When I was pregnant I chose not to reveal the sex of my fetus. I knew it, although sometimes I said I didn’t. Many people — both close and unknown — were aggravated with me for not sharing the information. I withheld my fetus’s sex not to annoy everyone, but because I wasn’t ready to let this information out before anyone, including me, had met my child.
I chose not to reveal Jessey’s sex on his birth announcements because I wanted to share my excitement in welcoming this new baby into the world, not as a baby whose sex would be synonymous with girl or boy but as a baby who had yet to be named. I waited to name him because I felt he needed time adjusting from existing in utero to living in the wide open world. There needed to be a pause to give him the opportunity to make himself known — to try out different names and gauge his response. I felt and still feel similarly about gender. Individuals should be free to express gender as they see fit. I had been told that genderization starts in utero. Witnessing it made it feel all the more ridiculous. I even had a family friend warn me, “You better like yellow because everything you’re gonna get will be yellow unless you fess up.”
Yellow. Somehow yellow has been designated the gender-neutral color of our era. There was a time when pink was the color for boys. A fascinating 2011 article in the Smithsonian Magazine documents the social trends when Franklin D. Roosevelt was growing up in the late 1800s. At that time, boys wore dresses and kept their hair long until age six or seven. Jessey is almost 3 and his long wispy curls add to the visual cues that make people assume he’s a girl.
From infancy, Jessey had an array of clothes in different colors, patterns and styles. Some handmade, some marketed to boys, others to girls, and many gender-neutral hand-me-downs and thrift-store finds. From the time he could grasp objects in his hands, I have let Jessey pick his clothes. I hold up two outfits (both weather-appropriate and usually quite different from each other) and let him choose. Now that he is capable of rifling through his stacked outfits, he often matches his own. Mostly he wants whatever is comfortable: Footy pajamas, leggings, sweatpants, in that order.
As Jessey ages I hope he continues to feel free to express himself. These days, he often does that by trotting around in pony pajamas or a pair of fabulous sunglasses. I have seen children being pressured by their peers to conform to gender norms by the time they enter preschool. Even at that age there can be pressure to have the “right” pair of jeans or a popular gendered toy.
At an indoor playground last winter, I heard a grandmother say to her daughter, “See how differently the boys play from the girls? The boys want nothing to do with the toy kitchen.” Her grandson, not yet 2, was in the hard hat construction building area. Nearby a girl played in the toy kitchen. Jessey’s gender was not easily identifiable in the outfit he chose that day: leggings, rainbow knee socks, black rain boots, green rain jacket, a truck-print polar fleece hat. He moved around the room from the pretend washing machine to the toy trucks to the shopping cart. Sometimes others assumed his gender by what he played with. “He had that truck first.” “Don’t grab the cart from that little girl.”
When asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?” Jessey often responds with “boy,” but sometimes he’ll say, “I’m Jessey.” One weekend we were out in the yard while dog-sitting. Two 5-year-old girls walked to the edge of their yard to introduce themselves to Jessey through the chain-link fence.
“Is that a boy or a girl?” one of them asked.
“It looks like a girl. I think it’s a girl,” the other one replied.
These days Jessey and I flow in and out of identity topics with ease. The other day we went for an early evening walk in the woods. Jessey hit the trail on his green balance bike wearing purple leggings — his two favorite colors these days.
While he lifted the handlebars and I hoisted the seat over a rock he asked, “What’s a boy or a girl?” (He says “goyle.”)
“Those are two genders,” I said.
“Am I a boy or a goyle?” He wiped a curl off his forehead.
“That’s for you to decide. You were born male because you have a penis. Most males are boys and then men. Most females, like me, are girls and women. But you can be born male and feel like a girl or born female and feel like a boy. Most likely you’ll feel like a boy but you can be anything in between and find the language that fits you.”
We made it to the top of the hill. “I think maybe a goyle,” he said.
I love moments like these. I don’t want my child to struggle with internal identity but I want him (or her) to critically think and to consider things that many of us were (and still are) raised to assume.
The other night we stopped in the fire station. Jessey was in purple leggings and his new favorite top with a rainbow splash of hearts.
“It’s okay, come on in,” one of the firefighters said, waving to us. “Don’t be shy,” he said to Jessey.
People often assume that Jessey is shy when he is in clothes where he passes as a girl. Soon we were sent to a newbie firefighter. He walked us around the fire trucks, never offering to let Jessey climb inside. Sometimes the firefighters are busy. Sometimes they’re tired. They’re at work. That night they’d just come back from a run, but something told me that if Jessey were wearing a fire truck shirt they would have offered him a boost into the driver’s seat.
The newbie handed Jessey a helmet, then took it back, saying, “Don’t want to mess up your pretty hair.” During our visit I avoided using pronouns, feeling unsafe calling Jessey he. Where was my fuel in the face of such blatant gender bias? Maybe Jessey’s generation will be braver and more open than we are, and will challenge assumptions more.
We can’t change the way our children identify, nor should we. Boys will be boys or be girls or be boys regardless of the labels we assign. We honor each other by not forcing these constraints. We can change the way they feel about their identity. It is hard to imagine any parent wanting their child to feel shame, embarrassment or loneliness. Even for children who naturally lean far to one side of the gender spectrum, we dishonor the next generation if we don’t allow for gender and cultural assumptions to be questioned. We hurt our village of children when we don’t hold the door to the world open wide enough.
From what I see so far, Jessey is growing into a self-assured person who is not easily thrown by different perspectives. He is open to seeing others as individuals. I can’t raise my child in a utopian bubble, nor do I want to, but I hope we continue to grow in an environment with other families who question assumptions and strive to raise liberated children.
Katy Chatel is a writer and single mother by choice living with her son in Philadelphia.
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