Appropriating a non-mainstream identity, especially for our kids, is not only deeply misguided, but a further dehumanization of the identities we’re appropriating.
Living with an almost-3-year-old means hearing every variation of the word no 214 times a day. It means shoving an unconscionable amount of requested-then-rejected food down the garbage disposal, hearing the disintegration of calories as they’re sucked into the abyss. It means pretending you don’t see your child using your phone charger as a stethoscope. But it also means this: In the wake of Donald Trump winning the presidential election, I have a politically oblivious tiny narcissist in the house who occasionally makes me tear myself away from my Facebook-fueled despair. Because, you know, she needs peanut butter crackers, or wants to play this game she invented called Really Big Run. I’m going to try to do that here—to live in a moment within a moment.
Kids say the darnedest things, and sometimes, they say things that seem to confirm the hope for the future we desperately heave upon them. Right now, my daughter speaks a toddler dialect of English where gender pronouns insist on fluidity, populating her sentences with what sounds like non-binary characters.
On giving affection to her stuffed animals: Snowy Owl is sad. He’s sad. Want to give her hugs and kisses.
On property rights: That’s Sarah’s teddy bear. It’s his.
How she makes a request: Mama, you want to read Room on the Broom. You want to read Room on the Broom right now!
I know my daughter isn’t making any political statements with her pronoun mash-ups. No matter how much I might want to turn them into signals of how much easier it will be to teach her generation about the spectrums of gender and sexuality, these aren’t indications that she’s ahead of her time, especially when the social influences of school haven’t even entered her world yet. At this stage of acquisition, she’s just playing with our language, and my husband and I mull over how we should best guide its development.
Many moons ago, when we found out we were having a girl, according to the ghostly “v” of her vulva on the ultrasound, I posted to our friends and relatives what I now see as an obnoxious ban on pink. I used phrases like “gender neutral” to avoid a closet full of Pepto Bismol, and, if I’m being honest, probably in part to announce my intention of raising my child in a progressive house where she would know what all the letters in LGBTQIAP mean. Maybe there was a hint of sanctimony in my tone?
But now that she’s actually here, in the world outside my womb, my daughter has forced me to square off with all the ways parents both project onto their children and politick through them.
One day several months ago, I was at a neighborhood playground with my daughter, chatting up another mother while our kids burned off energy on the slides. The other mother’s son, bedecked in jeans and a T-shirt with a green John Deere tractor on it, continuously scanned the sky for airplanes, pointing and making whoosh sounds each time another jet from Logan passed over us. My daughter loves planes, too, and joined her new playmate in the excitement. “Airplane!” she said, straining her eyes against the sunlight.
The boy’s mother shook her head. “He’s such a typical boy,” she said of her son. “All he plays with are cars and trucks. I wish he were a little more genderqueer, you know?”
I took in the mother’s appearance more deliberately. Old, possibly secondhand maxi dress stretched over a taut pregnant belly. Long, unwashed hair in a low bun. No makeup. An expensive brand of walking sandals—Teva or Wolky, maybe. The Jamaica Plain playground where we stood is surrounded by condos that regularly sell for a quarter- or half-million, a Whole Foods and several specialty co-op grocery stores, liquor stores that market canned craft beer, a dozen or more farm-to-table restaurants, and the JP Licks ice cream shop, where a small dish of gluten-free, dairy-free chocolate runs about $7 a pop. The neighborhood’s Hispanic roots are being pulled up a little more each year, supplanted by wealthy, white progressives who vote navy blue. We have a “porch fest” featuring local, live bands peppering the streets, a Halloween paper lantern parade, and a Wake Up the Earth festival, all of which take place in the whitest, most gentrified parts west of Washington Street.
I don’t remember now what I said to the mother about her “typically” masculine son. I know it wasn’t provocative. I know I didn’t challenge her to think more seriously about the privilege that allowed her say something like that, to imagine, what? The progressive credibility of having a gender non-conforming child?
But I thought about this incident when a former student, Kate—a brilliant, queer writer—posted this on Facebook:
Friendly reminder that if you are a heterosexual, heteroromantic, cisgender person, but you like to refer to yourself as queer because you have some sort of sociopolitical desire to reject the concept of normativity, you should…maybe stop doing that. Because it’s disingenuous, and it’s insulting to LGBTQIAP+ people whose identity is not a sociopolitical choice. Saying “well, everyone is kind of queer” is obnoxious for the same reasons that saying “I don’t see color” is obnoxious. If you’re a straight cis person, you’re not queer. You’re an ally. And probably a shitty one, if you need to be reminded of this.
This is what I wish I’d said to the mom at the playground.
Listen, I understand that we’re living a shocking, shameful moment as white, cisgender progressives (who may have contributed indirectly to the outcome not with our votes or our ethics, but with the unintended consequences of a narrow focus on diversity—Americans’ celebrated differences, rather than our former melting pot notions of communal interests). We recognize that America has done a revolting thing in electing Donald Trump, and the desire to counter it is overwhelming. We have a knee-jerk reaction to distance ourselves as far as we can from those in our demographic who’ve put Trump in the White House.
I know we sometimes wish we could burn away the external markers of our privilege and the rot we suspect lies beneath it. To turn ourselves, as Anne Carson wrote, into “an exposed column of nerve and blood and muscle.”
But this—latching on to an identity easy to co-opt because of its lack of obvious external features—isn’t the answer to, as Kate so astutely put it, our annoyance at our own privilege. Appropriating a non-mainstream identity, especially for our kids, is not only deeply misguided, but a further dehumanization of the identities we’re appropriating. “It’s literally as close as a human being can get to saying ‘I think gay people probably make good pets,’” Kate writes.
The thing is, as parents, we already have a site in which to practice what my friend and writer Heather Kirn Lanier calls “radical acceptance”: our kids. In an essay about the surprising benefits and decreased pressure of not “fixing” people with disabilities, Lanier offers a perspective that profoundly speaks to me even as a mother of a typically developing and so far heteronormative child. “Our desire to want our loved ones to be different will serve as a small eclipse between us and the solar source of our love,” she writes.
Like many parents, I, too, fall prey to thinking that certain parts of my daughter—her sensitivity, her introversion, for example—are like construction sites where I should be building the alternatives that reflect my own hopes for her, my own ideas of what makes a life meaningful. But I would do that at the cost of amplifying all that my daughter’s actual personality and preferences bring to the world, and I would inadvertently teach her that her true self is not right, not enough. How could I ever expect her to then accept others who have no choice about being who they are?
So, when my girl, a connoisseur of Sesame Street, recently voiced a desire for a tutu like the one Zoe wears on her favorite show, I shut down my initial instinct to say no to such an iconic item of femininity. Because saying no to pink is a signal of another kind: that she is being the wrong kind of girl. That the only way to push back against the systems that devalue women is to reject outward femininity. My husband and I looked online, and showed her photos of tutus in a variety of shapes, frills, and colors.
Our daughter chose pink.
It looks awesome on her, bouncing ecstatically around her legs as she plays Really Big Run.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.