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The Toddler's A-Gender

The other night, The Small Person asked that I read Jacinta Bunnell and Irit Reinheimer's Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Girls at bed time. After we read it, The Small Person announced "My gender is purple." It is certainly true that The Small Person strongly identifies with purple at the moment. For the first time, The Small Person talks about having a favorite. Most mornings at breakfast The Small Person wants purple eggs. For the first time, The Small Person has asked that we buy particular clothes - apparently there are not enough purple shirts or shoes in the house. Purple flowers get exclaimed over, purple toys are preferred and it is generally clear that purple is the best, red's okay too, but purple is better. So okay, The Small Person's gender is purple.

Of course, other people seldom read the Small Person as a purple. With so many people in North America so heavily invested in a gender binary, where "girl" and "boy" are the two boxes it is assumed all children belong in, people don't immediately understand that The Small Person is a purple. What they see is this:


What they see is a small person in action, all enthusiasm and curiosity. The person they see is usually wearing pants or shorts, and has long curly ringlets clipped back. Most people who see this small person, this chatty, friendly, outgoing small person assign the small person to the gender of "girl". It's fascinating to me that long hair seems to be the strongest gender signifier that our toddler currently has. One of the things that I find particularly fascinating is that at the moment, all desires for purple clothes aside, our toddler has very little choice in hir appearance. Sure, The Small Person gets to choose what clothes ze puts on on any given day, but ze chooses out of the clothes we have provided. It's also true that while ze chooses what clip to put in hir hair, we, the grown people, are the ones who have made the conscious choice not to cut those gorgeous ringlets. The visual clues that strangers often rely on to assign gender are not The Small Person's authentic expression of self - they are much more about us as parents.

As a parent who's invested in preserving options for the small around gender, it's always felt awkward when strangers assign a gender to The Small Person. Initially I would thank people for their compliments about my "beautiful daughter" and go on to talk about "him". I didn't want to say "He's not a girl." because well, she might be, but also I don't want to teach him that being a girl is in any way wrong or bad (whether The Small Person is a girl or not). I also recognise that a significant part of my role as a parent is to advocate on behalf of The Small Person, and I've struggled to come up with how best to advocate in those moments. I finally settled on "That's an interesting gender assumption" until The Small Person gave me indication of what kind of advocacy ze wants. Ze is starting to tell us.

In addition to "My gender is purple." The Small Person has made two other gender statements in recent weeks - curiously enough both in trans spaces. While we were at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference there was a particularly high frequency of people commenting that The Small Person  is "a beautiful girl". The Small Person responded with "I am not a girl. I am a toddler." The conference program encouraged people not to make assumptions about the gender(s) of other people, to allow people to self-identify and to ask respectfully if people needed to know. No-one ever asked The Small Person, and more that the usual number of people assumed "girl". While I am confident it was all intended to be positive, it felt like people were not able to apply the conference guidelines to someone so young.

At the Trans March on Friday we twice had similar experiences. Both times, a stranger complimented The Small Person saying "What a beautiful girl". Both times he responded "I'm a boy." Both times the adults either could not hear him or ignored him. Both times I had to repeat what he had said. Both times the grown people seemed far more invested in their read of his gender than in his self-identification. One of them, a trans advocate, at the Trans March, responded to me saying "He's telling you he's a boy." with "Whatever.", which amazed me, as I am sure this grown person would not want others responding to her sharing her gender identity with "Whatever". At both the Toronto Trans March, and the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, as trans communities, our adultism was showing. with growing numbers of children attending both (both because they are our children and because they self-identify as belonging) we need to be doing better at including and engaging with young people. As grown trans people, we need to do better at listening to children, even very young ones. If we are going to build rich intergenerational communities we need to be doing this work now.

No matter how The Small Person personally identifies, he is both culturally queer and culturally trans. Whether he is is a purple, a toddler, a boy, or something else entirely, he belongs in our communities. We first shared the news we were expecting with friends at the first Toronto Trans March and he's attended every year since, twice he's joined his Papa on stage to host the Trans Stage afterwards. He looks forward to this  - gleefully telling the staff at his day care that "Proud is loud!" in the week running up to this weekend. As communities we need to do better at listening to and believing in children, after all, he's doing what he's leared from and in trans communities - expressing his chosen identity.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
2nd Jul, 2012 19:18 (UTC)
Nothing truly of substance to say, other than your small is pretty wonderful, and I appreciate your thoughtful parenting.
2nd Jul, 2012 20:27 (UTC)
So so so many things I adore about this post, among them:

a) "culturally queer" and "culturally trans*"
b) "but also I don't want to teach him that being a girl is in any way wrong or bad (whether The Small Person is a girl or not)"
c) "I am not a girl. I am a toddler."
d) so pumped that you're giving children a voice about their gender, especially as gender ultimatley surfaces for the first time at this age
e) loved that at different times in the post you used three different pronouns to describe your child. I found it really told the story of hir journey thus far.

Would you mind if I re-post this on Blakelock's blog?
3rd Jul, 2012 01:51 (UTC)
Thanks for asking. Of course, go ahead and share if you want! I hope you are having a brilliant summer.
2nd Jul, 2012 21:24 (UTC)
I agree with all of this really a very lot. Adultism is so overlooked and often blatantly ignored and we need to be doing this work now, as you said. Small people have so much to say and so few grown people ever seem to be listening, which I find by turns infuriating and deeply sad.

'We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that [ze] is someone today.' -Stacia Tauscher

That is a very happy-looking Small Person in that photo! :)
3rd Jul, 2012 01:26 (UTC)
Well said!
3rd Jul, 2012 01:33 (UTC)
It's fascinating to me that long hair seems to be the strongest gender signifier that our toddler currently has.

I am particularly fascinated by this too, for in California, that is most definitely not a strong enough signifier to signal to people that Simone is not my son. (Phrasing chosen carefully here, because Simone's gender currently takes a paragraph.)
3rd Jul, 2012 01:55 (UTC)
I love to read your writing, and I adore coparenting with you.
5th Jul, 2012 00:18 (UTC)
wow you guys are adorable
3rd Jul, 2012 05:47 (UTC)
I realize this isn't how you used it, but "agender" seems like an eminently coinable word. (Not in the sense of non-gender: I'm thinking something more like "atwitter". "Did you hear? Joan and Maria are all agender about their kid's curly hair..."; "Look, don't get all agender about this with me: I like the colour pink, and I don't feel I need to justify that.")
Keith Nunn
3rd Jul, 2012 13:05 (UTC)
Great article J! I especially love the move from ambiguous/inclusive language to the specific as Stanley's choices are expressed in the article. Missed seeing you on the weekend, but had fun a Pride for the first time in a while. Maybe it's just me, but it felt less corporate than it has in the recent past.
3rd Jul, 2012 22:46 (UTC)
May I please share your thoughtful prose with family please. j?

5th Jul, 2012 19:38 (UTC)
Absolutely, of course, thank you for your kind words.
12th Jul, 2012 13:25 (UTC)
Beautiful words j.

I love the way you articulate your parenting choices and the words your small one chooses in self-expression. After this very hard week this post makes me feel hopeful in ways I can't articulate well.
13th Jul, 2012 20:35 (UTC)
I was very saddened by the response of the Trans advocate to your Small Person's declared gender identity. I find it so frustrating when the voices of small people are blatantly ignored and unheard; whether they're Trans or not, they deserve to be listened to.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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