"Is that a boy or a girl?" Gender and Parenting, part 2
“Why did you decide to gender your baby at birth?”
Every once in awhile, a stranger (usually online) will ask us this question.
In most cases, it’s intended as a “gotcha.” People who don’t want the best for us will ask it in jest, attempting to poke holes in our argument that perhaps gender is less rigid and fixed than we’ve been led to believe. Other times it’s asked by a trans or non-binary person who imagines that we are upholding the gender binary by assuming what gender our baby is.
It is rarely asked with good intention, but for the sake of this blog post… let’s assume it IS being asked that way (and then I’ll discuss why the first two ways of asking it are harmful).
I guess I have to explain my beliefs on gender to begin with.
The evidence shows us that gender is comprised of a constellation of factors— there is no one singular thing that makes any of us feel more like a man, a woman, or something else entirely. If gender were entirely a social construct (not innate but put on us by others), there would be no transgender people. We would all just be what we are told to be. So some part of gender HAS to be internal. There is something inside each of us that tells us whether we are boys or girls or both or neither. Scientists have searched for what that “something” is, to no avail. There is some evidence to suggest that transgender people may have brains shaped in a way that is more in alignment with their chosen gender than their assigned sex… but I don’t know if that’s something I feel strongly about. I’m content knowing that some part of our internal gender identity is somehow hard-wired (or maybe soft-wired?) and some of it is cultural.
And because at least some part of it is hard-wired, I don’t believe that giving a male child dolls will make him gay or girly. Similarly, I don’t think that giving a baby a gender based on their assigned sex at birth will cause any long-term harm. But honestly, someone else has already explained this far better than I ever could. I came across this great explanation buried in a comment thread discussing my pregnancy.
When babies are born, they are assigned a sex based on their genitalia. Which by itself isn’t harmful. Oftentimes, though, based on this assignment parents and other adults prescribe gender roles to their kids about what they can do, say, like, wear. This is where it starts to be harmful. Trying to force children to conform to arbitrary stereotypes, instead of accepting them as they come, can have lasting psychological effects.
Now, sometimes there are babies that grow up to be transgender youth and adults, at which point THEY are able to vocalize who they are and how they feel. And it’s our job to listen and honor those feelings. Until a kid can tell you what they want, we make assumptions and do our best. We dress them in clothes we think are cute, feed them food we think they’ll like, and assign them a sex. All of this is OKAY. What’s not okay is when your kid says, ‘Hey mom, I don’t like peas,’ and you force them to eat the peas anyway. Or, ‘Hey dad, I want to play with dinosaurs and dolls’ and you tell them no.
Essentially we never really KNOW what’s in our babies hearts and minds until they get older. And going with the status quo of giving out genders makes the most sense. The only difference here is, we are open-minded enough to say ‘I acknowledge you’ if our kid comes out as transgender. Maybe one day you can be too.
The awesome human who took the time to write that all out is named Byrd Jasper, and I am eternally grateful that someone stepped up to explain things for others so I didn’t have to. And that’s the first reason we decided to name Leo a traditionally male name, and refer to him as a boy— we are going based on the best information we have, and won’t use that to dictate what clothes he wears, what toys we give him, etc.
Now, some people choose to go the route of raising their children “gender neutral,” which usually ranges from not telling anyone what sex they were assigned at birth (or not assigning them a sex at all) to using gender-neutral pronouns for them (usually “they/them”) to giving them a name that could be used for someone of any gender (think: Jesse, Leslie, River, Scout, Ziggy, etc.). We didn’t take that route, for the reason Byrd listed above— we don’t happen to believe that giving babies a gender at birth is necessarily the problem in and of itself… it’s everything that comes afterwards that’s the problem.
The second reason we decided not to go the gender-neutral route is because we aren’t sure there is such a thing as a “neutral” when it comes to gender. Using “they/them” pronouns is still a choice. And a child is just as likely to be upset and offended that a parent used those pronouns as they might be with “he” or “she.” It is not a lack of a decision, or a blank slate for the child to write on… it’s a choice we are making, just like every other choice we make for our children when they are too young to communicate with us. It is so much more likely that Leo will identify as a boy than it is that he’ll identify as non-binary, so we went with what was statistically most likely to be right for him .
Finally, we decided to gender Leo because we just couldn’t take any more scrutiny. We were already a queer couple in the public eye… and I was pregnant. I was growing a human being. I just couldn’t pick one more fight. Transgender men having babies isn’t earth-shattering to most people in the LGBTQ community, so this decision may not make sense to them. But for 99% of the globe, Biff and I were shattering a bedrock principle of modern culture— only women can give birth. This idea of a pregnant man was so new to most people that we experienced horrendous blowback. I cannot even begin to imagine what would have happened if we had also decided to raise our baby gender-free.
My friend Kori Doty, a non-binary parent living in BC, successfully sued the Canadian government for a gender-neutral birth certificate when their baby was born— and won the case. Which is so amazing. I was thrilled when I saw the decision come down, and completely support the quest to allow children to choose their own genders, free from any expectation the world has of them. But I picked my battle, and it was being a pregnant man publicly. There was just no way I could pick another one after that.
Inherent in the question is the assumption that we never discussed Leo’s name and pronoun… that we’d never even considered doing anything else. But in reality… of COURSE we discussed it. And as we talked it through, those three reasons emerged as the primary drivers of our decision. It goes without saying that Leo will be given all the freedom he needs to navigate the treacherous waters of gender, and we will support him at every step along the way.
We just won’t be doing it by raising him gender neutral.
(Photos in this blog post are by Mark Pratt-Russum)