick whichever one she wanted, and walk away happily. Her current favorites are a black and turquoise dance dress that is practically thrashed from being worn so much, a pair of shark pajama bottoms that she wears to school, and a pair of golden shoes. These articles of clothing tend to be worn as one ensemble.
NBC aired a special on transgender kids in April, and Caitlyn Jenner spoke to Diane Sawyer in a culturally significant interview about her transition to female. The media itself is getting a crash course on what it means to be transgender. Stories from transgender people are everywhere. So people who have never taken a gender studies class in college are now seriously considering gender as beyond simply, “Boy or girl.” The fact that there is an entire spectrum of gender that is influenced by cultural norms is now part of the national conversation.
I wrote an article last September for Huffington Post about my child’s insistence that she was a boy since the age of 2, and her desire for a short haircut. I got a lot of support from family and friends, as well as LGBTQ groups. Most striking to me were tweets and Facebook messages from transgender folks who said, “I wish my parents had been like this.” It touched me, and it really drove it home that we were doing the right thing for our family. How could I not believe so, after hearing from human beings who had been through an incredible journey to live as their true gender, without the support of his or her parents?
Their parents may have come around eventually, as parents often do. But why fight it at all? Imposing gender stereotypes on your own kid doesn’t serve anyone. My husband and I would rather err on the side of being supportive, even if she turns out to be a typical girl (whatever that is), than to fight her on it and end up letting her down when she needs our support the most. And why should a child have to assert over and over again that they are a boy/girl? What would happen if we just listened to what our children are telling us and see what happens?
I received plenty of flak for my article, for not guiding my child when it came to her gender. I accept that criticism completely. It’s not my job to guide my child when it comes to her gender—it’s my job to hold the space for my child to express her gender however she wants to, whether she ends up gender non-conforming or not. She’ll never get the message that I think she is wrong, or bad, for expressing herself—no matter what form that expression takes. That’s what our guidance looks like.
What people probably don’t know is that we do the same for our older daughter. She’s a first grader at our neighborhood public school, and she is into My Little Pony, wears dresses for the most part, and has what would be considered a feminine gender expression. She also punches really hard and for this reason, she enjoys practicing for spelling tests—when she can punch my palm as hard as she wants for every word she gets correct. She plays Minecraft, much to the surprise of her fellow first graders, particularly the boys, many of whom told her “But girls can’t play Minecraft.” Until she started talking about mods, and how she built a house in survival mode.
When you have a child who wants to dress a certain way, or play with a certain toy, and you tell them they can’t because you’re worried what someone else might think, or because you are uncomfortable with it because of your own gender bias – you’re essentially modeling that the child should view themselves externally. That how they see themselves is not as important as how others see them. That’s not the message I want to send to my children.
I’m aware that not all parents have the same background I have when it comes to gender. I’m a bisexual woman who is married to a man. Overall, it’s a nonissue, although I do believe that children can be sensitive to our perspectives, our own work, all of which makes up our complex and rich humanness. Because my sexuality doesn’t fit the standard, I’ve had ample opportunity to examine gender roles and the influence our culture has in determining how these roles tend to be perceived. I also conducted my masters’ thesis on transgender voice and communication clients as part of my degree in speech language pathology. Is my child picking up on the fact that I’m more conscious than some of gender fluidity? Maybe so. But there’s nothing wrong with that.
Once, our youngest asked us, “Am I a girl or a boy?” Our answer: “You’re in a girl’s body right now, and you can do whatever you want in that girl’s body.” This includes changing that body one day, if that’s what she chooses to do.
Gender stereotyping is more prevalent now in childhood than it was when we were kids. Superfriends was for everyone, not just boys. Legos and video games were for everyone. Clothes did not have sayings on them about how chicks dig you, and they didn’t have “Princess” and “Diva” bedazzled on them. Admittedly, my room was adorned with rainbows and unicorns, but not the pink and lavender overload you see when you walk down the “girls” aisle at Toys R Us.
This is especially true in the schools. I approached my daughter’s administrator, counselor, and team leads for each grade about a wonderful program called Welcoming Schools, which is part of the Human Rights Campaign. It is already being piloted at a few schools in Texas. It takes anti-bullying one step further in that it addresses gender stereotyping in the schools and embraces family diversity. It gives teachers the tools to deal with gender-based bullying, for which even non-LGBTQ kids can be targeted. Most importantly, it creates a climate of respect and lets children and adults know that there are lots of ways to be a boy and a girl.
What I would not give to have that program in my kid’s school. Even if my youngest turns out to be on the feminine side of the gender spectrum, I want her to learn to respect other people as humans, not to think in simplistic terms about what a boy or a girl can do. To reduce children to those terms, no matter if they are positive or negative in nature (e.g., girls are bad at throwing balls vs. girls are good listeners) is potentially damaging not just for LGBTQ children, but for everyone.
Our youngest used to say she was a boy, when asked. Now she sometimes says she is a girl. Once at a playground, a child asked if she was a boy or a girl. She paused. “I’m a girl,” she said. We stopped asking her a long time ago, instead allowing her to explore without feeling pressured to “pick one.” We have more important things to talk about with her. Like what kind of sprinkles she wants on her vanilla ice cream. Or if she wants to sleep with her owl Beanie Boo or her polar bear. Or how The Day the Crayons Quit is the most hilarious book ever written, because the peach crayon is NAKED. Or what kind of cake she wants for her birthday. Turns out, she wants a train cake. No wait, it’s gonna be a rainbow cake. No, she wants an Elsa cake. No, Baymax. It’s OK. There’s plenty of time to decide. And none of those cakes are wrong. The cake doesn’t even matter. We will celebrate our child with family and friends, and sing to her with love, year after year.
Erika Kleinman lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and her two children. She has work published in Salon.com, The Rumpus, Baltimore Review, Huffington Post, and more. You can follow her on Twitter @ekleinman.