Queer Parenting for Heteros (and anyone else who wants to teach kids that being queer is awesome)

September 17 | Guest post by Jane Ward
By: Free Creative Commons Images for Colorful Souls!CC BY 2.0

First, what is queer theory?

I recognize that not everybody follows queer theory, so I want to start by saying that perhaps the most important thing to know about this field is that queer theorists have been fast at work defining and redefining the meaning of queerness over the past 20 years. Even though many people use "queer" simply as an umbrella term that is synonymous with LGBT, within queer theory, the term does not refer to an identity as much as to a particular mode of political critique and resistance, namely resistance to what Michael Warner called in the early '90s regimes of the normal (so this means all things oppressively respectable and appropriate, especially norms pertaining to gender and sexuality). Over the past two decades, queer scholars have been in conversation with one another about precisely what constitutes the "regimes of the normal" that queers are resisting.

So, for instance, Jack Halberstam has described queerness as living on the margins of safety and respectability and has therefore extended queerness to "sex workers, homeless people, drug dealers, and the unemployed." Queer historian Lisa Duggan has suggested that to be queer means to refuse the hegemony of domesticity, marriage, consumption and aspirations to middle-class prosperity. Queer theorists like Lee Edelman, Heather Love, José Muñoz, and Jack Halberstam suggest that being queer is to be tragic, or to fail, and that this is nothing to be ashamed of, as Halberstam explains, in a world that offers up people like George W. Bush as models of success. This turn to failure has been inspired in part by Quentin Crisp, the late gay writer, who was known to say: "if at first you don't succeed, failure may be your style."

So, in each of these cases, queer is delinked from both homosexual sex and lesbian or gay identification. Instead, queerness, as Foucault suggested, is more a "way of life" than a way of having sex, and this way of life is what has political implications.

But what, then, does all of this have to do with parenting?

Well, a lot has been said and written about queer parenting in recent years, but most of this commentary ignores the opportunity to actually engage queer theory and instead simply equates queer parenting with LGBT people raising children. But what happens when we attempt to apply the insights of queer theory to our relationships with children?

At the very least, we can conceptualize queer parenting as a way of relating to children centered on two possible interventions (no doubt there are more, but I want to get this conversation started!): 1) first, delinking "mother" and "father" subjectivity from female and male bodies; and 2) second, cultivating children's genderqueerness. The great news is that within this framework, all people—regardless of the kind of sex you have or with whom—have the potential to create, or join, queer families.

Delinking "Mother" and "Father" from female and male

My partner Kat is a woman who is our child's dad. Kat disidentifies with most of the gendered meaning assigned to motherhood, especially notions that equate motherhood with fertility, goddess energy, biological instincts, or the quintessential feminine. I am our child's mother, and although I am also very critical of these notions, they are more incompatible with my political and theoretical orientation than with my gender presentation, which is—for better or worse—quite normative. The fact that Kat is our child's dad is very challenging for most people, including (and sometimes especially) gay and lesbian people, who would like Kat to think of herself not as a dad but as a butch lesbian pushing the boundaries of motherhood. But why should the cross-gendering of parenting roles be so challenging or offensive to people?

The feminist movement has succeeded in disrupting the essential gendering of all other forms of work. Most people now acknowledge, for instance, that there are women who are doctors, and nurses who are men. But parenting roles remain deeply gendered and essentialist, such that female parents are always mothers, and male parents are always fathers. I understand "mother" and "father" as two distinct sets of job duties, stylistic approaches, or performative categories that should be available to all people regardless of sex or gender (akin to the way we now understand work and occupations). Cross-gendering the adult/child relationship (such as a child being raised by a female dad) demonstrates to children the social constructedness of gender in very practical terms, introducing them to a broader range of relational options for both female- and male-bodied people. It sets the stage for them to later choose, for themselves, from the conventions associated with mothering, fathering, or both.

