So far, baby-having has been pretty damn awesome with only a few minor niggles, the main one so far (other than breast-feeding) being our gender-neutral approach. We knew that not telling people M’s sex would be a bit contentious, but hadn’t realised that our biggest opponent would be… my mother. Having gleefully ignored my statements during pregnancy (as she ignores so much of what I say), she shouted at us both in the hospital the day after birth, accusing me of being dishonest for not telling her what we were going to do, and has continued to be unpleasant ever since by deliberately acting against our requests and outing M to everyone she can.
As of this past weekend, she has kicked it up to another level. She is now refusing to see the baby at all until we stop using pronouns such as “they” and “it” to refer to M. She has also accused us of child abuse & repeatedly insists (despite me telling her that she’s clearly misunderstood) that she knows what we’re doing and it’s “disgusting”. She’s pretty obstinate at the best of times, so I can’t really see her apologising any time ever.
So, I don’t think we’re going to be seeing much of her for a while.
My father, meanwhile, has simply refused to take an interest in my “nonsense” by just arbitrarily assigning M a sex & a pronoun of his choosing. I refrain from correcting him & we continue on our merry way.
I have no hope of getting either of my parents to change their minds, but we’ve decided to write a short statement for other relatives & interested friends to try & explain the situation to people who haven’t really thought about gender. It was surprisingly hard! We’d appreciate thoughts & suggestions to make it even more comprehensible. I decided against using references as I didn’t want to make it an academic exercise, but thought the included image might be helpful, unless anyone can suggest a better visual aid. We’ve been rather tired so do please tell us if any of this doesn’t make sense!
You may wonder why we’re talking to you about our baby’s gender and indeed, in an ideal world this is a conversation which shouldn’t need to happen. That would certainly be our preference. But clearly that is not the case. We have therefore decided to clarify our views & intentions on this subject.
As you may already know, our baby, M, was born on 8th Feb 2013. Long before M’s birth, we had decided that it was very important to us for the sake of their healthy development that M’s gender identity should be as much as possible a product of their personality, not something imposed on them externally. We therefore decided to take what we call a gender-flexible approach to parenting. Gender identity is not the same as sex or orientation – please see the diagram below for a brief overview of the differences.
It probably doesn’t really matter whether gender identity (by which we mean behaviour & expressions, not biological features) is innate, socially constructed or a mix of both; what matters is that it is personal and cannot be determined simply by examining physical characteristics such as chromosomes or genitals. We wish M to be able to be true to their own gender expression, not to feel compelled to present what they think others wish to see. To this end, we are trying to use gender-neutral pronouns for them and to ensure they are given as wide a range of choices in everything as we can manage. The matter of pronouns may seem unnecessarily inflexible but we think it is a good discipline to get into as a matter of habit, because all of us have unconscious biases around sex & gender. Language is a very strong influence on our behaviour. We appreciate that this is not easy, especially if you’re not used to gender-neutral language, so many thanks in advance for your efforts, they are greatly appreciated.
What this means in practice: We would greatly appreciate it if you could avoid treating M as a specifically ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ baby for now, but just treat them as a baby. Please therefore refrain from referring to M’s assigned sex as much as possible if you know it, and please absolutely avoid doing so in front of others who may not know it. M will, no doubt, make their preferences clear as they develop. Behaviours to avoid include, but are not limited to: expecting that M will wear clothing in specific colours or designs – eg pink princesses, blue footballers, fairies, military-style camouflage; expecting M to play with specific toys or games exclusively (although a balance is most welcome – dinosaurs as well as dolls, teddy bears as well as toy trains); building M up with ideas that particular subjects, activities, sports or careers are not for them to enjoy; giving M the impression that they should only express certain kinds of emotion.
What this doesn’t mean: preventing M from behaving in particular (gendered) ways that they enjoy, or limiting their choices except when we consider something potentially harmful (like any other parent) ; raising M without any gender identity at all (we’re just not rushing it – children commonly start expressing their particular gender identities before the age of 4); forcing M to confirm to our own ideas of gender; punishing M for expressing “traditional” gendered behaviour.
We realise this is an unusual approach to take, but it is not unique and we do not believe it will be harmful; quite the opposite, we wish to reduce the demonstrable harm that rigid gender roles create. Like any parents, we aim to support & protect M in life and hope we can count on your future support with all of this. We are happy to discuss this further if you have any further questions.