Dear Bitter Butch:
I have an almost-four-year-old who is pretty far on the scale of gender non-conformance. I keep stumbling over pronouns here — my kid doesn’t really have a grasp on pronouns yet for anybody (sometimes the dog is he and she in the same sentence) so we don’t sweat them for now, but my kid, assigned female at birth, has been saying “I’m a boy” since about age two. We have not seen much wavering on this point.
We are solidly on the side of believing that Kid is whoever Kid is, and Kid would not be the first transgender person in the family. But Kid’s dad is resisting this all a bit, because he feels like Kid is pretty young to understand all the implications, and even more, because there is quite a bit of evidence that Kid has a three-year-old’s typically fucked-up notions of gender. For instance: “I am a boy because I hate princesses.” “I am a boy because I don’t like pink.” “I am a boy because I like dinosaurs and race cars.” That kind of thing. Kid’s dad feels like Kid is rejecting a lot of bullshit ideals of what a “girl” is, and that this is muddying Kid’s definitions and self-image.
As a parent, I think that three is probably plenty old enough to understand your own gender identity, but I agree with my husband that it is maybe too young for adults to be 100% confident that you mean what you are saying. (In other words: does “I am a boy” just mean “I like trucks,” or is it something deeper?) I worry every day that we are fucking this up.
On the one hand everything is great — Kid is beyond awesome, Kid is happy, Kid goes to a daycare where Kid is loved and appreciated and celebrated in all ways. Kid also has many examples of all kinds of different gender identities and expressions among the adults in Kid’s life. We would not dream of making Kid wear a dress or anything pink, and nobody that we know of is pressuring Kid in any way to be more gender conforming. But we still refer to Kid as “she,” and Kid has a very feminine name, and when asked I say I have two daughters. We still identify Kid as a girl. If Kid is still saying “I am a boy” in some unspecified future time, we’re behind Kid all the way, but for now, we aren’t there yet.
How do I help my awesome kid navigate a world of people who think that my kid’s gender is their business?
I am generally super good at (kindly but firmly) telling other kids what is or is not their business. I am also pretty good with the rudest and most aggressive of adults, who fortunately do not turn up very often in our daily life. I stumble on the in-between folks, who are happy to be educated, but … sometimes we aren’t in the mood to be educators, and I don’t think it’s my kid’s job to be everybody’s walking, talking after school special when we’re just hanging out at the park.
Would also love ideas for little scripts to give Kid. Kid is confident and outgoing and perfectly happy to say, “I am a BOY with a VULVA,” but that is not always appropriate, and I can also see that this is already wearing on Kid, at not quite four years old.
Dear Mom to Kid,
Before I make some suggested scripts, I want to take a few steps back. I have a few questions for you, and some things I’d like you to consider.
Is your kid upset when you use female pronouns, or oblivious? I’m going to assume, since you seem like a thoughtful and smart person, that the kid is oblivious and you’re just going default because that’s what the world assigned your kid at birth and you’re not ignoring an insistence on his part that you use male pronouns.
If that assumption is correct, my question for you is why. Why are you using female pronouns with someone who consistently and firmly self-describes as male? If one pronoun is just as good as another, why are you picking the female one? When will you arrive at this unspecified future time, when you’re behind Kid all the way? Why can’t it be now?
What is the downside, here? Do you think you will confuse a little girl about her gender and fuck her up forever by taking what she says at face value? I don’t think you will. (And for what it’s worth, I don’t think you’ll fuck up a trans boy forever if you take a year or two to adopt pronouns he prefers, either.)
I do think you should sit your three-year-old down and ask them: “Do you like us to call you ‘he,’ or ‘she?’ Or would you rather we used neither?” And then do what the kid says.
Best case scenario, your trans son is making speeches in twenty years about how his parents loved and supported him exactly as he was even as young as age three. Worst-case scenario, your daughter tells you that it was a phase or she was confused and you switch back to female pronouns. She will be making speeches in twenty years about how her parents listened to what she said about herself and honored it, even when it didn’t turn out to be her lifelong identity.
Ask your kid. Listen to the answers. Do what s/he asks.
I say this before I suggest scripts because it seems to me that a lot of the confusion here is due to you and your husband sticking with pronouns and definitions (daughter vs. son) that do not match up with your child’s stated gender.
Now, for scripts. I could probably give you better advice if I knew a few things people were asking. I’m going to assume that they are asking things like: “Is [kid] a boy or a girl?” Or saying things like: “[Kid’s name] is an odd name for a boy.” Or even: “Why do you let her play with Transformers?”
If your child has asked for male pronouns and you’re sticking with them, this will be much easier. If they haven’t, this is harder. But my advice – for people you do not want to engage with more than a few minutes, or for times you just don’t feel like being a walking ‘ school special,’ as you put it so well – is to just stick to the basics.
“Yep! Penelope IS a strange name for a boy. But that’s his name!”
And: “Goodness! What year is this?”
All of these lines with a smile. All of them very short. None of them overly explanatory. Smile smile smile smile. And repeat, if people push too much or start asking a ton of questions, like: “Oh! When I heard you say ‘she’ I thought a girl, but now you’re saying a boy?”
“I thought you said you had two daughters!”
“Penelope’s a boy, actually.”
If someone pushes a great deal, saying a vague: “Life is complicated,” or: “I don’t mean to confuse you, but Penelope is a boy,” and then moving on to other topics is a great way to dodge and refuse.
Because here’s the thing: refusing to engage in discussions of whether you or your child is a boy or a girl is a political stance. It is a powerful stance. It says: nope. You aren’t going to box us in. Nope. You don’t deserve an explanation. Not your circus, not your ponies. Nope, nope, nope. Go home and think about the binary, if you wanna, but this conversation is not happening.”
And that’s the script I suggest for kid: “I’m a boy!” or: “Yes, my name is Penelope, and I’m a boy!” That’s it. Nothing else. Just that.
Good luck. I think you’re on the right track. I think it’s going to be okay.
BITTER BUTCH aka Haddayr Copley-Woods is a queer, a cripple, a nerd, a mom to two kids with neurological differences, and has a truckload of opinions on everything including sex and relationships, parenting, disability issues, family relationships, work dynamics, gender/sexuality issues, and etiquette. You can reach her with all your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org