On gender diverse parenting versus parenting a gender creative kid

So, apparently something I wrote on a lark for an online youth magazine in Brazil got picked up by a major print magazine. Because surreal is a far too accurate description of my life.

From this, I’ve been getting requests for interviews. Which, see aforementioned re “surreal”. And one thing I’m noticing is a confusion between “gender diverse parenting” and parenting of a kid who, it turns out, is pretty creative when it comes to his gender expression (also known as “gender nonconforming”, though that implies an expectation TO conform).

Here’s the thing: I didn’t set out to have a kid who sometimes likes dresses and whose favorite colors are pink and “anything bright”, who loves long hair (though he doesn’t love brushing it), is willing to stand in line and follow instructions in order to take pre-ballet, who would rather correct strangers every day with semi-patient iterations of “I’m a boy” than change how he dresses and discard the purple shoes he loves to wear. I love him. I love everything about him, including his love of one of my least favorite colors, including his insistence on having hair we have struggles to take care of every day, including the conversations we have at least weekly about how rude it is when people don’t believe that he’s a boy. But I don’t love him any more this way than if he were any other sort of boy. And, contrary to the implications of the questions I’ve been getting, I didn’t set out to make him this way.

We don’t parent gender diversely in order to have kids like the Boychick — we tried that in the 70s and early 80s, and, to many straight white feminists’ chagrin, it didn’t work. No, we parent with gender diversity because children like the Boychick exist. Because they exist, with their love of unexpected colors and uninhibited hair and boundary-breaking affinities, whether or not we expect them. Whether or not we “allow” them, welcome them, make space for them, honor them.

Maybe the Boychick would have been more gender typical in his clothing and hair and preferences in a more gender strict household. And maybe, maybe, that would have even been authentic, and not a survival strategy in an unfriendly environment. Even if that were so, something would have been lost, some spark that makes him him. He would be some other him, with some other spark, and while he would be just as beautiful, the world would be a slightly less colorful place. But more likely, he would be exactly who he is, but would have a much harder life.

Every day, in homes all over the world, children who are told “no, you can’t have that, no, that’s for boys, no, that’s only for girls, no, you can’t be yourself, no, you aren’t okay” still sneak silky shirts to wear as wigs, still run to the “wrong” side of the store, still stuff self-made penises into their pants, still do the work of playing with gender, of figuring out who they are, of forcing us to confront the failure of forced gender conformity. Every day, streets all over the world are filled with the teens old enough to run away from their hostile families, toward their real selves.  Gender diverse parenting doesn’t create gender creative kids: it creates a world that tells them “yes”.

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16 Responses to On gender diverse parenting versus parenting a gender creative kid

  1. This is beautiful. I love that your boy chick is just as vibrant and honestly himself as my daughter is in her own way-obsessed with trucks and cars and dinosaurs, and airplanes and horses and babydolls-and dogs &orange and green and sea blue, loathing pink, rejecting anything sparkly, says “I’m a boy” but never “I’m a girl.” last werk i was making toy clip-on animal tails and she asked me if she might wear hers as a penis “but only inside, mama, so no ody looks at me funny.” Its hard, too, because children (and adults!) are curious and ask questions she doesn’t want to answer as bravely as your boy seems to: instead she withdraws and hides from strangers because “they might say I’m a girl.” I’m raising my own sweet little one who may or may not be transgender but is definitely gender nonconformist and I am proud of you for standing up for kid like mine.

    • As a transman, I can say from experience that it can be hard to be around people when they don’t respect my gender identity. Incredibly hard. In fact, it’s so stressful that I usually don’t consider being around people like that to be worth the frustration and anxiety. I don’t mean to sound rude, but I feel like calling your little boy “she” and “daughter” is kind of disrespectful. Even if he grows to feel differently, it is clear he identifies as male right now.

      • I think that using male terminology for that child is every bit as limiting, particularly if the child has not ASKED the mother to use male terms. It is okay for girls to like vehicles, dinosaurs, orange, and blue. It is okay for girls to wonder about what it would be like to have a penis. It does not mean the child is transgendered.

        It’s awkward because we don’t have well-established gender-neutral pronouns for people (only for objects). Until a person makes a decision to present as a gender different from his/her biological sex and requests the change of pronouns, I think it’s most polite to use the person’s name and neutral terms (like “child” and “friend”) and avoid pronouns. If a person wants to be seen as a boy yet called “she”, I think that’s fine, too–although it could be difficult to get into that habit.

