When I prepared to become a parent for the first time in 2005, I was staunchly committed to raising my tiny new human in the most gender-neutral of ways.
We had opted to not learn his biological sex prior to his arrival, and registered for green and yellow baby items, avoiding the stereotypical pink and blue at all costs. We declared that he would have access to all the colors, toys, and activities regardless of where they fell among societal gender norms. 12 years later, that child is an articulate, sensitive man-cub who is on the cusp of navigating gender and sexuality for himself for the first time. (Godspeed, kiddo).
My second child, however, has been different. I raised both my kids gender-neutral, but Nova has embraced that in its full meaning, shunning gendered pronouns and styles in favor of being just, well, Nova.
I’ve done a lot of growing and learning and evolving myself in both my parenting and politics along the way. In the past few years, what I’ve begun to realize is that, in many circumstances, these attempts at gender-neutral parenting may not be quite enough. In fact, I’ve been catapulted from gender-neutral parenting and have landed on a call to action to break down the gender binary altogether.
In the first few years of life, Nova was just Nova.
Gender wasn’t exactly high on my list of concerns when it came to raising them. At 5 years old, my kid already has lived and lost more than many folks do in their lifetimes.
From a complicated pregnancy and surviving the death of their identical twin, to arriving 16 weeks premature and weighing only 1 pound, it’s fair to say that Nova has been fighting an uphill battle from the start. They continue to slay every obstacle in their path, but still, as a person living with special needs and permanent disabilities, there is a lot of autonomy they are forced to relinquish on a daily basis. I didn’t want to make gender another choice that Nova didn’t get to make for themselves.
Initially we used she/her pronouns, and I put a dress on them every so often, but their gender still wasn’t a “thing.” We navigated our life and appointments, clothing, toys, and activities in our typical neutral way while defaulting to “girl” here and there. Around their 3rd birthday, however, along with an explosion of language and autonomy, came clear preferences that required more attention. They requested a new haircut that involved the word “bald” and refused to wear a dress “ever again.” Along with an even more androgynous appearance, new conversations and trends in responses from our greater world began to emerge.
Seeing people react to and interact with Nova has taught me a lot about gender in the wider world.
In medical, social, and educational settings, I began to notice how differently people treated Nova when they assumed they were a boy versus when they assumed they were a girl. When Nova was assumed a boy, they were called “strong, brave, smart, funny.” When Nova was assumed a girl, they were called “sweet, delicate, cute, kind.” Different dialogue ensued, different opportunities were presented, there were different responses to behavior, and it was both fascinating and unsettling at the same time.
It wasn’t just adults though. Among children, Nova was often asked by other youth if they were a boy or a girl, to which Nova would (and still will) respond, “I’m a Nova!” or “I’m a human!” When given this response, often, people of any age turn to me or another parent and ask again, “Is Nova a boy or a girl?” To which we default back to Nova.
What surprised me is how frustrated and confused people are by Nova’s desire to be recognized free of gender.
I have watched adult humans grow visibility annoyed and have had multiple people tell me that they simply don’t know how to talk to Nova without first knowing their gender.
It has been proven repeatedly that we treat even infants differently based on our assumptions of their gender, but it’s baffling that the gender binary, norms, and expectations have such a stronghold on so many of us that we literally cannot communicate without their constructs.
Why is this?
I don’t have all the answers, and whatever they are, the answers are admittedly controversial and complex. What I do know, however, is that my household is one with a foundation of respect. The arbitrary concepts of gender are still beyond Nova’s grasp, but with so much in their life out of their control, this seems like such an obvious and simple way we can choose to honor who they are. As they grow, develop, and mature, we will continue to respect the ways in which they evolve and identify regardless of who they grow to be.
Over the past few months, there has been a natural progression of language in our home to refer to Nova with the non-binary/neutral pronouns, they/them, because language matters. Because by choosing or using female pronouns for them based on their genitalia and nothing else, we ARE gendering Nova and contributing to the binary ways in which others see and respond to them, even if our goal is to remain gender neutral.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know where we go from here.
However, I do know that Nova has broken down the binary for me in such a simple way that I can’t pull myself back to it. In doing so, I’m not calling for a total elimination of gender, but rather an acknowledgment that neutrality may not be enough if our thinking is still rooted in a patriarchal binary that not everyone fits into.
Society may not yet be post-gender, but our home can easily be.
This story originally appeared in ravishly and is reprinted here with permission.