“What are you having?” I’d be standing in line at the post office or a movie theater, and I’d realize a stranger was staring at my belly. The kind person thought they were asking me a simple question with a simple answer: Is it a boy or a girl?
If you want to get technical, my partner Brent and I had found out our child’s sex chromosomes in the early stages of my pregnancy, and we had seen their genitals during the anatomy scan. But we didn’t think that information told us anything about our kid’s gender. The only things we really knew about our baby is that they were human, breech and going to be named Zoomer. We weren’t going to assign a gender or disclose their reproductive anatomy to people who didn’t need to know, and we were going to use the gender-neutral personal pronouns they, them and their. We imagined it could be years before our child would tell us, in their own way, if they were a boy, a girl, nonbinary or if another gender identity fit them best. Until then, we were committed to raising our child without the expectations or restrictions of the gender binary.
I have a gender-studies degree and a Ph.D. in sociology. In the decade before Zoomer was born, it was literally my job to study and educate others about gender. There was no shortage of gender-disparity statistics, but I felt confident that progress toward gender equity was gaining momentum. In my Sociology of Gender and Sexuality course, I would lecture on discrimination against queer people, the motherhood penalty, men’s higher suicide rate, violence against transgender women of color, and the way intersex people–those born with biological traits that aren’t typically male or female–are stigmatized or completely overlooked. But I also taught about the victory of same-sex marriage equality, more women running for office, fathers demanding family leave, the rising visibility of transgender actors in the media, and the movement to end intersex surgery.
With every new semester, the number of students asking me to call them by different names and use different pronouns than they were given at birth grew. Women confided that they were experiencing sexism from their chemistry professors. Men vented about the pressures of masculinity. These 18- to 20-something-year-olds were feeling crushed by gender stereotypes. I could relate. I was raised as a girl in the Mormon church, and it took a long time for me to untangle myself from the conditioning that the only things I should want (and could be good at) were marriage and motherhood.
I could see the trail of bread crumbs. How gender inequalities get their start in childhood. How girls do more chores than boys and are paid less allowance. How kids are dressed in shirts that say “sorry boys, Daddy says i can’t date until I’m 30,” yet when a child says they’re gay, they’re told they’re too young to know that. How girls are discouraged from running for student government. How boys are discouraged from playing with dolls. How queer and trans youth are kicked out of their homes. People have asked me to prove that gender-creative parenting will have positive outcomes. I double-dog dare someone to prove that hypergendered childhood is a roaring success.
Kids fare better in environments where they are accepted for who they are. The negative outcomes that are often experienced by queer and trans youth are mitigated by supportive families and friends. Parents take precautions to keep their children healthy and safe by enrolling them in swim lessons, teaching them to stay away from fire and cutting food into tiny pieces. Holding space for the possibility a child might be trans or nonbinary or queer is also preventative care.
The goal of gender-creative parenting is not to eliminate gender—the goal is to eliminate gender-based oppression, disparities and violence. The aim isn’t to create a genderless world; it’s to contribute to a genderfull one. We as a society have an opportunity to shake up childhood gender socialization in a way that creates more healthy and equitable adulthoods for everyone. What have we got to lose? The patriarchy? Good riddance.
The summer before I was pregnant, I noticed a young sprints track meet banner fastened to the chain-link fence of the local high school. I can’t wait till I have a little one who can run in that! I thought.
Three years later, I left that track meet in tears after I found out that despite assurances to the contrary, the 2- and 3-year-old girls would run in different heats than the boys. “I not running?” Zoomer asked as we drove away. I felt terrible for leaving. Zoomer just wanted to run. But I also would have felt terrible if I had stayed. It is these moments that plant the seeds that boys and girls are dramatically different, and in the case of track and field, that boys are better. I refused to have our family participate.
The experience was disappointing, if not unexpected. When I was pregnant, I would dream up hypothetical situations with cruel pediatricians refusing to use they/them pronouns and flight attendants treating Zoomer like a stereotype and anxiously think through how I would react to these circumstances. I was afraid that my family members might be so nervous about accidentally using a gendered pronoun for Zoomer, so nervous about offending me, that they would distance themselves from us.
But for the most part, the past four years have not been filled with tears and strife (at least no more tears than you’d find in any home of a young child and tired parents). Our life looks remarkably like a lot of other families’ lives, filled with joy and affirmation. And color. Lots of color.
