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Gender-Neutral Parenting

“Queerness is where our hope lies.”

bell hooks, in response to a question about the space for and potentialities in genderqueerness and transness in a feminist discourse about bodies. 5th November 2013, Tishman Auditorium at The New School.

I am exploring gender neutrality and its role within parenting structures, as it is understood in both parents and children. Specifically, I am trying to better understand the benefits to raising children gender-neutral, the individual experiences of trans parents, and how traditional gender roles are being broken in current parenting structures. Through personal stories, articles, and outside research, I am attempting to acknowledge the significance of gender within a queer family structure.

Trevor MacDonald breastfeeding his son
From “Offbeat Families”

Above is an image of Trevor, a transgender man who breastfeeds his baby. In his piece on Offbeat Families, he explains the concerns and complications he had as a pregnant transgender parent, and the difficulties he faced in trying to breastfeed his child. In his article, he mentions La Leche League, an organization that focuses specifically on helping mothers worldwide to breastfeed. He honestly discusses his initial fear in joining a group designed specifically for women, and his relief in finding support there.

S. Bear Bergman discusses his decision not to raise his son gender neutral in his piece on Slate. He references a couple in Toronto who recently decided to keep the sex of their baby a secret, and received an overwhelming amount of backlash for it. Bergman talks about his own son, focusing on why he and his partner decided not to raise him gender-neutral. Bergman talks about the reasons why he chose to use gendered terminology for his son, while also focusing on raising him in an environment that deconstructs all gender norms. He advocates for letting children know that they do not need to identify within the gender binary, explaining his role as both a parent and a member of the trans community.

One example of the ways in which ideas surrounding gender neutrality are changing, specifically in children, is Sweden. Recently, Sweden has introduced the gender neutral pronoun “hen” into their society, defining it as a “proposed gender-neutral personal pronoun instead of he [han in Swedish] and she [hon].” Originally, hen was proposed as a way to refer to people without specifying their gender, and as a way to avoid the “he/she” dichotomy. Today, however, hen is advocated for in a much more political way; it’s gained popularity amongst Sweden’s trans community, and many of its examples of benefits include gender neutral bathrooms and overall comfort for nonbinary individuals.

From a Swedish toy catalogue, displaying the deconstruction of traditional gender roles for children

Advertising for children’s toys in Sweden has become more and more focused on advocating for gender neutrality as well, as reflected in this image. In Sweden, there is a national curriculum guideline that states preschools should “counteract traditional gender patterns and gender roles.” A pre-school in Stockholm avoids gendered language entirely, instead referring to the children as “friends,” “hen,” or simply by their names. The directors of the preschool are very passionate about breaking down the boy/girl binary, and trying to erase all societal assumptions that come with being read as a female or male child. Lotta Rajalin, the director of the pre-school, says, “we are not working with biological gender – we are working with the social thing.”

Trans*forming Family is a blog from the perspective of the mother of a transgender boy. When asked the five things she would want others to know about transgender people, she responded with the following:

  1. Transgender people are people.

  2. You never know who might be transgender, so don’t assume.

  3. Access to health care for transgender people is often difficult, disrespectful, and discriminatory.

  4. 41% of transgender people attempt suicide.

  5. There is a difference between gender identity and sexual orientation.

Although her experience within the trans community is only as an ally, she is one example of how the discussions surrounding gender and parenting have started to merge.

Lilly Mossiano, and transgender mother in North Carolina, has published a series of children’s books to assist children of transgender parents better understand gender identity as a whole.

Diane Ehrensaft has published a series of books discussing her experiences with her gender-variant son, a self described “tomgirl,” rather than tomboy. She describes her son as a “gender nonconformist” in her piece, Raising Girlyboys. Ehrensaft explains how her son’s identity as a tomgirl differs from a girlyboy, a term originally coined by Ken Corbett in 1996. Corbett defined girlyboys as a group of boys who “do not feel themselves to be girls, exactly … do not feel themselves to be boys, exactly … do not wish to grow up to be women nor to deny their male bodies.”

More and more, discussions surrounding gender identity are becoming comfortably included in discussions about queer families. Gender-neutral terms for nonbinary children have gained popularity among queer families, with examples such as “little one” or “my heart” showing that, more than anything else, these parenting structures focus on love.

Works Cited

  1. Bergman, S. Bear. “Two Trans Guys Have a Son. Are They Raising Him Gender-Neutral? .” Slate Magazine. (2013). Web. <http://www.slate.com/blogs/outward/2013/10/22/two_trans_guys_have_a_son_are_they_raising_him_gender_neutral.html&gt;.
  2. Ehrensaft, Diane. “Raising Girlyboys: A Parent’s Perspective.” Studies In Gender & Sexuality 8.3 (2007): 269-302. Academic Search Premier. Web.
  3. Hebblethwaite, Cordelia. “Sweden’s ‘Gender-Neutral’ Pre-School.” BBC News. (2011). Web. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-14038419&gt;.
  4. MacDonald, Trevor. “I Am a Transgender Dad in a Gay Relationship Who Breastfeeds His Baby Boy.” Offbeat Families. (2012). Web. <http://offbeatfamilies.com/2012/10/trans-dad-breastfeeds-baby&gt;.
  5. Rothschild, Nathalie. “Sweden’s New Gender-Neutral Pronoun: Hen.” Slate Magazine. (2012). Web. <http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2012/04/hen_sweden_s_new_gender_neutral_pronoun_causes_controversy_.html&gt;.
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