        I think Violetsouffle *does* respect her child’s gender identity. She is calling the child “she” and “daughter” because of biological sex, but she is allowing that child the full range of gender expression.

  2. This is pretty stupid and lame it does not matter what your child likes I truly don’t care either way it is there choice but you are setting them up to struggle in life and life is all ready hard enough. People love to hate what they don’t know or understand and they will bond together in this hate with others that’s just life and the source of the ism “racism, sexism,” so curve and mold your child as parents should to be a better human with tolerance and exceptance but no one is going to take a man where sparkle shoes a dress and long hair serouse in any aspect of life it’s hard enough to take a female wearing garb of this nature serouse much less a man or boy. But at the same time I love stories and people who have views of this nature for its such a competive world and this will help eliminate compatetion for my son when he applies for college or a job or an elected position.
    Keep it up America keep it up.

    • Y’know, I keep trying to mock this comment, but I keep getting stalled because it’s so sad. I don’t mean pathetic (though it’s that too), but I actually feel sad reading it. To believe that kyriarchy and being assholes to each other is innate and immutable; that no one is going to be there to help protect you, help you stand up for yourself, help you be who you are regardless of what other people say; to confuse scrambling to be on top of a shit pile for not having a shitty life (to accept the lie that the shit is supposed to be there, that it can’t ever not be there): it’s just sad.

      I’m gonna go hug my kid now. Thanks for reminding me why I do what I do.

    • Telling your kid “no, you can’t be this way” doesn’t lessen their struggle. The only difference is that in your scenario they spend their life struggling against themselves and their family, and in the other they face their struggles with self-confidence and with their family at their back. I know which one of those two I’d be more inclined to take seriously.

  3. One of my boys loves pink hats with flowers and often finds the high-heeled pink dress-up shoes at preschool and wears them while playing with trains. His twin brother loves to play with dolls and feeds them elaborate meals he has prepared in the pretend kitchen. They sometimes wear pink shorts to soccer. They wrap their teddies in little blankets and hug them. They ride their bikes pellmell down hills and crash and fall down and laugh and get up and do it again. They throw rocks into ponds and stomp in puddles. They play with dump trucks and tractors and build roads and dig holes. They bring me bugs and I bring them frogs and snakes. One has long curly hair like his Dad, and people assume he is a girl, and we don’t bother correcting them because it makes no difference to us. They are beautiful, joyful boys, and I can’t imagine having to tell them that pink isn’t an option or that dolls are for girls.

  4. You have just done more for me than I can ever truly express. I can’t wait to read this article to my own son. He’s a boy, but whenever he and his sister play he always wants to “play a girl”. My daughter has a real problem with this because boys can’t be moms, sisters, daughters, or princesses. Boys simply aren’t girls, and in her mind, that’s the end of it.

    My son used to have long hair. The first time he hacked it off was due to a nasty case of lice that we were having a horrible time getting rid of. The end result was him shaving his head rather than going through another lice treatment. I shaved my head too because out last ditch effort had unknown results when it came to breastfeeding moms. He hacked his hair again this spring because he got sick of his hair being brushed and he was going through a phase of really wanting to look like a boy at the pressure of the neighborhood kids. When he’s at home we see the real him come out, wearing girls’ jeans, his purple sweatshirt, or borrowing his sister’s pink leopard print sweatshirt. His favorite color is purple. We see him come out every once in a while wearing one of his sister’s skirts. I have to wonder if the only reason he doesn’t want to dress like that outside the house and prefers to dress in a traditional boy way is because of the other kids in the neighborhood. I hope that reading this to him might help him feel a little more normal, a little more okay with who he is.

    I also have to agree with the thoughts on the previous post. Talk like that really is just sad. It’s horrible to think that some people out there think that the criteria for getting into college or getting a job is all wrapped up in gender identity. I’ve actually worked with men who dress in women’s clothing at work and it didn’t stop them from getting the job. I remember one of them telling me how he showed up to the interview in these cute black pumps that looked a lot like the ones I’d worn to work that day and this great skirt I probably would have loved, though I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’m not much of a skirt person. I’d prefer a comfortable pair of jeans any day! I only wear skirts and girlie clothes when I feel the need to look girlie. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel so much pressure to be pretty and feminine if I hadn’t had it beaten into my head when I was younger. Perhaps I’d be happier being myself, kind of a tomboy. I really wish I could be okay with that.

