Last week, PBS Parents featured a blog titled “Gender Appropriate Toys.” It begins promisingly enough with a critique of parents who enforce binary gender norms in their children’s toys and activities. The author (Kristen of Supersisters) suggests that boys should be free to engage in nurturing and domestic activities as preparation for becoming well-rounded men. Next, she shifts into a discussion of childhood cross-dressing:
So why are we so concerned about our sons wearing our shoes? If wearing women’s shoes as a small child causes any sort of issue when a boy gets older, nearly every man in the world would now be a cross-dresser.
As I read this, I tried not to get too hung up on what “any sort of issue” might cover or what she might mean by “cross-dresser.” After all, the article was normalizing childhood cross-dressing. These are ideas that might be new to the readers of PBS Parents. Cut the lady some slack, I told myself.
Then I read the last line of the article.
And let’s be honest. It’s either stilettos now or stilettos later.
The assumptions embedded in that cautionary closing line are so familiar that the author needn’t bother to unpack them. Because raising an adult cross-dresser (or a drag queen or a transsexual or a homo)–those would be self-evidently negative outcomes, right?
Sadly, this PBS Parents article is only the most recent example of parenting advice that champions gender-neutral parenting as a means to avoid raising gay or trans kids. In 2005, sociologist Karin A. Martin examined the legacy of second wave feminism’s project of gender-neutral parenting. In “William Wants a Doll. Can He Have One? Feminists, Child Care Advisors, and Gender-Neutral Child Rearing,” Martin finds a “stalled revolution.” She argues that the movement’s child rearing agenda has stalled, in part, because liberal feminist calls for gender-neutral parenting did not “fully eradicate heterosexism and homophobia from its writings about gender socialization.”
Martin cites Ms. founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s 1980 book Growing Up Free, which warned against the “erroneous” assumption that “homosexuality is one of the worst things that can happen to anyone,” but then went on to re-stigmatize homosexuality with comments like these:
“Don’t try to prevent homosexuality. It won’t work and it may backfire.”
“Don’t make children feel they are the ‘wrong’ sex as this too can result in homosexuality.”
“Don’t use sex stereotypes as a vaccine against homosexuality. Trying to mold children to match stereotypes sometimes inspires just what parents meant to avoid.”
As Martin notes, Pogrebin and her peers used the prevention of homosexuality as a kind of an advertising strategy for gender-neutral parenting: “these arguments stop just short of saying that gender-neutral child rearing is good for children because it prevents homosexuality.”
Martin goes on to examine contemporary parenting advice from the late 90’s and early 00’s. She finds that, when it comes to childhood gender nonconformity, little has changed:
About 60 percent of the sources can be described as giving (at least) one of three types of advice. Two of these types have long been stereotypic responses to homosexuality” (1) Don’t make it worse and (2) recode the behavior. The third response explicitly addresses the link between gender and sexuality: (3) Don’t worry; it doesn’t lead to homosexuality.
The assumption, once again, is that adult homosexuality is a self-evidently negative outcome, one that parents would naturally want to avoid.
In sorting through all of this, I find myself returning to Eve Sedgwick’s famous, provocative essay, “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay” from 1991:
There are many people in the worlds we inhabit…who have a strong interest in the dignified treatment of any gay people who happen already to exist. But the number of persons or institutions by whom the existence of gay people is treated as a precious desideratum, a needed condition of life, is small. The presiding asymmetry of value assignment between hetero and homo goes unchallenged everywhere: advice on how to help your kids turn out gay, not to mention your students, your parishioners, your therapy clients, or your military subordinates, is less ubiquitous than you might think. On the other hand, the scope of institutions whose programmatic undertaking is to prevent the development of gay people is unimaginably large.
Using Sedgwick’s insight as a starting point, I pose this question to myself and other parents: if we believe that queer and gender-nonconforming people are a “precious desideratum,” a gift to the world, an “outcome” to be cherished equally with other gender and sexuality outcomes, then how do we live that belief in our parenting?
Recently, I’ve sensed the need for a new paradigm to replace “gender-neutral” parenting, which is usually heteronormative (boys can play with dolls because they will become husbands and fathers) and sometimes (as I’ve shown above) homophobic and transphobic. In its place, I suggest “gendery” parenting.
Rather than conceiving of gender as a binary that can be cautiously “crossed,” the gendery parenting paradigm would enjoin us to introduce our children to a wide variety of different gender identities and expressions. At our house, that means that our son, Waylon, spends time with his football coach grandpa and his urbane gay grandpa. Our chosen family includes a butch “tia” who probably irons her boxer shorts and an “uncle” who is a working-class straight guy. Waylon is comfortable hanging with the queens in the church choir and the sensitive skater dudes who teach at his school. Last Christmas, he asked Santa for a pair of black tights so he could dress like his high-femme auntie. This year he’s been haranguing his FTM uncle to please, please sew him some more handmade stuffed animals. Whatever Waylon wants to do or be in the future, I’m confident that he knows there are many ways to live his gender and sexuality.
Rather than just begrudgingly allowing our children to play with “opposite gender” toys, the gendery parenting paradigm would encourage us to give children the language to think critically about gender binaries and gendered hierarchies. If we provide the tools, young children are quite capable of sussing out inequalities and analyzing gendered messages–as evidenced by a conversation I had with Waylon the other day:
Waylon: Mom, I think Power Rangers is kind of injustice to girls.
Me: Really, how so?
Waylon: Well, the girl Power Rangers always have to be pink or yellow, but the boy Power Rangers can be blue or red or green. It’s not fair that they have more colors.
Me: Don’t you think it’s injustice to the boys too, since they never get to be pink?
Waylon: Well yeah, but the girl action figures are always really skinny too. They don’t look like they could even fight very good. Why do they make them like that?
Finally, and most importantly, the gendery parenting paradigm would instill in children the belief that they will be loved and celebrated in all the complexity of their gender and sexual identities.
And that includes stilettos–now or later.