A few months back, in a discussion with some friends over feminism and parenthood, I passionately claimed that if I ever have a child, I would raise them gender-neutral — without imposing any particular gender identity upon them, and let them choose it for themselves. I didn’t really spare much thought to the logistics of this claim — of how I could ever achieve this in a world that genders you at every step — until now.
We live in a world where all aspects of our lifestyles are governed by gender binary based segregation, whether it be toilets, clothes, skincare products, and even public transport (several countries like Japan, Israel, India, Brazil, Mexico and so on have separate compartments for women in their subways) — in such a world, is it possible for a child to remain free from the constructs of gender, and to choose their gender expression independent of social and cultural influence?
Once a baby is born, it is immediately assigned a (binary) sex, according to its anatomy and genitals. That in itself is problematic, but what’s even more so is how quickly this assigned sex turns into an assigned gender, coming with its set of norms and specific roles which are often extremely harmful and damaging. Actual gender or gender identity, however, is the mental (and sometimes physical) sense and expression of who you are. It can correspond to your assigned sex, but can also completely differ from it — and that’s the beauty of it. It exists on a spectrum, which means that it does not restrict one’s identity to a single male/female binary and this is what children should be made privy to, from a very young age. In an ideal world, children should be kept away from unnecessary gendering, be given the liberty to choose their own pronouns and their own identity. But like I said earlier, this is not an ideal world. This is a world which, if someone identifies as anything other than cisgender, will continue to ask them about their genitalia, about their assigned sex. So, how can someone like me, who would want to raise their children gender-neutral, do so?
The first step, I can imagine, is to possibly keep my future kid away from any sort of patriarchally coded gender roles. I would want to encourage them to be whoever they want, and to perform any kind of role that they would feel comfortable with. For example, if my child is assigned male at birth and loves wearing dresses and make-up — I would never want to discourage them from expressing themselves! It’s important to not impose any forms of traditional “masculinity” and “femininity” upon one’s child, and instead, let them discover and choose for themselves what their expression is going to be—and all my efforts would be combined in making that possible, however difficult that might be in the world we live in.
But these come later. What about when the child is newly born, and newly assigned a sex — how does one proceed then? Do I name them according to their assigned sex (i.e. give them a female name if they are designated female)? Do I dress them according to their assigned sex? What pronoun do I use for them before they develop the faculty to choose one for themselves? These are extremely slippery territories to navigate, because, even when you have the best intentions at heart, something may go wrong because the gender binary is a big hulking demon that is not easily vanquished. However, there are some solutions I can think of.
Genderneutral names are slowly becoming quite popular, with celebrities like Ryan Reynolds, Kate Winslet, Kristen Bell naming their kids in a way which leaves their gender ambiguous. Infact, the tumblr blog feministparenting offers this lovely list of genderneutral baby names that one can refer to whilst naming their children. However, when it comes to attire, it’s harder to define what is genderneutral, because clothing is that mired in binaries. But, there have been retail stores like Target and Babies R Us which have come up with clothing lines for young children that are gender neutral. Therefore, though this wouldn’t be easy to accomplish, at least there is some hope.
The toys children play with are again dangerously gendered (girls play with dolls, boys play with cars and so on), and this is another thing which needs to be challenged. As a parent, I would want to encourage my kid to play with anything and everything that they get pleasure playing with! Target, again, has an excellent collection of genderneutral toys and other children’s products which give me hope of achieving this.
What’s trickiest in this situation is the usage of the right pronouns. Before the child has the knowledge or capacity to choose their own pronouns, it’s important to not slot them into binaries. It’s difficult to make sure that this happens, considering that language itself is gendered in many aspects, and breaking out of those binaries are extremely difficult. Perhaps, a somewhat effective way can be using they/them pronouns for the child in the interim—till they can decide for themselves — and again, trying to refrain from using ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ too often while referring to them (Instead, I would prefer to use genderneutral terms of endearment like ‘sweetheart’, ‘pumpkin’ etc instead).
The use of toilets is, however, a major problem. Public toilets almost everywhere are highly segregated on the basis of gender binaries, and many places even have laws against non-cisgendered people using the bathroom of their preferred gender. This is one major drawback, and something which is sadly, hard to combat. The only way could be to stay away from public bathrooms, but that is indeed a tragic solution.
Now, these things may sound easy to say, but are extremely difficult to accomplish. And even if I do succeed in raising my kid without binaries, it’s highly likely that those around me will not be receptive to it. My child could be exposed to bullying, and both emotional and bodily violence because society is still not very accepting towards those who try to break the status quo. I’ll expect resistance from pretty much everyone, because people will insist on knowing “what the kid actually is” and will tell me that I am suppressing or abusing my child (ironic, right?) But that will not discourage me from trying, and shouldn’t discourage you either. Stopbullying is a government agency that provides a list of resources and support groups (based on specific identities such as gender and sexual orientation, race, etc) on their website here which one can consult.
The issue of gender neutral parenting is a complex one mostly because it lies at the intersection of a bunch of different issues – intersex issues, transgender issues, and feminist issues. But more than that, it’s about giving one’s child the space and the support system of being who they want to be. There are so many people who grow up in environments which suppress and crush their gender expression, and it’s important to change that, and create a culture of acceptance.
Image Credit: YouTube/Benny.