To Our Village: Please Don’t Gender Our Children

I dread the day when my little boy realizes he isn't supposed to play with Minnie and will be mocked for his exuberant cries that "Minnie have a bow!"

This post is the email I sent friends and family asking them to assist Seth and I in creating a gender-flexible, non-hetero-normative environment for our twins. 

It truly does take a village to raise a child.  All of you are part of ours, and we are grateful beyond words to have each and every one of you.

I have been thinking about this email since before my children were born, and the time has come for me to sit down and write it.  When I thought about what I most wanted to communicate here I think what it boils down to is that we need your help.  Beyond Seth and I, you form the closest circle around O and J – a circle that has the power to build the kind of world in which they grow up.  We can’t necessarily change the realities of the outside world, but we can create a buffer, an alternative, a safe place to fall, a refuge, a place where they can be who they truly are.  It is with that in mind that I ask you to open your hearts and minds and consider how you can wield the great power you have in J and O’s lives in order to help us create that safe space.

When I went into my kids’ room this morning, my sweet J was standing up in his crib, exuberant, clutching his stuffed Minnie Mouse as he does every morning.  He shouted gleefully, “Hello Minnie!  I kiss Minnie!  Minnie have a bow!”

“Hello Minnie!”  I responded.

Across the room, my precious O was clutching the matching Mickey with a sly smile on her face.  She did a little shoulder shimmie when she saw me.  The night before as we headed up to bed, she had said softly, “Minnie?” making sure her companion would be in her crib with her.

No, my son doesn’t prefer Minnie to Mickey.  The fact is, my kids don’t know the difference between Minnie and Mickey.  They call them both Minnie.  Either doll will suffice at night when they can’t go to sleep without “Minnie.”  Why?  My kids don’t know what gender is.  Yes, they are too young, but also, we haven’t taught them.

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Babies’ First Pride, Mama’s First Pride

My "Pride" Tank

Today my babies and I shared our first Gay Pride event together.  I ordered them onesies with rainbow-colored dragonflies on them, and “To Thine Own Self Be True” printed above.  As for me, I wore a tank-top with the pansexual flag and the words “no limits” written over it.  It was the most “out” I’ve ever been.

I was wondering if I was going to feel very exposed, walking around advertising my queerness like that, or even just being there.  The thought crossed my mind a few times that I might run into someone I know, and would essentially be outed.  However, I noticed a major difference in my thoughts about being outed since a mere month ago when I was outed on Facebook (Outed by Mark Zuckerberg and The Huffington Post).

When I was outed last month, I felt intruded upon – like I wasn’t ready for it and didn’t know what to expect.  In the last month, I have had both negative,and extremely positive coming out experiences, and I think it’s made me feel more ready.  The thought of being outed today felt strangely benign.  Not only did I not feel exposed, I didn’t even think about whether I would or should until later in the day when we were sitting at an outdoor restaurant, and I saw a colleague of mine walk by with a Pride shirt on.  This was my thought process:

-Oh, it’s ‘so and so’ (open my mouth to call out to her).

-Wait, do I want to do this?  I’m at Pride.

-Who cares.

-Wow, this is cool.

-Wait, what is SHE doing at Pride?

By that point she was gone.  Okay people, yes, I hesitated, but it was cool, that it felt so natural to just call out to her.

Last summer I was driving through New York City during Pride.  New York’s marriage equality bill had just passed and there was a feeling of pure exhilaration in the air.  We drove past a car that had shoes tied to the back like after an old-fashioned wedding.  Someone had written “We Got Marriage” on the window.  I remember feeling so, well… PROUD.  But I also felt strangely restless, like I was in a cage.  I wanted to get out of the car and DO something, but I didn’t know what.  Last summer, I admitted to myself I felt envy that I wasn’t THERE at Pride.  In retrospect, I realize it wasn’t so much about being THERE during Pride, as it was about BEING there during Pride.  BEING me.  BEING queer.  I wanted to be out of the car because I wanted to be OUT.

Pride was cool.  I love the vibe when a bunch of queer folk get together.  But the thing I loved most about the day was connecting with friends and just BEING queer.  At dinner, we talked about whether we were gender variant as kids, when we knew we were queer, and whether we were bullied for it.  I felt proud to be queer.  I realized Pride is not about walking around wearing nothing but a rainbow flag, proclaiming one’s identity on a loudspeaker, walking in a parade, or dressing in drag (not that those things aren’t fun too :).  It’s about creating a safe space to proudly BE.