Instead of flattening gender differences, queerness recodes traditional genders and celebrates their queer forms, such as transforming masculinity and femininity into butch and femme. Similarly, a queer approach to parenting recognizes differences that have long been associated with biological sex and detaches them from male and female bodies (some parents like to handle the sit-down emotional stuff, others prefer engaging kids in a series of physical activities; some want to parent fulltime, others find part-time parenting more enjoyable). So, while our ultimate goal may be to imagine parenting models that transcend the mother/father binary altogether, until we have achieved this total gender revolution, a queer approach recognizes that parenting, like all of our relationships, is gendered, and that we need not throw gender out of the picture in order to create just and fulfilling relationships with children. Instead, we need to be clear about what, specifically, we imagine are the unique contributions that femininity and masculinity bring to parenting, and then make those parenting styles available to all people (regardless of biological sex).

Cultivating Children's Genderqueerness

The second principle of queer parenting centers on the importance of cultivating children's genderqueerness, or their gender and sexual fluidity. The first part of this work involves simply refraining from imposing gender on children. I recall when I first met our neighbor and friend D., who is a lefty and dedicated stay-at-home father of two sons (J & C). At the time, the older son was a spirited 3-year old, the kind of kid who can run in circles for hours on end, and who liked to destroy toys, plants, etc. D told me the day we met, "J is a real boys' boy" and went on to explain that J. had once tried to hit their family's cat with a softball bat, and D., horrified, called a fellow stay-at-home dad for support. D was relieved when his friend told him, "look, this is really normal behavior for boys. J just has a lot of testosterone coursing through his system and he doesn't know how to handle it yet." D told me this entire story in front of J, who, as a result, heard his dad call him a "real boys' boy with testosterone coursing through his body." Of course another story that could have been told about J's behavior is that older toddlers—regardless of sex or gender—have a lot of energy, are aggressive, like to break things, and don't have a fully developed sense of the effects of their actions. Or yet another account could have simply emphasized that J—who is now a quite peaceful and more soft-spoken 7-year old—was a having a bad day when he picked up that softball bat.

Imposing gendered meaning on nearly everything that children do is a shockingly pervasive and, I think, very damaging, habit. D's description of J as a "boys' boy" is a phrase I have heard from mothers describing their male children as young as 7-months old, children who are doing things like throwing food, getting dirty, and banging on furniture (again, these are infant behaviors, not male behaviors). Kat and I have a male child (or, to be more precise, a child with a penis) who is a year and half old; his name is Yarrow. And we have observed as other adults explain his interest in mechanical objects or the pleasure he takes in organizing things as "boy behavior;" and we know that if he were perceived as a girl, the same behaviors would be filtered through that lens (just as gender is the interpretive lens that determines how we view adult women and men's behavior as well). Strangers in the supermarket who observe Yarrow's long hair and pink shoes tell us that he is a "such a pretty girl, and so well behaved."

Allowing children to form their own relationship with gender means not imposing gender on them, and this is very hard to do in a gender binary world where there is no gender-free place that we can find and inhabit. So, one way to deal with this is to actually cultivate children's genderqueerness, which means to make sure that children have as many gendered options available to them as you can possibly provide, with an emphasis on cross-gender possibilities. Many progressive parents take a kind of tolerant "wait and see" approach to their children's gender and sexuality, wherein they basically produce a very normative gender socialization and presume their kids are heterosexual, and then wait to see whether their child manifests any signs of queerness, which they will attend to should the situation arise. But even though these parents are prepared to love their children should their kids someday present themselves as queer or gender variant, they aren't actually communicating to their children that queerness is something worth celebrating now, as opposed to lovingly tolerating later. Queer parenting means that children are enthusiastically introduced to queerness and genderqueerness so they know that their parents really welcome any queerness that they want to explore.

Because heteronormativity and the gender binary structure all aspects of children's lives (their toys, their books, their peers, their schools, their extended family), waiting to see how children unfold is basically defaulting to heteronormativity. This means that adults need to actively place queerness in their children's paths—at least enough to equal the amount that children will encounter heterosexuality and gender normativity (which is A LOT!); otherwise, children perceive that being queer or cross-gender identified is not really an option, or at least not the preferable option. Queer parenting means that parents create a life for their kids that includes queer people, queer books, queer ideas, queer imagery, queer culture, queer music, queer narratives. And of course, heterosexual parents can do this.