    In other words, it’s not about college admissions or the workforce. A child that’s built all the tools they need to cope with the people who look down on them for being different will already be ready to face the challenges of prejudice people in the workplace or with college admissions. They’ll already be prepared to deal with adversity in the social settings presented in the adult world. They’ll be so confident in who they are that it won’t stop them from accomplishing their dreams. It’s better they learn those lessons in a natural way than to panic when they feel like they’re doing something “wrong” later in life.

    Sorry for being so wordy and long-winded, but this was like a breath of fresh air after being trapped and suffocated for far too long. Thank you.

  5. Hey. Thanks for sharing. Your boy sounds wonderful!

    Gender is a BS straightjacket, and we can be whatever sex we were born with and express ourselves however we want. Well done!

  6. Thank you for this lovely piece. I love following your blog too. You inspire me in my parenting. I agree with your appraisal of “Jacob”‘s comment, too. How sad. Just keep writing and doing what you do! I believe the balance is tipping, and our kind and compassionate kids will get together some day and look back at us for being brave to raise them that way.

  7. Thanks Jude.
    The truth is, out loud and in private? I do use the correct gender pronouns for my child. I say “he” and “boy” and “son.” It’s actually not hard to switch that on, because it’s important to me since its important to Teylor. But in public, Teylor doesn’t like to be called boy/son/he. I personally liken it to other boys not wanting to wear pink in public at times even if they love it. We are working on that.
    In those times I avoid gender pronouns at all. I will say “when Teylor and I went to the store” instead of “when he and I went to the store.”
    Online, I try to avoid genderizing my child at all too, Sometimes I use feminine pronouns (not always). It’s simpler, for me, than explaining to strangers who will never meet us that Teylor actually identifies as a boy. I don’t usually want their “advice” just like Teylor doesn’t want to draw attention to the fact that something is different about himself.
    And since Teylor can’t read yet, I don’t really feel I’m being harmful. What I do worry about is the message that being called a boy in public is somehow bad. I will work on it more in the future though and I do appreciate your insight as I wondered when I left my original comment if anyone would take issue with it. Do you have any tips for me for helping Teylor be open to being called “boy/son/he” in public the same as at home? He is a very shy reserved child by nature.

  8. Great article! I also have a boy who likes some “girl things” and has long hair (like his dad’s…but Daddy also has a beard!) so is often mistaken for a girl. When he was 3-4 years old he would whisper in my ear demanding that I correct people. I told him *I* decide when it is important to *me* to have people know which sex he really is–often I think it doesn’t matter–but he can tell them himself if he wants them to know. Sometimes he does. He thinks it’s really funny when people make a big deal out of apologizing. He also thinks it’s funny when someone thinks he’s a girl on a day when he’s wearing very “boy” clothes and they can hear me calling him Nicholas.

    A good line he used a couple of times (which I think he may have learned from his preschool teachers, who were very flexible about his tastes) when he had purple sparkly shoes: “Mostly girls wear this kind of shoes. But these two shoes are mine, so they are boy’s shoes.”

    I really like this:
    But I don’t love him any more this way than if he were any other sort of boy. And, contrary to the implications of the questions I’ve been getting, I didn’t set out to make him this way.
    Exactly! I mean, in my case, it’s convenient that I like purple and rainbows too–but then, so does his dad. We set out to have a kid who’s a lot like us; we are a straight cisgendered female and a straight cisgendered male who have a lot in common. I guess if we’d had a girl, she might be getting critical comments for wearing that Dalek T-shirt and loving Legos. {shrug}

    Violetsouffle, I replied above before seeing that you’d written a second comment. Sounds like you’re doing a great job! In the long run, Teylor may be a transgendered person, or this may be a temporary phase, but either way Teylor deserves your respect in the moment.

    My own child does not seem to be trans or gay. He’s almost 8 now, and his closest friends have always been girls, though he does play with boys sometimes. He reminds me a lot of my brother, whose favorite color is also purple, although he was not so drawn to sparkles and flowers as my son is. Both of them prefer quieter, more personable, less aggressive kinds of play than is typical of boys, like to cook and sew, and express feelings openly. When my brother was a teen and young adult, several people asked me if he was gay. But despite efforts to be open-minded toward bisexuality, he concluded that he’s mostly straight and is now married to a woman (who also loves purple). I can see how his years of friendship with girls and his interest in girls as people have made him a really thoughtful, caring husband. My son may turn out the same. I will love him whatever his orientation, just as I would love him if he was the kind of boy who’s always roaring and hitting things with sticks. :-)

  9. Brilliant post. If only all parents were so supportive of their children’s gender experimentation!

    I think its totally normal for all children to experiment with gender roles and I think its ridiculous how upset some people are by this. I hope that when my son is old enough I can support him as well as you have yours, no matter the opposition!

