by: D’Lane Compton and Tristan Bridges
Becoming a parent is fascinating, but becoming a parent who studies gender and sexuality, and—for one of us—identifies as queer… well let’s just say that creates a whole different level of awareness and curiosity. Prior to becoming parents, we both had a fine-tuned appreciation of the ways that gender and sexuality structure our experiences and opportunities. Anne Fausto-Sterling draws a great metaphor comparing the onset of gender binaries to the process of water erosion. At first, the erosion (read: gender) may not be visible. Small watery tributaries begin to form—the arms of future rivers that could, at this stage, easily change route. Gradually, streams emerge, slowly becoming rivers. And before long, you end up with something like the Grand Canyon. Yet, looking at the Grand Canyon disguises all of the crises that the fledgling streams navigated—a watery path whose flow, course, and geography were yet to be determined. Gender, said Fausto-Sterling, is no different. It takes time to learn to think of it as permanent and predetermined when it is actually anything but.
Just to put this in context, let us provide an example illustrating this issue as well as the sociological imagination of children at work. It involves a trip to the grocery store, a bold 3-year-old girl and her mother. At the checkout line, the girl trotted up to Tristan’s cart with her mother, pointed at Tristan’s son, and asked her mother, “Is that little baby a boy or a baby girl?” The mother looked at Tristan. He smiled, revealing nothing. “That’s… um… a boy, honey,” the mother responded, with a questioning tone (guarding, I’m assuming for the possibility of having mistaken a him for a her). “Why?” the little girl asked. Rolling her eyes at Tristan, the mother looked down and gave that classic parenting response—“Because!” she said. “Will he always be a boy?” she continued. The mother awkwardly chuckled, shrugging her shoulders, grinning and shaking her head at Tristan. “Yes, honey,” she laughed, “He’ll always be a boy.” And with that, they moved on.
The questions seemed odd to the mother, but the little girl clearly wasn’t joking. And she learned something significant in the interaction, even if her mother wasn’t actively teaching a lesson. In fact, some of the most important lessons we teach children are probably not on purpose—showing them what’s worthy of attention, what to ignore, what should be noticed but not discussed, and more. This little girl learned one of the ways that we think about gender in this culture—as a permanent state of being. To think otherwise, she learned, is laughable. This little girl seemed to understand gender as a young stream capable of becoming many different rivers. Her mother seemed equally sure that the stream had a predetermined path. And here’s where things get tricky—they’re both right. It’s likely Tristan’s son will identify as a boy (and later on, as a man). Most boys do. But treating this process as inevitable disguises the fact that… well… it’s not. This question came out of a 3-year-old because she’s actually in the process of acquiring what psychologists refer to as “gender constancy”—an understanding of gender as a permanent state of being. She’s not there yet, but interactions like the one discussed above are fast helping her along. These beliefs are institutionalized throughout our culture in ways that don’t make interactions like these completely predetermined, but make them much more likely.