Another day, another stranger assuming my kid is a girl. This happens a lot. It’s November, and I can literally count on one hand the number of times in 2017 that a stranger has correctly assumed my child is a boy. Even if he’s wearing a blue shirt with a car on it, someone at the library will croon about him being “such a cute little girl!”
I get it: it’s the hair. By the age of three, most British parents have lopped their sons’ curls off. There’s a big deal made about boys’ first haircuts and treasuring their first curls, but I’ve done that annoying hippy thing of letting my son have bodily autonomy and choose when he wants his hair cut. So far, the answer has been never. Apparently this is causing problems, because three year old boys in the UK just don’t have long blonde curly hair. I actually get told this on a regular basis. People defend mistaking my son for a girl by saying “But the hair! It’s so long, and blonde, and curly!”
That’s right, folks: boys do not have long hair, blonde hair, or curls. Who knew girls had such a monopoly on these attributes? At least, this is what I’ve heard from grandparents at multiple parks, various pensioners on the number 2 bus, and a random person I met outside the Methodist church three months ago. My child is an anomaly. There are no other boys on the planet who have long, blonde, curly hair.
As it turns out, he’s starting to get really fed up with being misgendered. Not so much that he’s clued on to the fact that his hair is “wrong” and wants it cut (although I know this is the case for a lot of my friends’ sons, who prove that my kid’s hairstyle is actually pretty common if you have a hippy feminist for a mother). But he has made it clear that he finds it annoying when people think he’s a boy.
In his words, “Some people think I’m a girl, but not all people. But I’m not a girl, I’m a boy.”
We actually haven’t talked all that much about gender with him, but he’s always been pretty adamant that he’s a boy. He hasn’t offered any explanation for why people think he’s a girl, since we’ve never told him that there are clothes or hairstyles or activities that belong to one gender or another. It appears that no one has taken it upon themselves to educate him about this matter, which I’m grateful. I know that the moment will come that a peer or some random stranger on the tram will tell him that boys can’t wear X or do Y, and if I’m there, you know that I will immediately shut them down. If it’s some kid at playgroup, I hope that Quinn stands up for himself when one of his peers tries to destroy his love for the colour pink or My Little Pony.
Today’s announcement today was prompted by a stranger on the bus who repeatedly referred to my son as a girl, saying he was a “lovely girl” with “lovely hair” and even calling him “Mrs” at one point. Literally every statement they made about him involved gendered language. I could tell he was uncomfortable, but I wasn’t sure if it was because a stranger kept trying to talk to him, or because my repeated attempts to correct them with comments like “Yes, HE is a lovely child” and “HE does have beautiful hair” were to no avail.
When we got home, I asked him, and he told me outright that he doesn’t like it when people call him a girl. I don’t think he realised he could correct people before now, so I made it clear that he can tell people that, actually, he’s a boy. He practised saying “I’m not a girl, I’m a boy” a few times, as if to assure himself that he was able to say the words.
Since my child gets misgendered so damn often, I’ve made a conscious effort to stop assuming the gender of other kids. Yes, even I, with the long-haired child in the Frozen hat and clothes that are blatantly out of the “girls” section of the store, sometimes assume the gender of random kids at the park. I entirely understand why people do it with my son. It’s hard to unlearn the assumption that if a kid is in pink they’re a girl, and if it’s blue they’re a boy. But it can be unlearned, and it is possible to refer to people without using gendered language.
This is what I’ve been trying to substitute:
“That girl wants a turn on the slide” could be “That child wants a turn on the slide” or just generically “Someone else wants a turn now”
“Did you ask him if you could have that toy?” could be “Did you ask them if you could have that toy?”
“Can you move out of the way? That man needs to get past” could be “Can you move out of the way? That person needs to get past”
I have found it a little awkward saying “that child” instead of “that girl/boy”, so sometimes I just say “that person”. Since, well, children are people. Switching from referring to people as he/him or she/her to they/them has taken more of an effort, but I’ve made a few friends this year who prefer to use gender neutral pronouns, and it’s starting to become more natural to just refer to people as “they”, especially if I’m recounting a story about someone we ran into at the park and their gender genuinely has no baring on the story.
It felt a little weird to begin with, since I was used to only using “they” when referring to the plural of something. I also had this preconceived notion that saying “they” was impersonal, but now it feels a bit more respectful, especially since I’m aware of how uncomfortable Quinn gets when people get his gender wrong. It’s a whole lot more offensive to use the wrong pronouns with someone than to use gender-neutral ones.
I know that out-right asking someone you’ve just met what their preferred pronouns are might feel super weird to a lot of people, and I’ve only done it a few times myself. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that you ask the toddler your kid is playing with in the sandbox what pronouns they use, but you could just…not use gendered language when talking about them? Switch “Please give that girl back her toy” for “Please give that person/child back their toy”. It feels clunky to begin with, but after a while it becomes automatic.
Another option, when it comes to children, is just to ask their parent whether their child is a boy or a girl. I get the impression that a lot of people don’t want to ask, because it might suggest that they think your child is too androgynous or something like that? People are always super hesitant to ask, as if I’ll be offended that they can’t tell. As the parent of a child who is misgendered 95% of the time, it is so much less offensive to just say “Is [name] a girl or a boy?” I know I’ve complicated matters by giving him a gender-neutral name (which I genuinely didn’t realise was also used for girls until a few weeks after his birth), so really, just ask. Or, even better, ask him! He’s three, he can tell you himself.
I know a lot of people are going to scoff at this article. Some of you are going to say that I’m destroying the God-created order of the world by trying to remove gender, or something to that effect. But this article isn’t about smashing the patriarchy or deconstructing gender roles. I’m literally just asking you not to assume someone’s gender based on their appearance. And, more specifically in my case, proceed to act as if my fault you got my child’s gender wrong, because I haven’t forced him to look more masculine. People get incredibly defensive when I correct them about my child’s gender, which is one of the reasons I sometimes don’t correct random people in the supermarket queue. I don’t really want to have to defend my son’s choice of hairstyle or clothing to someone I’ve just met and will probably never see again.
If you don’t want to be one of those annoying people exclaiming “Oh, but the pink shirt! With the glitter! Of course I thought he was a girl!” and upsetting a child by making them feel like there’s something wrong with the way they look, you have two options: don’t gender them, or just ask if they’re a boy or a girl. You don’t need to apologise for not being able to immediately guess from the three seconds you’ve spent in the cereal aisle together. I know that a lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea of using gender-neutral language, so if that’s the case, asking outright is really the best thing you can do.
Alright, I’m done. Now you can tell me that I’m destroying the world by trying to get rid of gender.