My Response To Raising Children As Genderless

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This article originally appeared on Hypervocal.com. Republished here with permission.

After reading a few articles covering the recent story about Beck and Kieran, the couple who only revealed the sex of their child when he was five and starting school, I seem to be in the minority. I praise these parents for having the courage to do something that is clearly not a popular decision, and they probably knew that. People are calling it child abuse and saying that the parents are insane. That can’t be true. These people, hiding behind their computer screens, are afraid of difference and change.

There are so many questions to be asked here. Like how far does our sex and/or gender play a part in our early childhood? How far does it restrict children from being themselves, playing with certain toys, or playing with other children? And, as a consequence of this, how far does that have a negative effect on said child and/or society in general? Or, on the other side of the table, how far would being genderless affect you? I am not a child psychologist but what I do know is that we humans are a pretty predictable bunch. We like to feel safe in the space that we find ourselves in, and to feel safe, we need to know ourselves. Does not presenting as typically “boy” or “girl” in our early years hinder this and as a consequence damage that human being? And more so, damage society as we know it?

I personally say nay one hundred times over. Some would argue that it, without doubt, does damage the child because female and male brains work and grow differently, for example. I say that has nothing to do with it. This is about gender, not sex. This is about society and how we are treated just because we happen to be a certain sex. This is about changing the notion that two sexes (for the most part) equals two genders. This is about making children, and subsequently adults, not feel even a tiny smidgeon of shame because of what they like/play with/feel. This allows boys to cry and girls to uncross their legs and sit whatever way they wish.

There is a pre-school in Stockholm, Sweden which bans the use of the words “him” and “her.” Everyone in the school is treated as one gender, or without gender. The children do know what their biological sex is but they are not treated or referred to as “girls and boys,” just “friends” or “hen,” a gender neutral word borrowed from Finnish. The books are carefully selected so that traditional gender roles are not presented. In other words, you can be whatever you like. And most importantly, you can be whatever you like because no one is telling you how boys and girls are “supposed to be” in the first place.

Knowing the self as the self is not the first thing an infant learns in terms of socialization. It is in fact “the other” that guides their sense of self. They then learn to identity the self in relation to the other.

So this tells us that we learn to be ourselves from our relationships, first with our parents and family unit and then with the rest of the world, through language. Thus, identity is a performance from the start. I would argue that our identity, our sense of self, and thus gender, is created and consequently expressed through language, and this language is incomplete and inarticulate, because it is a pre-established means of expression. The French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Lacan argued that the constitution of self is bound up with the world of images and representations and so the self has no essential qualities, since it is not born, but made. It is made through the oppressive language and social restraints already in place. This is what people want to break away from.

It is not that we are trying actively to go against the stereotypes by not dressing girls in pink and forcing boys into it, for example. (This is just a simple example — it is about a lot more than this). The world would be a much better place if everybody was able to be free of gender stereotypes from the beginning.

I’m pretty lucky. I grew up not being forced or discouraged to play with anything. It wasn’t an issue. I liked Barbies and GI Joes, I liked Lego and the doll’s house. Whatever. These things aren’t boyish or girlish, they’re just things, and my parents thought so too. Yet, girls still get called tomboys if they climb a tree and play football and boys still get given the raised eyebrow when they want to play with a doll or knit. Ultimately, I think it is harder for boys. Perhaps, the feminist fight has helped the fact that girls can be “one of the boys” and it’s “cute.” (Although, according to the same people, masculine women aren’t).

Boys, however, are often told from a young age what they should play with and what they should be interested in, and there seems to be a fear of femininity in boys. Perhaps this is why the majority of boys don’t do as well as girls in school – because they have this added pressure to “act like a boy,” and to eventually “be a man.”

Some would argue that these parents who refuse to announce the sex of their child are doing the wrong thing and that it is too extreme because children will grow up to be whatever they were meant to be anyway, they don’t need to be brought up as genderless for that to happen. That may be true for some but it should not be a struggle to get there. I believe that putting children into boxes as soon as they are born thwarts their potential and may be part of the reason for so many children growing into insecure adults. It makes them think that certain things are wrong, that certain things are only for one or the other sex, when ultimately nothing should be off-limits to anyone because of their sex.

I hear this boxing in a lot from parents, like they’re scared that a boy who likes “toys that are made for girls” will grow up to be gay. They think that either a) the fact he wants to play with this toy means he is gay and b) letting him play with it will increase the chances of him being gay.

There are so many things wrong with this. Firstly, they’re confusing gender with sexuality. They are assuming femininity in males (and masculinity in females) equals gay. They are also assuming that interests/toys you play with is associated with a certain sex and the other sex must never be interested in it “because it’s not right”. For example, knitting is associated with women because an activity like this fits in with their expected role: the passive role within the binary of the hunter-gatherer and domesticity. We have moved beyond this. It’s pathetic and it needs to change. We are thrust into “girls’” or “boys’” clothes from birth and expected to follow these rules. Rules like shopping in the section labeled “womenswear” where if we diverge from this norm we are suddenly different, labeled as “other”. People might argue, “let boys  be boys and girls be girls, it is natural and that’s just how it is, the two sexes are different, deal with it” but think about it, how many times were you reminded to cross your legs because it is “lady-like”? If you’re a male reading this? And if you’re a female reading this? Yeah, I thought so. “Lady-like” is a social construct. Gender as it relates to males and females is a social construct.

The Swedish school and parents who chose not to disclose the sex of their child to others are not trying to confuse the child’s perception of their own biological sex, it’s gender that they are unraveling. They are opening up opportunities and providing a safe space for the child to be anything they want to be. Is this not the best freedom of all? I know I could have benefited from it in my teens when I wanted to cut my hair into a style which happens to be associated with males.  I didn’t cut my hair and wear things I truly wanted to until years later. If there hadn’t have been an issue with a girl wanting to present in a more typically boyish way, I wouldn’t have waited!

Everyone who commented negatively on the articles seemed to be missing the point. They wrote things like “the boy will not know whether to stand or sit when going to the toilet” and “How is a pink fairy costume gender neutral?” These children know their biology and know how to go to the toilet and regarding comments like the latter, a fairy costume is not gender neutral only because people like you say it isn’t. People like you say it is “for girls” when the reality is any child, regardless of their sex can find it fun and interesting to dress up as a fairy. It is all about learning and being imaginative and there is nothing wrong with it. Stop being so afraid and you might learn something.

If we all grew up aware that we don’t have to always identify with “what we are supposed to” then the world would be a much more pleasant, more open and understanding place to be. These parents may be called abusers and insane but those accusing them should take a look at themselves and ask when was the last time they tried to put someone in a box out of fear. Yeah I thought so. Please stop being afraid.

Ray Watterson writes about fashion, food, reviews, queer issues, gender identity and anything else that interests her happening in the world today. Follow Ray at @queerotackybeau.

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