“Raising Baby Grey” Explores the World of Gender-Neutral Parenting

“Raising Baby Grey” Explores the World of Gender-Neutral Parenting

A cursory look at some popular themes for the recent phenomenon of gender-reveal parties—“wheels or heels,” “touchdowns or tutus,” “bows or arrows”—makes it difficult to deny that boys and girls are funnelled into a gender binary that can be almost comically rigid. The first piece of information parents tend to receive about who their child will be—often, as with the gender-reveal crowd, before birth—is the shape of the child’s genitals. This moment of discovery can mark the beginning of a lifelong process of gender socialization. For some parents, the desire to know and influence their child’s identity starts when a doctor determines the child’s sex.

Even parents who want to avoid limiting a child’s possibilities cannot remove their child from a world in which clothes, toys, and playmates are divided, in many contexts, according to gender. Gender is one of the first distinctions children learn to notice in themselves and others, and, even as strides are made toward equality, it will determine many aspects of their lives. For example, toys that are marketed disproportionately to girls—dolls, princess costumes, kitchen sets—tend to emphasize domestic care and beauty, and toys that are more often marketed to boys—cars, building sets, action figures—tend to emphasize spatial reasoning and aggression. This system creates gaps in skills for both boys and girls, laying the groundwork for pigeonholing and disparities in power later in life. For transgender and gender-nonconforming children, the stakes of these distinctions are even higher. An early, fragile sense of self can be damaged as a child quietly endures—or faces the repercussions of defying—choices that feel amiss.

Can parents protect their children from the potentially detrimental influence of the gender binary? In a new New Yorker Documentary, two Bronx parents attempt to mitigate this risk by raising their baby in a gender-neutral manner, with the intention of allowing their child to choose a gender whenever the child feels inclined to do so. The parents, who seem kind and thoughtful, use they/them pronouns for their baby, a one-year-old named Grey, and dress Grey in a variety of clothes—sometimes a tiny polo shirt or, for an L.G.B.T.Q. Pride parade, a rainbow tutu. Grey’s father is a trans man, and the desire to raise Grey without the constraints imposed by gender is rooted in and informed by the suffering he experienced being treated as a girl while growing up.

Avoiding this form of harm is an ambitious and worthwhile, if Sisyphean, goal. So, too, is curbing the limitations of more general gender stereotypes—say, the assumption that women are better suited to care work than technical work, or that men have trouble expressing their emotions. And, like many parenting choices, it can make other parents feel implicitly indicted. Grey’s parents belong to a gender-neutral-parenting group, and, in the film, as strangers meet Grey and another child from the group, reactions to the babies’ pronouns take the form either of supportive befuddlement or invasive criticism. In a world that still rigorously categorizes people according to gender, this novel style of child-rearing requires that parents be perpetually vigilant and ready to defend their choices.

As a trans adult, I often wonder how my childhood could have gone differently. I use they/them pronouns and am not particularly attached to passing as one gender or another (though I do enjoy it when people cannot tell if I’m a man or a woman). I did not know that I was trans until I was well into adulthood—as an adolescent, I faced little resistance to my tomboyishness but later had stints when I revelled in femininity, and it’s still a mystery to me whether my pleasure during those times was genuine or the result of being rewarded for my performance. Nevertheless, all these experiences, from affirmation to confusion, inform how I inhabit my gender and relate to other trans people now.

Watching Grey’s parents navigate this terrain inspires questions about how Grey might one day respond to being brought up this way. Of course, it’s impossible to parent without error, and society does its share of damage, to many of us, without the help of parents. Asking a child to inhabit such a complex and politicized position is demanding, but so is asking a child to perform femininity or masculinity. I get the sense that many trans people would unambivalently prefer to have been raised without the gender they were assigned at birth and its attendant expectations. For me, it’s less clear. If my parents had made every effort to free me from the strictures of the gender binary, I might have rebelled against their liberal piety or appreciated their efforts—or maybe both.

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