Parenting Gender-Variant Children

By Elizabeth Rahilly

lego blocksFollowing the women’s movement and its calls for “gender-neutral” parenting, many contemporary parents are happy to challenge masculine and feminine stereotypes for their young sons and daughters. Boys can play with dolls and kitchen sets, girls can be ultra tomboys. But they are ever and always “boys” and “girls,” respectively. The gender boxes are flexed, so to speak, but rarely totally abandoned.

The parents in my study, however, radically start to question prevailing assumptions about sex and gender: assigned sex may have little to do with one’s gender expression and identity, nor should it. This is because their children consistently contradict the expectations of their assigned birth sex—from the clothes, toys, and play groups they prefer to their repeated self-identifications (e.g., “I’m your son, not your daughter!” or “I feel more like a girl than a boy”). As one parent reflected,stuffed animals “Okay, you’re born with a penis, okay, you’re a boy, boom, done—NO, not necessarily.” These parents come to embrace their children as gender-variant or transgender, and pursue a course of parenting practices that expand proverbial notions of “gender-neutral” parenting, in ways that are particularly transgender-aware.

Drawing on in-depth interview data, my article examines three practical strategies that surfaced during parents’ early experiences with childhood gender variance: “gender hedging,” “gender literacy,” and “playing along.” Through these practices, these parents develop a critical consciousness about the ways in which gender norms limit one’s most authentic self-expression, and strive to accommodate their gender-nonconforming children in a society that is still ignorant of childhood transgender possibilities.

In “gender hedging,” parents give small concessions to their child’s gender-variant interests while trying to stay within gender-normative boundaries. An assigned male child can wear a pink T-shirt to the store, for example, but dresses and skirts must stay indoors. Over time, such maneuvering breeds weariness and skepticism in parents about how much boundary work they should enforce, if at all. Parents begin to question cultural dictates for males and females, which bear little relevance to what their child continually asserts and expresses, and cross more and more boundaries. Children assigned male can wear dresses outside of the house; children assigned female can wear more and more clothing from the boys’ department. Hair is grown out or cut very short.

Parents eventually turn to the internet, where they find a burgeoning support community and related discourses that affirm childhood gender variance as a natural and normal part of the human “gender spectrum.” Through “gender literacy,” parents try to reiterate these discourses to their children during daily conversations, consciously articulating transgender and transsexual possibilities (e.g., “If one day you think you want breasts like your Mommy’s, there are medicines you can take” or “Some boys have penises and some boys don’t”). Parents also speak with school administrations to make schools more aware and accommodating of gender-variant and transgender students, so that their preferred gender presentations and bathroom use are honored.

Finally, through “playing along,” parents learn to navigate public interactions with strangers, who often attribute the wrong gender to a gender-variant child. By “playing along” with strangers, parents permit their child’s gender-variant expressions in public without the hassle and scrutiny that correcting them would entail. At the grocery store, a gender-variant child can be a “beautiful little girl” or a “handsome young man” without question. With more familiar persons, like neighbors or other parents at school, parents learn to not “play along,” broaching more candid discussions about childhood gender variance (e.g., “He’s a boy who likes girl things”).

Not all of these practices pose an explicit challenge to gender binary norms, but they all reveal parents’ strategic efforts to support their children’s nonconformity in the most appropriate ways they can construct, in diverse social situations, all while their awareness of gender-variant and transgender possibilities grow. Among these families, males and females can be whatever they want to be, including, conceivably, (transgender) girls and boys, or something less binary altogether. Indeed, with their newfound perspectives, these parents abandon a simple two-sex schema and imagine a wider array of (trans)gendered possibilities.

My article captures several early processes and practices in a broader longitudinal journey I am studying among parents of gender-variant and transgender children. Of the sixteen childhood cases represented here, ten are living as transgender boys or girls. My research trajectory includes follow-up work with these families, as well as additional parents of transgender and gender-variant children, so as to chronicle the budding viability of the category “transgender’ for young children and, in turn, society’s contemporary reckonings with sex, gender, and identity.

Elizabeth P. Rahilly is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her article “The Gender Binary Meets the Gender-Variant Child: Parents’ Negotiations with Childhood Gender Variance” is published in the June 2015 issue of Gender & Society.

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