When people think of gender-neutral, their minds often go to a grayish beige, potato-hued color palette. But we don’t dress Zoomer in burlap sacks, or only give them toys the color of Wheat Thins. We give them options, and they thoughtfully pick what they like the most. For a while, Zoomer’s favorite color was pink; then it was orange. They picked the pink, purple and aqua bedsheets; the fire-truck socks; the outer-space sleeping bag; and the violet climbing shoes. They wanted the Cars Pull-Ups one time and the Minnie Mouse ones the next. Zoomer has a stuffed dog named Dante that goes everywhere with them and a baby doll that they named DeeDee. Zoomer loves Play-Doh and molds neon-colored animals and pretend food. They say, “I’m not going to eat it.” Then I see that their teeth are bright blue, and they have, in fact, tried to eat it.
A common critique of gender-creative parenting is that “the kid will be confused,” but Zoomer doesn’t seem confused at all. In fact, they have a more nuanced understanding of sex and gender than a lot of adults. We teach them to use gender-neutral words until a person tells us about themself. We call kids friends. We have taught Zoomer about their own body without using boy-girl labels. Zoomer understands that some girls have penises and some boys have vulvas, and some intersex kids have vulvas and testes. Zoomer knows some daddies get pregnant and some nonbinary parents are called Zazas. At day care, I tell teachers, “Please snuggle them and wrestle with them. Please compliment their painted toenails and let them get muddy. Call them handsome and beautiful; sensitive and brave. Give them the opportunity to play with the Hot Wheels and the kitchen set.” Because Zoomer has been raised with a focus on inclusivity, they have an instinct to make everyone feel welcome. When a character on a kids’ show says, “Hello, boys and girls!” Zoomer adds, “And nonbinary pals!”
A friend of mine recently told me when she first found out how we were going to parent, she thought, That’s going to be endless work for Kyl. “But now I actually think that you are so lucky and had some great foresight,” she said. “I spend so much of my time tearing the walls down that people are trying to build around my daughters. People aren’t trying to build walls around Zoomer because they don’t know which walls to build.”
I wanted to give my child a gift. The gift of seeing people as more than just a gender. The gift of understanding gender as complex, beautiful and self-determined. I hadn’t considered how much of a gift I’d also be giving myself. While curating an experience for Zoomer to come to their own identity, I inadvertently started taking a closer look at mine too.
One day, Zoomer and I were playing hide-and-seek. They cupped their eyes as I hid in the pantry, then walked around the house mimicking the words we use when we are trying to find them. “Mommy, you in the plant? No … Mommy, you under the couch? No.” As they got closer, they called out, “Kyl! Where are you?”
Gender-creative parenting comes with a giant mirror and forces me to ask myself, “Kyl! Where are you?” I’ve examined my own gender identity and expression more in the past four years than I had in the three decades before becoming Zoomer’s parent. As I’ve tried to create an environment where Zoomer is free from the chains of binary gender, I am working to figure out what about my gender is authentic and what was prescribed to me, and is it even possible to differentiate at this point? I love my body, but I don’t love that I was assigned a specific gender role because of it. In my early 30s, I’m climbing out of the girl box I was placed in in 1986. I’m trying on new labels and pronouns, and giving myself the same encouragement to play with gender that I am giving my child.
Not everyone has the support that Brent and I have. We sprang gender-creative parenting on our families, and they decided to get on board. They shared in the emotional labor and took it upon themselves to educate our extended family and their co-workers, neighbors and friends. They are champions at using gender-neutral pronouns. Some of my friends have not been so lucky. They’ve lost touch with family members or have strained relationships because of their decision to do gender-creative parenting. I know of a grandparent who keeps a stash of clothing, so whenever their gender-creative grandchild comes over, they change them out of the outfit the child picked to put them in something more stereotypically associated with their sex. Some of my friends’ family members have called child protective services, reporting their grandchild is being abused, simply because they weren’t assigned a gender. This is also a reason I feel strongly about being a public advocate for parenting this way—many others don’t have the safety, support and resources to talk openly about it.
Around their fourth birthday, Zoomer started declaring a gender identity and claiming some gendered pronouns. Brent and I are honoring Zoomer’s identity and expression and answering all their questions in an age-appropriate and inclusive way. (I’m using they here because Zoomer is still exploring gender and I want them to have some autonomy over how they share their identity with the world.)
I’m witnessing my child create their own gender—and who Zoomer has become is greater than anything I could have imagined or assigned. Instead of us telling the children who they should be, maybe it’s the children who will teach us how to be. We just have to get out of their way.
Myers is the author of Raising Them: Our Adventure in Gender Creative Parenting, from which this essay is adapted