Some people worry that this means pushing gay- or cross-gender identification on children, which is not the case. Instead, it looks like this: you and your child are playing with Ernie and Bert dolls (and if you have paid much attention to Ernie and Bert, you know they are two men who live together as life partners–you do the math…). While playing with Ernie and Bert, you don't hesitate to insert their queerness into the narrative. Maybe Ernie and Bert are getting married, maybe they cuddle or kiss—whatever heterosexual love/romance script you would enact with your child as you play with dolls, why would you not also introduce its queer corollary? Another example: you are at Target buying clothes for a child too young to select his/her own clothes (pre-2 years old?). What do you know about your child's fashion preferences? Probably nothing, or at least not much, if you have a 1-yr old child. What you do know is that your child has a vagina or a penis, but why let this fact determine which clothes you buy? Queer parenting dictates that you provide your child with the opportunity to be familiar with a range of possibilities: the full spectrum of colors, both dresses and pants, etc. Because if you only acquire pink or lavender or floral clothes for a female child, will it be any wonder if these end up being the clothes that she later reports are her favorite? They will be all she has ever intimately known, and it would take considerably more creativity or courage on her part to ask for a black hoodie (or conversely, for a boy to ask for a floral dress).

Introducing, normalizing, and celebrating queerness with your child is like introducing your child to a way of eating, or multiple languages, or a moral system that is important to you—you are cultivating a love of gender and sexual diversity in your child, because this kind of diversity is of value to you too. This is very different from telling your child that she or he is gay.

Raising children in queer ways need not have anything to do with the sexual identities of parents or children. Instead, queer parenting is about passionately and unrelentingly introducing children to queer ways of life, to the beauty and fun of gender exploration, and to the diverse possibilities of romantic and sexual partnership.

  1. Wow, so much of what is written here is what I do with my 22 month-old daughter, I never had associated it with a movement though. In our house our little girl can commonly be seen wearing a pink tutu and an orange monster shirt (from the 'boys' section) while running around putting her toy Spider-Man and plush dinosaur also into tutus! Her Elmo and Barney have been married on more than one occasion.

    In books with a child where their gender/sex isn't expressly stated we let her decide what we will call the kid with short hair and a green tee-shirt (often a girl because our daughter has short hair herself) and princesses have been renamed princes on more than one occasion.

    Her father and I are very cis gendered and follow a lot of norms there by but we often talk to her already about how jobs are done by who is good at them and likes doing them versus something decided by a person's genitalia.

    I am pleased to see that there are others who find the opening of options to a child important. What a great read!

    3 agree
  2. THANK YOU! I have been having a hard time explaining my queer parenting to more conservative family members in a non-defensive and accessible way. Thank you so much for giving me some language to use with them that they can both understand and hopefully accept to some extent.

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  3. "Introducing, normalizing, and celebrating queerness with your child is like introducing your child to a way of eating, or multiple languages, or a moral system that is important to you—you are cultivating a love of gender and sexual diversity in your child, because this kind of diversity is of value to you too. This is very different from telling your child that she or he is gay."

    This! Thank you for articulating this beautifully and clearly. And for being so unabashedly and thoughtfully and proudly queer. Big love.

    12 agree
  4. This is a wonderful resource for people who don't know where to start! Sometimes concepts are so large and socially engrained that it seems impossible to change one's behavior or to know how to introduce things to children (or anyone, really!)

    Thank you for breaking this concept down into such manageable ideas!

    1 agrees
  5. "…others find part-time parenting more enjoyable"

    As much as I enjoyed this entire article, this ruins the whole thing for me. There is no such thing as part-time parenting. How can there be? By becoming a parent, you have committed to loving and raising a little human being (whether biologically yours or not– and not all biological parents are parents, either). By saying that it is okay for a parent to be so only part-time, you are saying that the child will thrive with a persons attention only half the time. Regardless of how queer you parent, the point is that you ARE PARENTING– it's not something you clock in and out of, it's a life. You have a child, you are their parent, all the time, day and night, whether you feel like it or not, period. It doesn't need to consume your whole identity, but it is an integral part of who you are, always.

