In my last post, I wrote about getting Emerson evaluated for ADHD. For one reason or another, it took a while to get it done and finally get the report. The reason for the delay in getting the educational psychologist’s report was because of the other major development of the school year, which can best be summed up by a TikTok Emerson sent me a couple of months ago about what kids got during the pandemic, along these lines:
First kid: “I got a cat!”
Second kid: “I got a new game console!”
Third kid: “I got a new gender identity!”
Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while have read about my daughter Emma. But one of the developments of the past several months is that I now have a teen named Emerson, who identifies as agender, a subset of nonbinary. Pronouns: any. I tend to use they/them, though they still accept she or he, as well as any of the newer pronouns that have emerged to expand the English language’s ability to deal with the recognition of gender identities. Agender people are just that; they have no gender. They identify as a person. When Emerson told me they were agender, they pointed to their realization that gender is a social construct and their lack of affinity for any particular gender.
When I have a chance, I’ll go back through my blog and replace all the “Emmas” with “Emersons.” It’s only been about four months, but “Emma” seems completely wrong to me now. It’s funny; I chose the name Emma years before I even thought I would have a baby. It was one of those, “If I ever have a kid, I’ll name her Emma.” Emma was my mother’s mother’s name, as well as the name of one of my lifelong heroes, Emma Goldman. I never thought of a boy’s name, and for the part of my pregnancy when I wasn’t sure what I would have, I had a very hard time coming up with one. Fortunately, or so I thought at the time, I didn’t really have to. As it turns out, I was wrong about the gender of the person I gave birth to, though I did the best I could with the information I had at the time. It’s made me think even more than I used to about what a mistake it is to become particularly invested in your child’s gender before you have a chance to get to know them as a person.
American society is much more attached to the gender binary than it was when I was growing up. I was labelled a “tomboy” as a child, but I didn’t feel particularly constrained by gender norms in my clothes or my play most of the time. There were certainly “boy’s” and “girl’s” sections at the department stores, but there were plenty of gender-neutral options, and no one looked at me askance when I wore hand-me-downs from my brother or played with cars or spaceships. The pink and blue aisles that Target now has solidify something that wasn’t nearly as rigid in the early 1970s. On the other hand, if I were growing up now, I might not think of myself necessarily as a “girl;” I am actually not entirely sure how much thought I put into it then. Maybe because I had an older brother, and parents who were not particularly invested in my being a girl child (until later, but that’s another story), I was perfectly happy mutilating my Barbies (cutting their hair short and drawing beards on them), collecting Hot Wheels, and eventually developing an obsession with science fiction books, movies, and television.
Once I had my own child, I became quickly horrified by the extent to which parents, as well as clothing and toy manufacturers, imposed specific gender identities on children, at ages when they can’t possibly know what gender their child will be. It begins before birth, with the now notorious and completely ridiculous “gender reveal” parties that will soon go the way of the dinosaurs if we have any sense as a society. I was so opposed to my child being gendered before birth that I pretended ignorance of any fetal genitalia so that when my friends at UCSD, where I was a graduate student, threw me a baby shower, it would be green rather than pink (a color I revile).
I could write a book about what it’s been like raising a child in a society that largely insists that everyone is either male or female from conception, that it’s somehow all about the genitals. I tried not to impose anything on Emerson, feeling confident that if they were presented with a range of options (whether clothing, toys, books, or activities), they would find what they liked. I tried to use gender neutral language as much as possible (I referred to myself as their parent more often than mother or mom; I referred to them as my child or kid more often than daughter; in fact, for years I felt awkward referring to them as my daughter). And much of the gendering of clothes and toys and such has been about the commercialization of certain visions of gender that many people have been willing to accept. Parents who insisted on rigidly gendering their kids made me intensely uncomfortable, and they still do. Because honestly, you never know what your kid will turn out to be.
Emerson had been asking about and talking about nonbinary people for a couple of years already when they finally sat down next to me on the sofa in mid-March of this year and asked me what I thought of the name “Emerson.” I said that I thought it was a good name. I really do like it. Emerson then told me they were thinking of going by Emerson because it was more gender neutral, and using “all the pronouns.”