While we were all talking, I looked down at my babies.  By this point, my daughter was wearing a rainbow-colored dress because she vomited on her onesie in the car on the way.  I thought about how they were already at Pride at age 1.  They wouldn’t have to go through any of the things we had.  The bullying for being gender variant.  The feeling that we couldn’t talk about who we really were.  The wishing we had known sooner or wishing we had been honest about who we were sooner.  The fear of even exploring our sexuality because we had been so brutalized.   For some of us, just starting, in our thirties, to work it all out.

If my kids turned out to identify as part of the queer community, they would never have to find it like we all did, they would already be here.  There will be “no limits” to how they can identify, like my shirt said.  Even if they aren’t queer, I hope this community, and this way of BEING will teach them to wave whatever flag makes them feel proud, and indeed, be true to themselves.  I will make sure they will never question whether they can proudly BE, and be loved at the same time.

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“If Only You Were Born Now” – Up-and-Coming Identities

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I frequently find myself thinking ‘If only you were born now,’ while working with middle-aged gender variant people.  The few times I actually say it out loud, it’s painfully clear how unhelpful it is.   A few days ago I found myself trying to explain the concept “genderqueer” to a married, middle-aged natal male who currently identifies as transgender.  He was saying he feels part male and part female, not female enough to start hormones or have re-assignment surgery and transition, but not male enough to continue to pass as male.  I recall saying something along the lines of “all the college kids are doing it.”

To at least a certain subset of 20 year-olds, this man’s problem wouldn’t be perceived as a problem at all.  Identities including ‘both male and female,’ ‘neither male nor female,’ ‘third gender,’ ‘non-gendered,’ and ‘androgynous’ have become increasingly easy for young people to conceptualize.   “Oh, you’re just genderqueer,” I can imagine them saying.   But how does one come out as genderqueer at fifty?  How does one explain to spouses, colleagues, children and other relatives who have never considered identities outside the gender binary?    There would be very real and potentially serious social consequences to coming out for this person.

Even if I could bring him on a fieldtrip down to a local gender studies department or campus LGBT alliance to see first-hand what a genderqueer identity might look like, his peers would still lack any exposure to this concept.  Many adults are still struggling with the idea homosexuality, and most would have a difficult time really understanding transgender identity.  But at least the ‘one-gender-trapped-in-the-body-of-the-other’ idea fits into the gender binary most people are used do, as does attraction to the opposite gender.  Genderqueer is an identity which demands thinking way outside the box, calling into question the very concept of gender as we know it.

Even for those transgender folks who have transitioned, there is sometimes a level of generational envy.  I have often heard transgender individuals fantasizing about how things might have been different if they were born now, with the availability of hormones, surgical advancements, and the increased awareness of transgender children and teens.  Kids now have the option of intervening early enough that puberty never steals their chances of passing as their identified gender.

College is, after all, the perfect time to formulate one’s identity.  Had this middle-aged man experimented with transgender and genderqueer identities in college and chosen/begun his career and long-term partnership already identifying as such, his life would be very different.  College is a safe place and time in which one’s peers are also, in their own ways, testing out different identities.  But, as a wise supervisor of mine frequently says, “one can only choose from among the culturally available identities.”  For most of the middle-aged people I work with, transgender and genderqueer were not a part of the cultural landscape yet when they were adolescents.

A few months ago I attended an Occupy Wall Street rally in New York City.  A beautiful, confidant young woman took her place at the “human microphone” in order to speak.  She began by saying, “I am a black, pansexual woman.”  I remember distinctly the pang of envy I felt.  Fifteen years ago I was a gender studies major (back when it was still called women’s studies).  I lived in the gay dorm and hung out with the least gender conforming kids on campus.  But I had never heard of “pansexual” until a few years ago.  It might not have taken me until my 30s to solidify my queer identity if I had.

For me, the labels that existed when I was in college didn’t quite fit.  In retrospect, this was because they all fit into that traditional gender binary.  Lucky for me, dating men and passing as straight fit my identity well enough.  I had the privilege of putting the knowledge I was queer on the back burner until an identity that fit me better was imagined by our culture.

For others, the feelings of being gender variant are so profound and all-encompassing that life simply cannot go on, at least not without suffering and struggle.  I believe this is why so many parents are working to open up space for their children to explore minority sexual and gender identities.  Once that stage in life when our identities are naturally in flux has passed, there is no way to get that time back.

I often wonder what my life would look like right now if I had had pansexual Identity on my radar in college.  It might look exactly the same, but have simply feel more authentic for longer.  Despite my envy, I am deeply encouraged by and utterly respectful of the kids that are coming up now.  They are fundamentally re-thinking gender and opening up space for fuller and richer lives for those who don’t fit easily within the gender binary (and really, for everyone).

That said, we always need to be looking forward, making more space, thinking further outside the box.  There are children growing up right now who will live their whole lives in silent desperation because they fit identity categories the culture has yet to offer.

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