    7 agree
    • Hm, I think this is just a matter of phrasing really; I read it as an example of "differences that have long been associated with biological sex and detaches them from male and female bodies", in this case how in the traditional paradigm there would be a stay at home vagina and breadwinner penis 😀
      Of course once you become a parent you're ALWAYS a parent, but in this particular instance I guess we should take the word 'parenting' as something like being in the presence of, interacting with, your kid. And in THAT sense I wouldn't claim to be parenting while at work.

      6 agree
    • Oh no, this is spot on. As a single parent I would be considered a terrible mother if I ever publicly even considered that I might be better suited to weekend parenting. Because Vagina.

      2 agree
    • Oh no, this is spot on. As a single parent I would be considered a terrible mother if I ever publicly even considered that I might be better suited to weekend parenting.

    • "There is no such thing as part-time parenting. How can there be?"

      Maybe this is something queer parenting can explore. At the moment the model is that a child has two parents who are supposed to put parenting first all of the time. In this model donors and birth parents are pushed to the background to emulate the two parent 'ideal'. What if queer parenting can challenge that assumption? What if it can explore the space between uninvolved donor and full-time dedicated parent and see whether part-time parent is one of the options in that space? When we start deconstructing traditional family structures, maybe there are more options for what a kind of a parent people can be.

      2 agree
    • I get where you are coming from but as the primary caregiver for our child, I will be upfront and say his parenting is part-time. When I was growing up, my parents were divorced and my mom was the part-time parent.

      I wonder why the term is emotionally loaded for you? Do you feel it is a critique on being a working parent? Do you associate negativity with being a working parent?

      I absolutely do not and would LOVE to be a part-time parent who has professionals helping raise her children. Financially speaking, however, it is not in the cards. But my point is that I do not have a negative association with that description because I don't feel it implies less commitment to being a parent.

      1 agrees
  6. This is a great way of putting it… I will use it to explain what we do to other family members and friends. My husband and I have been criticized for not making our baby girl wear big bows and for not piercing her ears (this is common practice where we live, to pierce a baby girls ears as a newborn). We also put her in "boy clothes" sometimes. She wears shirts with motorcycles, animals, batman… Stuff we like… My sister did the same with her little girl, and my mother in law basically stated that if the girl "turns out gay" it will be my sister's fault. She said society these days confuses them enough, so we as parents should encourage the "right" gender identity from the moment they are born. I thought it was the funniest thing. After all, aren't gay kids also born out of completely "conventional" families??

    1 agrees
  7. I suddenly have a better understanding of why it bothers some of my extended family when my daughter is wearing boy clothing. And why I find it so difficult that they only buy her pink, ruffled clothing. I realized that I was refusing to raise her with an understanding of what it means to have a vagina as defined only by society and big retailers; I just hadn't put it into a larger context. Thank you.

    2 agree
  8. YES YES YES.

    Thank you.

    You have put into words what I have been practicing for my child as a way of life. It's lovely to see others are doing the same and writing about it..eloquently. Thank you. It actually shocks me that most GLBT families that I meet still follow the gender binary and "wait and see" method. Married same sex parents with gender conforming babies. It's wild. I love to see others changing the script. May I also note that other families I have met that practicing a wide array of genders with their babies just so happen to be queer heterosexuals. Go straights!

    2 agree
    • This doesn't surprise me though. LGBT parents are (almost always) already under more intense scrutiny than their straight peers. They may very well have made the decision that attracting additional scrutiny by actively raising their kids "queer" isn't worth it, especially given that just by being LGBT they're providing a positive model of queerness to their kids.

