“Mommy, my friend at school told me that I have on boy pants,” my daughter reported to me recently, aghast that her friend would say such a thing. “I told her that pants can’t be ‘boys.’ They are just pants,” she stated matter-of-factly.
This wasn’t the first time we had talked about “boy” and “girl” gendered items like toys, hairstyles and tennis shoes. It wasn’t the last either.
Though I may try my hardest to insulate my children from a world that genders everything and structures society around whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality and able-bodiedness, it sometimes seeps in anyway.
Raising children as a queer black woman is an incredibly political act.
A 2014 article in the Atlantic explains how gendered marketing in the toy industry has changed over the past 50 years. Sadly, the needle hasn’t moved much. The author suggests that, rather than dismantling problematic norms of femininity and hypermasculine portrayals of male gender, toy manufacturers have simply shifted those images to ones that are appealing to more socially conscious consumer parents: “These roles were still built upon regressive gender stereotypes … that were obscured with bright new packaging. In essence, the ‘little homemaker’ of the 1950s had become the ‘little princess’ we see today.”
Still, many critiques of gendered norms in childhood don’t even mention the fact that those princesses so many young girls idolize are overwhelmingly white.
Thus, as a queer black woman whose identity transverses gender, race, class and sexuality divides, I find that the parenting choices I make are incredibly political acts. They are a means of survival. But they are also exemplary of the ways that adults who care for children can effect social change through what they do, not just what they say.
For me, I figured out I was queer when I was 9 years old. Growing up, I saw how queer black people were stigmatized, how race, gender and class ordered so much of my life, and how adult people struggled to put me in boxes since my extremely tall, athletic body breached so many of the traditional rules of femininity and womanhood.
In my traditional Christian church and family, I found myself sitting in stark contradiction to the unspoken expectations of my gender and presumed sexuality to be small, quiet and “ladylike.”
Now, I am married to a cisgender heterosexual male. I also identify as bisexual.
While becoming a mother wasn’t something I was necessarily set on doing, I decided pretty early on that I didn’t want to make anyone else feel marginalized because of their gender, size, sexuality, skin color or any of the social norms we are too often compelled to follow and emulate. That’s why, when my partner and I decided to start a family, we were deliberate about challenging traditional models of parenting, ending narratives about how certain people should behave.
Thinking critically about gender and the performance of femininity and masculinity also affects health outcomes for children. Studies of the effects of constructed gender normativity on children show that these sorts of gender displays can cause physical and mental health issues, issues that are completely preventable by adults who raise and influence young people.
I take that responsibility seriously.
I push my three children to be critical about any beliefs that exclude and erase the experiences of trans and gender-nonconforming, queer and disabled people. I question them when they reassert norms of social behavior just because someone said so. I never let them blindly accept ways of existing that originate from places of fear and exclusion and operate to harm people of color and nonbinary people.
Seeing my children navigate their identities has been a learning process for me. I didn’t have the language or the knowledge to fully break down gender identities before my first child was born. I still bought into the hype that gender and sex were biological co-authors of identity, not fully able to grasp the spectrum-like, limitless nature of human possibility. I still stumble now.
Just recently, when my 3-year-old loudly declared, “I’m a boy!” I looked at him and said, “How do you know?”
While I expected him to say something about his sex organs, he simply said, “Because I am, Mommy.”
He’s 3 and I trust him to know who he is.
These are small but deliberate acts that work to create an environment of inclusion and access in our household. It’s actually easier to teach children lessons about how to treat other people when these strict rules and norms are dismantled.
I remember when my oldest child came home from school in the third grade. Another child had explained to him that mommies had babies and daddies didn’t. He asked me, “Does that make sense? I thought babies happen because of body parts.” So I asked him, “What do you think? What makes sense to you?”
He reflected for a minute and said, “Since babies are made in a uterus with sperm and anyone can have a uterus, it just doesn’t make sense. It just so happened in our family that you had the babies but that isn’t ‘normal’ or something.” Then, we proceeded to interrogate whether “normal” is a real thing. He decided against that, too.
Since then, he has actively engaged his peers when they make comments that reinforce gender roles. I expect more of him and he expects more of those around him.
I understand that it’s one thing to choose to disrupt the status quo as an adult person. But, as a parent, these decisions create the social conditions under which budding members of a new generation are formed. By espousing queer parenting, I am disrupting the status quo of mothering that preordains race, gender and sexuality as “no-no” topics. I am rebuking progressive parenting tactics that focus only on kids wearing the clothes they want to or playing coed sports while still maintaining a commitment to a gender binary. These types of parenting aren’t suitable for our household.
When adults who care for children make the choice to dismantle gender and sex normativity in their own lives, they make room for children to embody gender, race and sex on their own terms. They empower children to see people as people.
Queer parenting is not a fad. It isn’t something people do for a pat on the back. There are a lot of us non-heterosexual or gender-nonconforming parents who engage differently with gender.
The fact is: Queer parenting is a deliberate choice to raise children as free as possible from the limitations that labels, stereotypes and gendered norms place on marginalized people in the United States.
While these decisions have garnered sneered noses and scowls from more traditional parents, those people who believe “children should be children” rather than politicized actors, I am keenly aware that my black children will be politicized whether I like it or not.
I know from experiences like my own and from the tragic murders of children like 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones and 12-year-old Tamir Rice that it is best that I equip for the realities of the world around them rather than pretend that abstinence from it will keep them safe.
It’s not easy work to parent this way, but it is part of my moral and philosophical commitment that my children understand that they can form the world around them and not the other way around.
This is not just about me being queer.
This is about freeing children from the burdens of a world they had no part in creating. In the process, I am working to eradicate the thinking that tries to target, isolate and oppress the least among us.