My Son Is a Boy, and That's Fine
As a queer parent, having a son taught me how little gender matters.
Illustration by Kelsey Wroten
The ultrasound technician, waving her wand across my stomach—a hugely pregnant thing, gooey with conductive jelly—pointed to the screen on the wall and gestured to the tiny nub of penis between my baby's legs. "It's a boy!"
My wife-who-is-more-of-a-husband (WWIMOAH) and I glanced at each other with wide eyes and goofy smiles. Many times before had we mentioned how little we cared about our baby's gender; boy, girl, what's the diff? What even are such things in our post-queer-theorylandia of 2016? My WWIMOAH is a "girl" who has opted to lop off her breasts for pleasure, comfort and fashion; a giant skull and bones is inked where her tits once sat, suffering beneath layers of cotton and elastic. Her current hairstyle is anti-racist skinhead meets 70s UK punk meets androgynous runway model. If this is what a "girl" is, then we must agree upon how little information that word provides.
Right then and there, with our son not much more than an amorphous sack inside my body, "boy" meant nothing more than "in possession of a penis."
But still. As a queer lady, I haven't spent much time among people in possession of penises. Like many, I've had a father or two, and (like many) they've been disappointments, men who force you to take leave of them at some point if they haven't taken it upon themselves. Yes, I dated boys in high school, but their gothy hairdos were bigger than mine and we shared lipstick and eyeliner. And yes, I had some male friends, even some best friends, but they were faggots, and everyone knows that the very best faggots are practically girls, or at the very least as repulsed and mystified by men as the average lesbian. And yes, I've dated trans men, but their paths through the world often had much in common with my own, and I only occasionally felt the alienating values that I routinely experienced in the presence of cisgender men. Truthfully, males have always made me uneasy. And now I would be raising one.
Watch drag queen Merrie Cherry discuss her Drag Queen Story Hours, hosted monthly by the Feminist Press at the Brooklyn Public Library, that aim to support an exploration of gender starting at an early age.
"He's a boy—for now" was one way I answered the inevitable gender question friends and strangers alike ask a pregnant person. And once he was outside of my body, a living, breathing little creature, the gender slapped on him seemed both more and less absurd than it had when it was purely figurative. When strangers on the train would watch him gurgling happily in his stroller and ask me what he "was," it struck me as the least interesting, most beside-the-point question one could ponder. Who cares? But at the same time, the energy my son gave off—his vibes, and what I felt in those intensely intimate, nonverbal first months to be his essence—was unquestionably boy. As much as I insisted that it didn't matter, I also knew that it did; I just didn't understand how. Two years into it, now that the moms in our moms' club have dubbed him the "alpha male" and our relatives have given him the nickname "Fratty," I still don't know what any of it means.
As much as I loved my son's instinctive love of sports—his fascination, even as an infant, with watching tennis or basketball players at the park; the way the football games perpetually broadcast at our local pizzeria held him in thrall; the way he threw a ball with style and grace, even as a toddler—I also felt a little anxiety, an urge to "balance" him by making sure he liked "girl things," too. While out shopping, for instance, I pushed tutus on him, tiers of colorful tulle shot through with sequins or stars. "Do you want this?" I asked him brightly. His hand shot out: "No." Digging through a costume box at the library, I begged him to don fairy wings, sparkly headbands, velvety capes, all met with the same emphatic "No."
In my obsession with my son's gender, I have come to realize that my "radical" efforts only wind up enforcing the outmoded gender assumptions that made me crazy in the first place...
When he did profess to enjoying something "girly," like the unicorn sweatshirt I found for him at Goodwill, or Fancy Nancy books, or carrying his great-great-grandmother's leopard purse (stuffed with racecars), I felt an embarrassing amount of joy. I know of many feminists raising girls who do the same in reverse, fearing their daughters' love of princess culture may be toxic, searching for the antidote in train sets and sports. But in my obsession with my son's gender, I have come to realize that my "radical" efforts only wind up enforcing the outmoded gender assumptions that made me crazy in the first place, and which ultimately, I believe, harm our culture.
It is worth noting that my WWIMOAH shares none of my anxieties. She is only psyched that our son shows such athletic proficiency at so young an age. She can't wait to coach one of his teams, or for him to be old enough for them to play video games together. My WWIMOAH squares perfectly with my idea of the kinds of activities a female can enjoy to induce maximum cultural revolution—never mind that my own major hobbies include shopping for shoes that disfigure my feet, getting mani-pedis and flipping through fashion magazines. You know, "girl" things.
By affirming that, yes, indeed, baseball and matchbox cars are "boy things" and unicorns and purses (as well as mani-pedis and stilettos) are "girl" things, I'm actively working against the culture I ultimately want to live in, one where activities and animate objects are not gendered or employed to police the expectations we have of our tiny humans. When I realized this, I felt dizzy with overwhelm—is there really any way to think outside of our culture's gender problem if it's this big, this pervasive and insidious? But once I regained my equilibrium, I felt something else: Relief.
Acting like the dismantling of the patriarchy rests on the shoulders of my two-year-old son is madness. Feeling a responsibility to actively "queer" him is similarly stressful. At the heart of these impulses is a simple desire for my son to grow into a good man in a world rife with bad examples. Having scant models for good men beyond the queer community, it figures that my instincts have turned towards tutus and fairy wings, but like every other parent, it's my duty to honor who my child is in this world, and hold the largest possible vision in my mind for how his unique personality will manifest as he grows.
A photo recently made the rounds online, depicting a bunch of high school athletes—boys, really—in t-shirts that declared each to be a "WILD FEMINIST." In the wake of Trump's rapey comments to Billy Bush and his gross minimization of sexual assault as "locker room talk," men who spend time in actual locker rooms began speaking out about how unacceptable and abnormal such conversations are; thus, this photo was born. Sure, the designer that makes the shirts set it up as a photo op, but the boys appear to be genuinely down with the message.
My heart skipped when I saw it. It feels embarrassing to be so gratified, to so deeply need a model of young cisgender maleness that is blatantly feminist, but considering how popular the photo was, I'm sure I'm not alone. The old white men holding culture back will all be dead soon enough; will the next generations of males have a better, humbler understanding of the world and their place in it? I could see my son among those guys, a little dude among dudes, totally chill with calling out misogyny because duh, patriarchy is bullshit and feminism rules. While some boys will be girls, more will be boys, and this is how I want them when they are—horsing around in their locker rooms, wild, feminist.
This article is part of the VICE series The New Queer. Read the rest of the package here.