  9. As somebody who was raised by a single parent, and having been one myself, your descriptions of what a "mother" does, and who a "father" is doesn't fit my model of reality at all.
    Even when you remove surface gender from the equation, putting limiting definitions on labels is limiting. The same person – regardless of gender or label – can today be the one saying "Oh, sweetie, I'm sorry you fell off your bike. You bumped your elbow but you're not really hurt. Here, let me kiss it better" and tomorrow be the parent saying "man up and get back on your bike. You're fine." Depending on which one they need at that moment, and regardless of which is your natural inclination. (And yes, I have been known to tell my daughter to man up. :p)

    2 agree
    • Yeah, the essentialization of "mothering" and "fathering" lost me too. I think I got the point – that part of queering is defying the expected and normal gendered meanings, roles, etc, but I don't think parenting need be dichotomous like that. I am also lost at what the practical differences, let's say between someone who is a mother and defies the heavy expectations of what motherhood looks like versus someone of the opposite sex claiming it. I wonder sometimes if queer theory is more about the framing than the practice.

      But that is the difficulty, right? How to discuss a heteronormative world when the language available reaffirms it.

      1 agrees
      • That part lost me too.

        In my opinion, it is more useful to say "A father can stay home full-time with his kids" or "it's ok for a mother to coach little league" than to say "A woman can be a father".

        Talking about disconnecting the labels "mother" and "father" from gender seems like it reinforces the idea that "mother" and "father" are distinct and different social rolls, when, really, all parents are different and all couples distribute the work of parenting slightly differently and that is good an healthy and we should be encouraging people to mix and match traditionally feminine and masculine roles in whatever way works for their family.

        Of course, that said, if a woman likes to think of herself as her kids' "father" I am hardly going to argue with her about it. That would be rude.

        5 agree
        • "In my opinion, it is more useful to say "A father can stay home full-time with his kids" or "it's ok for a mother to coach little league" than to say "A woman can be a father"."

          The thing is, though, is that we can say all of these things — it's not an either/or, we don't need to choose. A father can stay at home full-time with his kids. A woman can be that father.

  10. why "queer" parenting? queer means strange/perculiar. how can you be pro-gay and then call it strange umpteen times?

    2 agree
    • Queer can mean different or unusual. as well. It has been adopted – particularly in the US – as a descriptor by LGBT folk, and allies. I think because it's more inclusive than "gay". (Which isn't wholly accurate either, after all, not all gay people are always happy. ;))
      Besides, more than a few of us are ever so slightly odd… and happy about that. :p

  11. First off, I'd like to say that I found this to be a well-written article with many excellent points. I'm very much on board with the idea of helping children to understand that gender can be fluid and that their genitalia doesn't need to dictate their preferences and expressions.

    However, I'm having trouble with this idea of 'mother' and 'father' needing to be linked to specific responsibilities and parenting styles. While I think parents should take on whatever title they feel best fits, I don't think that a 'dad' (female or male) needs to stick to traditional ideas of what a dad does.

    This difficulty is recognised in the line, "So, while our ultimate goal may be to imagine parenting models that transcend the mother/father binary altogether, until we have achieved this total gender revolution, a queer approach recognizes that parenting, like all of our relationships, is gendered, and that we need not throw gender out of the picture in order to create just and fulfilling relationships with children."

    However, the idea that we need to wait until everyone is on board with transcending the mother/father binary is problematic in that it is unlikely to ever occur. There are still many people who, unfortunately, believe that only men should be doctors and only women should be nurses (to borrow an example from earlier in the article). I have friends who are both female and have two children. Regardless of their parenting titles, they both take on all parenting responsibilities, including breadwinning, comforting, disciplining, cleaning and communications with school. Why should their parenting titles specify their duties as parents?

    1 agrees
    • I was a bit thrown by that too. I see "mother" and "father" more as versions of "parent" that refer to one's preferred gender (of course, it would be difficult outside the binary). In any case, I personally wouldn't use them to denote parenting style because I think that is limiting what men and women can be in a different way. For example, I like to build robots, but I would still be offended if someone referred to me as male because building things is considered more masculine. Why can't women enjoy that too? I would carry the same logic to parenting. If I had a kid I would be its mother, but that doesn't mean I can't also be the main breadwinner or non-stay-at-home parent.

