Home > Uncategorized > A parenting hypothetical that leaves me unresolved

A parenting hypothetical that leaves me unresolved

I read a post on Feministing more than a month ago and I’ve been thinking about it, off and on, ever since. I’ve come to the conclusions that I don’t know what I would do or say in that situation.

The post, in short, is by a person who identifies as genderqueer. (I’d never heard of this so wiki-ed it and found it was what I thought of as androgyne or third-gendered… someone who chooses an indederminate gender.)

This person had an interaction — or rather a lack of interaction — with a child and father. The child, upon being faced with an ambiguously gendered person, asked her father “is that a boy or a girl?” The father replied “Why don’t you ask her?” without talking with the person. The child persisted and the father persisted, again without addressing the article’s author, until as they were driving away, the little girl said, “That’s a girl.”

Now, the author admits to some ambivalence and confusion as to how to answer if the child has asked the question directly. And then goes on to discuss how strongly the binary gender meme is into our society. I agree… I had to rewrite the first sentence of this paragraph four or five times to be able to find something remotely correct — grammatically and gender-wise. I failed, but it was my best attempt.

I understand that the author is trying to find a path through a confusing and hostile world, that the identity that feels best is one that the vast majority of the world thinks is weird. I get that the essay is about that. But as a parent, I was thinking about it from the dad’s point of view.

Now, first, I want to present my bona fides. I don’t have a rigid view of gender or sexuality. My mother-in-law is gay and so are many of my friends, my pediatrician is a m-to-f transsexual who switched genders when my daughter was 14 months old, I have had friends and co-workers who have transitioned both directions. I can appreciate the attractiveness of a female, even. Third-gendered people don’t bother me, except grammatically.

But I’m not sure what I would have done in the same situation. And I’m not sure what the author wants me to do?

At first blush, after reading the blog post, I thought the best thing would be to say, “I’m not sure, honey. Why don’t we ask!?” But the reality of the situation is that many people who are androgynous would be very very angry, possibly violent, if asked that. In much of society, that’s one of the gravest insults you can pay a person. So I would be uncomfortable saying that unless I knew for certain that I was in the presence of someone who chooses to identify as third-gender.

And yes, I can try to teach The Child about genderqueer people, but that constitutes a very very small minority so it’s not the first, fifth, or seven-hundredth thing that I think about teaching her. And teaching exceptions to a rule is very hard, especially to a three-year-old, especially without any concrete examples. (I don’t actually know anyone who identifies that way.)

Finally, while I accept and applaud the author’s ability to choose a different gender, the fact of the matter is that gender identification and sexual dimorphism go deep. Much deeper than culture, much deeper than language. We were boys and girls before we were humans, before we were primates, hell, before we crawled up out of the primordial oceans. It’s hard-coded way way down in our lizard brains.

Of course, I don’t mean that we ought to embrace extraordinary divisions of gender. I don’t mean that we ought to insist that people declare themselves male or female. But I do wonder what’s the best way to respond, as a parent, to that situation?

Extra-credit reading: Is it possible to raise a child outside of the gender binary?

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Aguane
    June 27, 2009 at 12:09 am

    The andro / genderqueer people that I associate with tend to be okay with someone asking. Typically he, she, or it has a preferred pronoun (including ‘it’). You are more likely to offend someone who doesn’t identify as genderqueer but tends to appear gender neutral than someone who does.

    I try to look at these moments a teachable moments with my son – he’s slightly older than your daughter and it’s slightly easier now, so when I have the chance I try to explain that not everyone sees the world in the same way. Do I screw up with it? All the time. But the effort is there and the impact is there. I would rather have the conversation and screw it up, than to avoid the conversation with the intention of sparing someone’s feelings (when to be honest, I’ll never truly know the impact of avoiding that conversation).

  2. June 27, 2009 at 11:59 pm

    my 16 yo daughter decided a year ago that she was really a gay male. my 19 yo refuses to accept this, my 8 yo alternates between referring to her sib as her brother or her sister, depending on the situation.
    i’m hoping it’s a stage, a reaction to the divorce. but ‘her’ dad and i agreed to allow her to change her name [Luke David, after my dead brother. they look so much alike it’s scary] and we’ll see how it goes.

    my 19 yo’s friends just ignore, as they do any younger sibling. the 8 yo’s friends never know what to say.

  3. marsupial jones
    June 28, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    wow. i think it’s wonderful that you are thinking about these things. and not for the first time, i appreciate that you have urged me to think too.

  4. marsupial jones
    June 28, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Also-would you mind if I shared this on Facebook or with a couple of friends via email? I’d be interested to see what some of my gay friends have to say and I think you’re description is just what needs to be said rather than me interpreting it. If you’d rather not, of course I’ll respect that.

  5. jamanda
    June 28, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    Thank you Marsupial. Sure, go ahead and share it. I’d love to hear what other folks think! Please let me know what they think.

  6. Aguane
    June 28, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    The interesting thing about this post is that after I finished commenting earlier I went to pick my son up from summer camp and on the way home he spontaneously said to me “you know mommy … there are boygirls, boys, and girls and that’s it” and upon further questioning he stated that boygirls are boys that do girl things and that he is a boygirl because he screams like a girl and likes to wear my heels.

  7. Andromeda
    July 13, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    I’ve been charmed lately to watch V try to figure out pronouns. She doesn’t seem to be able to keep more than one of “he/she” and “his/hers” in her active vocabulary at a time, and her guesses of “that’s a little boy!” or “that’s a little girl!” are…maybe more than half-right, but highly error-prone. She clearly just doesn’t have a solid idea of what models these words map to, and her own are not ours, and I find it adorable. (I’m sure it’s all compounded by the fact that she was usually read as a little boy for the first year or so, and even now people go either way, depending on what she’s wearing.)

    In that situation, and *given where we live*, I’d be broadly in favor of the I-don’t-know, why-don’t-we-ask? theory for three reasons:
    1) Anyone presenting as genderqueer this close to Cambridge either actually is, or is familiar with the idea.
    2) I try in many situations to default to the idea that if she doesn’t know something, she should try to figure it out for herself via observation, conversation, etc.
    3) I strongly believe that people should be addressed by the names and pronouns they prefer, and I myself have no way of knowing what those are if they haven’t told me.

    That said if for some reason I felt uncomfortable about asking I might get into a conversation about how I don’t know but sometimes people (like making it hard to guess/are a little bit of both/etc.), or else about how it’s rude to talk about people in front of them (if they looked offended or something, but I’d worry that I was stigmatizing the whole idea of questioning gender then).

    it’s hard to win at things that society hasn’t worked out a good and widely shared intellectual framework for.

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