Thursday, December 10, 2015

Raising a kid outside the gender binary

Today I saw a discussion on Facebook prompted by the question (paraphrased)—shouldn't we be wary of trans people who refer to their kids as their gender assigned at birth, use those pronouns and that language for them; shouldn't we instead eliminate the concept of gender assigned at birth altogether?

One person replied that non-binary language is still limited and clunky, and it's easy to revert to language for the gender that is designated at birth. They were also concerned with practical solutions. Someone else mentioned that, overwhelmingly (>99.5%), people assigned male at birth identify as male and those assigned female at birth identify as female. Therefore it makes sense to default to the language assigned at birth, and start referring to kids using their self-determined pronouns if and when they decide to change them.

Personally, I think the issue is extremely complex, and I've tried to frame it in many ways. None of them gave me a clear answer, and the practical aspects of them tend to be messy as well. I don't know what the answers are. But I believe with firm conviction that mindfulness is extremely important, and practicing mindfulness goes a long way to building a supportive and welcoming environment for your child to grow and develop into their own identities.

The way I figured out I was trans was having many trans people in my circle of friends and acquaintances whom I could talk to about my experiences and gender feelings. It still took a tremendous amount of time to unlearn all the assumptions that have been thrust into me since I was an infant up until now, and it took someone asking me to my face "are you sure you're not trans" to get the process going. At some point I wasn't sure whether I was trans or not, so I tried hormones, just to see how they feel like. That really accelerated my process as I felt much less dysphoric on them, and I was able to grab onto something concrete to explore my gender identity. But the fact remains that, had I stayed in Romania (or even Europe), I would never have known I'm trans, and if, for some miracle, I did figure that out, the enormous gatekeeping would have essentially barred me from actually transitioning. I'd have ended up dead by the time I reached 22 simply because of sheer recklessness and not caring whether I lived or died. In that climate I wouldn't have identified my dysphoria as such; back then, I was sure that that's how I was supposed to feel like.

Obviously that's extreme societal shittiness—but similarly to how a supportive environment was essential to my transition—I would imagine that the climate is still not welcoming enough for some of us to make sense of gender enough to be confident in swimming against the binaristic, cissexist push of society. Are we really sure that less than 0.5% of people are trans? How are we to evaluate that number if society was shitty enough for me, and many other people, to not even know that we are trans until we were surrounded with the proper, supportive environment, something that is very much a privilege and not guaranteed? Recently we've started to see more and more people come out as trans and non-binary. There's much more awareness and information of what being trans means, as well as the world being a less shitty place for trans people to exist (but still not good!). How many of the 99.5% of people are actually cis, how many know they're trans but are in the closet, how many have gender feelings but are burying or denying them, how many don't have gender feelings but are nevertheless trans, and how many of them are still in the process of figuring it out? Because if the latter four are a significant number (and I'm willing to bet that they are), then the 99.5% cis statistic becomes much lower. I'll get back to this in a bit, as these ideas are all intertwined.

Let's jump around and think of raising a kid outside the gender binary, with a gender-neutral name, pronouns, and so on. Society, at least present-day society, would be overwhelmingly crappy and oppressive towards them. As we've seen time and again, many cis people not only push back against anyone who challenges their idea of gender as a binary, but they do so extremely aggressively, in a harmful and harassing way. If you were to raise your child in such an environment, while you may succeed in doing so at home, your child will invariably have to interface with the outside world, which will most definitely try to impose a binary on them. Other people will use binary pronouns, they'll ask you if it's a boy or a girl (and if you say something like, I'll let the kid determine that—how do you think they'll react? They'll be extremely aggressive, and I wouldn't put it beyond them to mock and ridicule the kid when you're not around, or to tell them that it's wrong and that they're in fact a boy/girl and they can't do anything about that, or to even call social services), they'll fight you every step of the way and do their best to force you to raise your kid as the gender assigned at birth or, at the very least, within the binary (it's really hard to be a neutral country in a war where people are trying to force you to pick a side)—they'll have to pick the right bathroom or be harassed; they'll be bullied; and so on. You may have the emotional strength to not play into those things (and say "fuck society; it's their fault") but your child's life would become very hard. They will essentially be oppressed as if they were trans (if not more), and we know just how shitty society is towards trans people.