A whole lot of things clicked.
This was also around the time I was starting to seek out someone to evaluate Emerson for ADHD. When I first spoke to the psychologist we ended up going to on the phone, my kid was still going by “Emma” and “she,” but by the time we went to our first appointment, they were Emerson.
I had been reading everything I could about ADHD at this point, and one of the things I’d read a few times was that a higher percentage of neurodiverse people also tended to be transgender or queer. Which is why I was surprised that an educational psychologist specializing in assessing neurodiverse kids and adults had fairly rigid ideas about gender. He seemed completely unable to take Emerson’s word that they were agender, or to try to understand what that meant. He had heard of nonbinary, at least. But he wrote in his initial report that Emerson was my “son” and referred to them as “he” throughout. When he told me this, he said it was because he “could see that’s the way things are going.” His idea of gender was so attached to a binary that a trans person could only be transitioning between female and male, and not to anything else. At least he perceived Emerson as transgender and didn’t try to stick to “she.” But I thought, surely given the community he served, he should recognize other possibilities. And listen to other people. But getting the report revised caused a significant delay, and we were already in Mongolia by the time he emailed it to me.
Emerson said I should have just left it, because they don’t care, but since it was something I was likely to show the school, I wanted it to be somewhat accurate. Emerson recognizes that their gender identity is a work in progress, but at least at this time they do identify in a certain way, and I feel like people should be able to honor that. I realize Emerson is not going to have an easy time because there is still so much bigotry about gender identity, but when it’s possible, I can try to inform people along the way and support Emerson as much as possible. (I’ve written this post with Emerson’s permission and approval, as well. They are open about their identity.)
One thing I know Emerson will have to navigate is societies where gender identities are even more rigidly binary than they are in the US. American society has benefitted from several generations of activists, and despite the commercialization of gender I was mentioning earlier, many people seem more accepting of a variety of gender identities than used to be the case. This is not necessarily so in many other places where rigid gender roles and identities are the norm, at least on the surface.
I am sure many of you are wondering about Mongolia at this point. I am, too. It’s something we’ll be learning more about. I know that there is a nascent movement in support of LGBTQ+ rights, and that there has been some legal recognition of these rights. Mongolia has been one of the first Asian countries to identify attacks based on gender identity and sexuality as hate crimes. I also know that people are allowed to change their gender on official documents since a 2009 amendment to the Civil Registration Law. However, I know there is also a strong bias against the LGBTQ+ community and that attacks on its members are seldom prosecuted.
No doubt, this development in our lives will bring many new experiences and challenges. One of the things I love about Emerson’s generation is how accepting they can be, and how smart they are about recognizing the incredible variety of human experience. Of course, there are still young bigots, often raised by bigoted parents, but there’s a substantial community of young people who are actively exploring all sorts of different ways to be in the world. It gives me hope.
3 thoughts on “Catching my breath, part 2”
Thank you for this essay. It’s interesting that you feel the early seventies was less rigidly gender-binary than now. I’m not sure that was the case socially, though I think you are correct that binary gender has become more commodified. I’ll have to think about it.
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It’s possible that it was because I was raised by a Swiss mother, and Europeans generally didn’t enforce gender in childhood as much as Americans. I feel like there was a moment in the early to mid-70s when childhood wasn’t as gendered partly as a response to the 1960s social movements (think of the whole “unisex” phenomenon, too), but the Reagan years put a stop to it (or such is my impression). One example is LEGOs – they were all basically the same and gender-neutral in the 1970s. I’m not sure when they started making pink LEGO sets for girls (the Friends series was created in 2012), but now there are definite gender lines in the LEGO sets, especially for ages 5 or 7 and up, and even color-coded buckets of bricks. And there’s been a trend to make toys that encourage STEM specifically for girls (like GoldiBlox), rather than encouraging children to play with gender neutral toys.