  10. My two boys are your boychick many years from now, I think.. G (now 15) liked pretty shoes and jewelry, and we just said yes to his interests. He wore costumes to school for years. He wasn’t into dresses, but was into art and sparkly things. And shoes and his look and hair. We did eventually require him to cut his hair and regrow it out whne he could take care of it properly. But that was about selfcare and not hair length by gender. He was the only first grade boy wearing necklaces to school. He liked different colors in phases (he dropped purple around 4 years old, and went black and camo, but still The Shoes Mattered). His hair is still long. He has a mustache and looks like a boyteen and has informed me casually that he is straight. He also already designs and makes his own silver jewelry. He has his own style, and knows how to use it. He trusts himself to be himself. People comment on his selfhood, his shining clarity of himness. He Is. He runs up against prejudices periodically, but we handle them. He loves historic weapons and video games and camo and lego and is learning to dance and still will always love gemstones. He wants to be a metalsmith and make beautiful things.

    And then there is his little brother, B, who emulated. Not as much into shoes, more into horses and barbies and lego. Long blond hair and green eyes and beautiful skin means he is often mistaken for a girl. He sighs, and corrects, but prefers the hair long. He’s 11, and also himself. Bladed weapons and nerf, horseback riding and lego, art and math. He doesn’t play barbies with other boys, because he knows teasing and expectations. He does not *stop* playing barbies because he won’t let that stop him. Out here (east coast) there are seldom any boys in riding lessons, and I am used to being asked by other moms ‘which one is your daughter?’ And I point out the boy with his long hair flying out under his helmet.

    What they got from ‘yes’ was the ability to comfortably touch both ends of the ‘full normal range”. He is allowed. They are allowed. They can choose how much and how to show it, but they know what they like and they believe they are allowed to like those things. And the same with our daughters, though I admit to more trouble being comfortable with princessy pink with them than I had with nerf and camo with the boys. I had to choose to allow that stuff, for the girls, too. So the girls love sharks and sports and princess dresses and handbags. They get to be allowed both ends of the full range, too.

  11. Further thoughts based on the sadness from Jacob. The assumption that the world will be for our kids as it was for us is a common one. But they live in a foreign country that we can only see from a distance. That an openly transgendered man would have struggled to get a job when I was getting my first job out of college, definitely true. But I’ve watched as someone transitioned to presenting female at work and watched a bunch of middle-aged not-infrequently-jerky white management guys make it not only possible, but smooth, easy, welcoming, and even suggested at a management level that anyone who did not wish to work with their peer in her accurate gender identify presentation could find work elsewhere. Why? Because she was good at her job. Had been. Would continue to be. Bonus, she was so much happer being able to be who she was at work, I bet her productivity also went up. If old white management guys can be like that, can see ‘bottom line financial value’ from saying ‘hell yeah, we support you, let’s work out a schedule for the transition’, then the world is not how it was when I grew up. It’s not where I wish it to be yet, either, but hope, yes.

    THIS is the world my kids are growing up in. Where the inability to accept rapid change and deal with people as people will be a distinct disadvantage in college and work. People said when I was little that while a few women might become major politicans, maybe someday, no lesbian ever would. They were talking about the world they grew up in, not the world I was growing up in, and certainly not the world my kids are growing up in. The experience my kids have will be their normal, and eventually, their ‘old school’. Those things will not be what they were for me, they’ll be things that were new and different for me. They’ll point out the news stories to their kids and talk about how when they were little there weren’t any openly LGBT2Q senators, and they’ll be the ones getting the looks like ‘wow, your generation was really sad’.

    We don’t get to choose what future they will live in, we only get to make sure they are whole and loved and flexible enough to adapt and thrive in the future that will be their stomping grounds. Refering back to our friend who kept her job while others were informed they could choose to leave if they didn’t like it – I wonder if Jacob’s son would be well positioned to keep the job, or if his entrained discomfort with ‘being allowed’ would make it hard for him to stay where our friend worked, leaving him the one looking for work.

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