On the other hand, I need not argue how harmful rigidly enforcing the binary and gender stereotypes is for a child, even if they are cis. But if they're trans, it could end up being disastrous, the kid would most likely internalize that something's wrong with them, and could be part of those 99.5% presumed cis. Maybe they'll never figure it out. Maybe they will, by which time they've already had a pretty miserable existence. Undoing all that stuff takes time and energy, figuring out trans stuff will distract them from living their life, stealing time and energy that could be put into their academics, or their jobs, or their hobbies. If the trans and nonbinary chunk of that 99.5% "cis" statistic is large, doesn't it become increasingly worthwhile to do your best to abolish the binary from the get-go, to really unshackle your kid from gender expectations and assumptions? The more likely it is for your child to be trans, wouldn't that affect your decision whether to raise them as the gender assigned at birth or not?

I want to push back against that idea, as it presumes two things: one, that raising a child is playing the probabilities that your child will end up being one way or another; and two, that what's good for raising a trans kid is bad for raising a cis kid, and vice versa.

One extreme of raising a child as a stereotypical boy or girl, with the associated behaviors, activities, and toys is obviously busted (I'm not going to spend more time arguing that here). The other, of raising the child completely outside the binary, pronouns and all, is still not feasible, even in the current zeitgeist around trans issues—considering what I wrote above, I would argue that that could end up being harmful for the child even if they did happen to be trans.

But we are not entirely helpless—we can still practice mindfulness when raising a child, and even thinking this through is taking a big step towards that; if nothing else, your kid will pick up on the care and effort you're putting in to help them develop and discover their identities.

There are still some easy steps that can be done that I think would provide tremendous benefits with little or no cost: giving your child a gender-neutral name, encouraging them to engage in a variety of activities and play with a variety of toys that are not stereotypically gendered only for what they were assigned at birth. Choosing a form of education and crafting an environment that does not enforce the binary as egregiously—things like not having a teacher that uses "boys and girls", or splits people by gender, or encourages certain activities based on gender. A school that is supportive of more varied self-expression through clothing; a school that is understanding of pronouns. Offering a variety of role models of many different genders (and other identities as well—such as more neurodiverse role models). These ideas are fairly straightforward, and there's really no good reason why anyone shouldn't be doing that.

There is, however, a big decision around which there is really no way. Do we use the pronouns assigned at birth, or do we use gender-neutral pronouns? I've already mentioned how using exclusively gender-neutral pronouns may be problematic when interfacing with the outside world. But just picking the assigned binary pronoun as a "default" without questioning it seems to go against the idea of mindfulness that we're hopefully trying to practice when raising a child. Outside of the two extremes, there are still ways that can hopefully help. Even if using the pronouns corresponding to the gender assigned at birth, explaining to your child that the world has certain expectations of gender would go a long way—and that they may feel pressure to conform to them, but that they don't have to, and what's important is how they feel about their own identity. Talking about the unfortunate realities of our world, about gendered expectations and reassuring them that they are the ones in the right about their own identities would go a long way. Perhaps using pronouns interchangeably between they/them pronouns and the ones they were assigned at birth (this could be a worthwhile balance—as it probably wouldn't amplify oppression in the child's day-to-day life the way that deliberately eliminating the binary would). Avoiding overly gendered terms whenever possible. There are many more ways to do this. Perhaps ask your kid what they would like, and what would be better for them?

There will be many such questions to be asked and decisions to be made in order to build the best possible environment for your kid's development and growth in a tragically oppressive world. I don't think there is one answer, really, and if there is, I don't know what that is. These decisions would hopefully be made with the kid's well-being as a priority, and that is really, at the end of the day, unique to them.

In a world where gender is politicized, where there is backlash against the trans and non-binary community, it is exceedingly hard to fight against that without unintentionally putting your kid into the line of fire. And that really, really sucks. But mindfulness goes a long way, and it's essential to dissolve as many underlying assumptions and pressures as possible, to let the child grow into who they are naturally, without being forced to assume an identity that is ultimately not theirs.

Because God knows, that sort of thing happens way too often already.