Naya is an almost-3-year-old I met recently who, in the course of an afternoon, wondered the following things: Why does the blue marble look green when viewed through yellow plastic? How is cheese made? Do things always fall down when you drop them, or do they sometimes fall up?
Spending time with an almost-3-year-old is an excellent way to realize how hard it is to deconstruct concepts that adults take for granted.
What does it mean to be a girl? for example. What does it mean to be a boy?
When I first met Naya, I didn’t know what gender Naya was. And neither did Naya’s parents. They knew what was on Naya’s birth certificate, of course. But as for what was in Naya’s brain? They were waiting for Naya to tell them.
All good parents want their kids to be happy. A lot of good parents now are having conversations about how gender and expectations fit into that. How do you raise girls to be tough and boys to be sensitive? Or, how do you raise girls and boys to be whatever they truly are — not just what they’ve absorbed from centuries of culture telling girls to be dainty and boys not to cry?
Naya’s parents, Jeremy and Bryan, had thought about all of this, maybe more than most. Jeremy had worked with transgender and intersex people. Their stories about the traumas of childhood — being forced to live as boys, for example, when they felt like girls — began to haunt him once he became a parent. And so did the aisles of Target, an assault of segregated pink and blue.
He started to worry. Would Naya, at that point a newborn, feel pressured to conform to the stereotype of a birth certificate’s sex designation?
One night, this question became a hypothetical proposal. What if he and Bryan didn’t tell Naya whether Naya was a boy or a girl? What if they just let their kid decide?
It made sense to Bryan. His native language, Tagalog, doesn’t include gender pronouns. The word “siya” was the equivalent of “that person over there,” no “he” or “she” specified. He liked the idea of Naya being able to tell him, “Here’s who I am,” instead of him dictating, “Here’s who you are.”
Jeremy and Bryan didn’t publicly share Naya’s birth-certificate sex, and they posted an announcement on Facebook: “If you interact with our kid, please make an effort to use Naya’s name, rather than a gendered pronoun.” Jeremy acknowledged this all might seem complicated, but he explained that “much of our culture and many of our traditions are based on telling people (directly and indirectly) what they can and can’t do, or should and shouldn’t do, based on their gender rather than their capabilities. And we know this has tremendously negative consequences for both kids and adults.”
They gave Naya clothing from both sides of the Target aisle, and boy dolls and girl dolls, and a stuffed dog whose gender and name, according to Naya, were both just “Doggy.”
They had conversations that went straight to the root of our humanity. How do we know who we are? What would it look like to become your true self, if the only constraints were your own happiness? It was an impossible scenario — we live in a society, not a vacuum. But still. What if, as a parent, you could at least try?
Jeremy and Bryan found themselves explaining that some people have penises and some have vaginas, and some have neither. Sometimes, having a vagina means feeling like a girl, but not always. They used their friends and relatives’ pictures to explain: Grandma is a woman; she likes to be called a she. Daddah is a man; he likes to be called a he.
And Naya, they emphasized, could choose whatever Naya wanted.
Meanwhile, Naya had questions:
Why did the marble tower fall over when it got too tall?
Why does that person in the Dr. Seuss book have a silly nose?
Naya never asked why some people felt like boys and others felt like girls, but Jeremy tried to be prepared in case it happened. He mulled clothing analogies: Just like some people might feel most comfy in a certain pair of socks, they might also feel most comfy as a certain gender. Was that a fair example?
“Having a kid makes you question all your assumptions,” he told me. He hoped he was doing the right thing.
A few days ago, Jeremy and Naya were in Naya’s bedroom, winding down for a nap and playing with Doggy.
Doggy liked to be cuddled and sometimes tossed in the air. Naya had established that already. But on this day, Naya told Jeremy something new. Doggy was a boy — “a he” — and he should be called that.
“Okay,” Jeremy agreed. Then, sensing the conversation was getting introspective, he slipped out his phone to record it for Bryan, still at work.
“What do you want me to call you?” Jeremy asked.
“She and her and a girl,” said Naya, nonchalantly.
“Just today or for always?”
“Today and tomorrow, too,” Naya said. “And when I get to be a grown-up, I want to be most a girl.”
Jeremy sent the video to Bryan. “Message received,” Bryan wrote back.
Jeremy says he would have been happy with any choice Naya made. There is no right answer, he believes, and they still don’t talk about what’s on the birth certificate. His goal was only ever to provide Naya with a breadth of experiences and the chance to think about who she really wanted to be. There could be more conversations in the future. But he and Bryan had spent years telling their kid that it was important to respect the way people saw themselves.
So he stopped texting with Bryan, put down his phone and went back to playing with his daughter.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.