Friday, June 25, 2010

Is That a Boy or a Girl?: Talking to Kids About Gender

Yesterday Oprah aired her interview with Michael Jackson, in memory of his death.  Throughout his lifetime people speculated on his gender  based on his crotch grabbing, surgeries, hair, and high pitched soft voice, even though Michael publicly identified as male.  My children are not overly familiar with his appearance, even though they have heard his music on and off for years.  When the camera focused on his face, Destruction looked at me and asked, "is that a boy or a girl"?

The simple answer to that question is boy, but would it have been the right answer?  Normally, when I speak about gender to my kids, it is about recognizing their male privilege and the ways in which society encourages them to be sexist.  We have only had one other conversation about gender, and this occured  when I stopped Destruction from calling a girl in his school girl/boy last year. It is  easier to talk about sexism to a child than cissexism or the gender binary, because far less opportunities occur -- and I have been unable to find children's stories which feature trans people, inter-sex people or gender queer people.  I have always been big on taking teaching opportunities when they occur, and so I jumped on this quickly.

My first question was, "why do you want to know and does it really matter?"  He answered, "because that is what they always want to know at school."  I took this opportunity to point out that the way he phrased this question erased people.  You see I said, "some people are boys and girls, and some people identify as neither.You should not ask about a person behind their back, and if the gender presentation is ambiguous, you should ask the person which gender pronoun they prefer", I said.  At this point I began to explain about hir, ze, and s/he.

I know that this was a lot information for a nine year old to take in,  but he seemed to follow what I was saying and relate it back to what we had discussed regarding gays and lesbians, and how making assumptions about people is hurtful.  This was really tough for me because I still have so much to learn, but I felt that the longer I went without challenging a binary understanding of gender, the harder it would be for him to process. Even as I sat chatting with him, I could not help but worry that I was getting this all wrong.  Destruction is an extremely sensitive child, and I know he will take what I said to heart, because being good to people is just a part of who he is.

One of the ways that I actively challenge my privilege is my parenting style.  It doesn't always make me popular with the other karate moms, but I think that these are valuable lessons.  I don't remember anyone speaking to me about trans, inter-sex, or genderqueer people when I was child and in fact, the first lessons/conversations I had were probably when I went to college.  In some ways this reminds me of a White person growing in an all White neighborhood coming to consciousness. When you're surrounded with a dominant subset of the culture, your ability to learn and understand that the mere existence of your community is harmful, is difficult to comprehend. 

Destruction knows some of my gay and lesbian friends, but we don't know anyone that is genderqueer or inter-sex, nor do I believe it would be appropriate to seek them out for the sole purpose of acting as teachers to my child.  I do however understand that to the degree that I am able, I must learn to listen to their voices so that I can challenge my privilege and then teach those same lessons to my child. It is an imperfect system, but so far it is the only solution that the unhusband and I have been able to devise to ensure that our child learns to respect all people and to understand that difference is what makes us beautiful.  

These are the ideas that I am constantly thinking about.  In my daily interactions with other parents they seem far more concerned that their children perform according to all societal expectations for their gender, than learning to think critically.  Thinking seems to be something that we have thrown by the wayside in search of the white picket fence and the two car garage.  The end result is we become obsessed with unimportant minutiae, thereby; ignoring our communal responsibility to each other.

Perhaps we avoid confronting these issues because it means owning our complicity in oppressing another human being.  It is far too easy to go throughout a day never interacting with or recognizing those who have different experiences than us; action must be purposeful and thought out. To that end, I aspire to decolonize my mind and share what I learn with others. Perhaps if I do my job correctly, my children will have a shorter road to mental and social emancipation than I did.