Illustration by JooHee Yoon
Everyone and their mother has something to say about parenting.
While parents who hold fast to the gender binary are covering their eyes and shouting, “Save the children!,” princess boys are taking over television, “gender-neutral” parenting has taken on a whole new meaning, and storybooks for gender-nonconforming kids are appearing on library shelves.
I’m devoting this entire week to gender-nonconforming kids and the parents who raise them. Later I’ll follow up with parent and Bilerico blogger Paige Schilt, who will share her perspective on parenting during the genderpocalypse.
But first, here’s last year in parenting, an overview:
Last April a J. Crew ad ignited a worldwide princess boy panic. The ad featured an image of J. Crew president Jenna Lyons painting her son’s toenails a vibrant magenta. The caption read: “Lucky for me I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon.”
But for some cardigan-clad J. Crew shoppers, the ad was anything but “fun.”
Outraged parents and bloggers accused Lyons of raising a child who would grow up “gender-confused.” Fox News columnist Keith Ablow took his objection to boys with pretty toes one step further, calling the ad “a dramatic example of the way that our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity—homogenizing males and females when the outcome of such ‘psychological sterilization’ is not known.” But Lyons is one of many parents whose child-rearing methods are challenging the gendered order of the world.
In 1972, Free to Be…You and Me sparked a “gender-neutral parenting” movement that sought to erase gender categories in the name of equality. But while many parents today might be inspired by their own “free to be” childhoods, they’re not eliminating gender categories—they’re expanding them and, sometimes, creating more.
But the ethics of raising children outside of the binary is the source of a global debate.
When Canadian parents Kathy Witterick and David Stocker tried to shield their newborn, Storm, from rigid gender categories and kept their baby’s sex a secret, outraged parents accused them of turning child-rearing into a social experiment. After the Toronto Star reported on their radical move, online commentators criticized the couples’ “nutty new age parenting” and questioned whether the “so called [sic] parents are fit to raise a child.”
Most commentators, however, didn’t understand how gender could be a choice in any circumstance. As one argued, “They want their child to make the choice of which gender it wants to be?! IT HAS ALREADY BEEN DECIDED BY THE GENITALIA WHICH IS BETWEEN ITS LEGS!!!!!!”
The conflation of “sex” and “gender”—the belief in the “biological truth” that those assigned female at birth are “women” and that those assigned male are “men”—is everywhere. Despite Chaz Bono’s widely publicized mantra that “gender is between your ears, not your legs,” the gender police still peek down our pants and up our skirts to determine gender differences.
For some folks, maintaining that biological difference is essential.
Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips wrote that if parents raise children who defy gender norms, society could be “brainwashed into pretending that the differences between male and female don’t exist—in order to reconstruct society into some unattainable utopia of sexual and gender identicality.”
Until then, we can only wonder what will happen when Storm grows up. Will Storm evade all gendered socialization? I doubt it. Will Storm struggle to fit into a world divided by “male” and “female?” Sure—we all do. But Storm’s parents might be giving their child a rare opportunity for self-expression that has previously shown positive results.
In January British parents Beck Laxton and Kierran Cooper revealed the sex of their five-year-old, Sasha, after raising the child “gender-neutral.” Their announcement was followed by the Sun’s sensational headline, “It’s a boy!,” but the parents maintain that Sasha’s assigned sex has little to do with the child’s identity. And Sasha seems happy that way.
Since birth, Sasha has chosen clothing that ranged from striped T-shirts to tutus and has played with all kinds of toys. And while Dr. Eugene Bernstein believes that encouraging gender-nonconforming behavior “sets the child up for bullying, scapegoating and marginalization,” Sasha’s parents report that even though Sasha’s teachers and peers now know that Sasha was assigned male, Sasha still wears ruffled shirts to school without incident.
The conversation around raising kids like Storm and Sasha accuses parents of assigning their children “genderless” identities. But according to these parents, they’re letting their kids explore a range of options.
As Arwyn Daemyir, author of the blog Raising My Boychick, explains, “Today’s gender neutral parenting is not about doing away with gender (if it ever really was), but about doing away with many of the unhealthy pressures around gender, and giving our children the freedom to figure out what gender means to them.”