      Granted, people should be able to choose their own labels. I'm just trying to make sense of why that part of the article didn't sit with me and my own values. But it sure is interesting to see how people have attached their own meanings to words that imply gender, and how they're trying to transcend the normal stereotypes.

      5 agree
  12. I am all for tolerance and understanding, especially when it comes to teaching children. However, wouldn't this approach simply be considered 'queer-friendly' parenting if the couple in question were heteronormative and do not in fact identify as queer?

  13. I am comfortable with the ideas presented by the author about "mom" and "dad" as words to describe roles not limited by the gender of the parent. I thought this part clarified the author's meaning:

    "Instead of flattening gender differences, queerness recodes traditional genders and celebrates their queer forms, such as transforming masculinity and femininity into butch and femme."

    Using butch and femme as an example of recoded gender differences makes a lot of sense to me: if you're involved in queer communities, you may already know that there are plenty of queer folks who do *not* identify as butch or femme. But those identities existing is great! Those identities existence doesn't take away from anyone who chooses not to use them. If an identity word is a comfy fit for you, use it, if it's not, ditch it and pick something else. I don't read the author as trying to dictate to anyone about what words they can/should use to describe themselves, but simply pointing out that we may want to consider reclaiming words often seen as off limits because of the gender binary, and that doing so will help our children more easily see that as a viable option.

    As some commenters above have brought up, it is fine to be a female-identified mama who encourages both toughness and sensitivity alternately, or a male-identified papa who is nurturing yet also fosters healthy competition in his kids. If those are the words that feel right in your heart, use them and expand and defy the cultural assumptions about what a mom and a dad can/should do. Other folks might like to choose a word that already has an established cultural meaning and "recode" it for themselves and their families (e.g. mom for a man who parents, or dad for a woman.). And it shouldn't be thought that you must be queer identified to do so, anyone should have access to those terms.

    I am a queer femme, and so is my partner. Whenever our own little one arrives, I predict we'll both be mamas, but if other words end up feeling right I am sure we'll use them. We are glad to know that other people are making unexpected and bold choices about identity words for parenting.

    5 agree
  14. yes, yes, a hundred times YES. Fantastic post. I wish everyone would parent like this. I strive to parent like this…Actively subverting heteronormative, cisgender culture. LOVE IT. Thank you.

    2 agree
  15. I am a single parent.
    My 2-year-old calls me "Daddy".
    She calls her grandmother "Deeda" (she came up with this word herself) and her grandfather "Papa".
    I have been following her lead as to what she chooses to call me, and respect what names she has come up with for her grandparents.

    As a single parent (my ex is not at all involved), I AM both mother AND father to my child. So being called Daddy is absolutely fine with me, because I AM Daddy as well as Mommy.

    My conservative, heteronormative parents, however, HATE that she calls me Daddy. They are worried that people will assume I'm a lesbian.

    I'm not offended by being mistaken for gay (because I am), and I want to teach my daughter this.

  16. I'm reading back through the archives while starting to plan for my own family and I LOVE this post. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this all out!!

  17. Some of this is absolutely spot on, but some of it really misses the gender point in an almost ironic way. Parents are parents and good parents don't assign roles. We are all a bit 'queer' in the wider interpretation of the term but I don't take on the emotional load because I am the mother and my husband does manage the discipline etc because he is the father – our genitals are irrelevant to how we care for our children. So I can't get on board with the labels; they're just semantics. I have no issue with a woman being called 'dad/father' ; I just don't understand the need. It seems to go against the premise of the artical.

    But I'm 100% on board with exposing your child to variations of normative set-up's. And the part about lovingly tolerating a non-heteronormative child as they grow older is spot on. I've always despised people and their tolerance of such things. Love is unconditional and you give your child every opportunity to thrive and become the person they would like to be.

    The clothing thing – I am never sure how I feel about this one. I'd like to think a slightly older child would have the opportunity to unpack behaviours. Yes, you can wear this dress but some people may find it weird, that's not your problem but you need to know it might happen… Etc. But having that conversation with a young child is hard; they'll be hurt if someone laughs or is cruel. How have other parents managed this?

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