Parenting outside the gender binary

Guest post by Aly Windsor

Loyal Offbeat-ists might remember Aly and Elroi’s Atlanta wedding. Revisit it here!

The fam! Photo by the ever-fabulous Our Labor of Love
When Ariel asked Elroi or me to write about our family for this blog, I was thrilled and full of ideas. Not only do I love Offbeat Mama, and consider myself to be one, but I’m also a non-practicing writer and figured this would be the perfect way for me to get back into writing more than quick emails and status updates. Even though Elroi is dissertating full-time, and I own my own business, and we have a 13-month-old who just learned how to run, I felt certain that I could carve out some time here or there to conjure up a little something.

For days, whenever my mind was free to wander, blog topics danced in my head. Sure, I could write a straight-forward piece about the disadvantages of being queer parents in the US. I could list all of the laws against us, or what it feels like to read that ‘”48% [of Americans] agree that “gay parenting undermines the family in our society;” [and] 45% agree that “because children raised by homosexual couples are taught that homosexuality is morally acceptable, they will have trouble learning right from wrong in other areas of life as well.”‘ (Shudder, clench teeth, sigh…) But we live in a major metropolitan area where the unrestrained hatred that other queer parents experience in smaller cities or towns is generally not socially accepted. While we are not allowed to marry here, and must spend thousands of dollars in lawyer and court fees to legally safeguard our little family instead, and yes, we have family members who’ve described our journey into parenthood as their “worst nightmare” merely because we are queer, and of course we’re angry that there are states in this country where adoption by LGBT people is either illegal or unattainable, we so far have lived a fairly sheltered queer family life.

Photo by Our Labor of Love

So then I thought I should write about gender. Elroi is a sociologist, specializing in sexuality and gender, partly informed by E’s own genderqueer identity. (Which basically means that Elroi does not feel adequately described by the terms man or woman, and that I spend a lot of time negotiating around pronouns.) When asked to find an Easter dress at the store, 5-year-old Elroi returned with a camouflage outfit. Elroi’s mom acquiesced as long as a dress was worn to church, and E, though not a hunter, wore the camo everywhere else through 7th grade.

I also wanted to write about struggles with visibility—how my queer visibility has dwindled to nothing, and Elroi struggles to be visible to everyone else as Avie’s other parent.

While that’s a funny story to tell now, we want Avie to feel as unrestrained by gender as possible. We began by giving him a gender-neutral name and attempting to dress him in neutral colors and patterns (which has not been easy as we expected. Baby clothes are so frustratingly gendered). As he gets older, we validate and encourage his emotions, and intend to support him in whatever interests he develops, regardless of the gendered implications of those interests. (Except for football which is off the table because Mommy has a head injury phobia.) Our hope is that Avie remains as passionate and expressive as he is now. We know that he’ll be pressured to conform to the social construct of maleness (“Boys don’t cry,” etc) by the rest of the world but we hope that our loving acceptance of all the facets of his identity will help drown out some of those messages.

Photo by Our Labor of Love
I also wanted to write about struggles with visibility—how my queer visibility has dwindled to nothing, and Elroi struggles to be visible to everyone else as Avie’s other parent. But also how, ironically, as invisible as we both often feel, we get stared at a lot. We’re never sure if it’s our tattoos, Elroi’s gender, that we’re queer, or if people are trying to figure out how a spritely 30-year-old such as I could have a son as old as Elroi, who is 35. Yes, Elroi has been read as my son before. Two or three times.

But then I realized that there’s so much more to us than laws, politics, social constructs and visibility. These things are incredibly boring compared to the wonder that is our child, and our family. Avie is our little sun, around which Elroi and I and our 4 dogs and 3 cats and 2 grandmas and multiple aunts and uncles (both the family of origin and chosen family kinds) revolve. Every day we cheer with him when he learns new things, and cuddle him when he faceplants, and laugh when he laughs when we sniff his piggies and pretend they’re stinky.

Photo by Our Labor of Love

In many ways, we’re just like any other family, which is to say that we’re special and in love with each other and stressed out and hopeful and tired and just trying to do the best we can to raise a little person into an adult with qualities that we value. And perhaps this is where we are different from some other American families. The quality we hold above all others is compassion—for other people, animals, and the self. How that “undermines the family in society” or could cause Avie trouble “learning right from wrong,” I’m fresh out of ideas.

Comments on Parenting outside the gender binary

  1. Beautiful piece! As a queer, but not genderqueer family, my partner and I wrestle constantly with providing better (less gendered, less het, less stereotyped etc. etc.) options than the world around us exhibits. It’s so tricky. Thanks for sharing your beautiful family 🙂

  2. Thank you for this! My partner and I are currently trying to conceive. Creating our queer family feels like the most normal, natural thing in the world. It can get overwhelming dealing with other people’s extreme reactions to our “alternative choices.” I think the more we tell our stories with joy, the more everyone else will see our families natural and positive.

  3. Love this! I have been ragingly curious about Aly and Elroi’s life-after-wedding since, like, 1997. A beautiful baby is quite an update!

  4. Thank you for the amazing article and incredible family photos! Sadly I agree with the lack of gender neutral clothing and toys for children. Its been one of my largest struggles as an expecting parent, and most of my friends are insistent on making sure I have either pink or blue, because its “normal”.

    All my wishes to your family for the future!!!

  5. Quite frankly, if I were caught staring at y’all in public, it would be because you are such a radiant, happy couple and that baby is OM NOM NOM NOM.

    • Ha yes that’s exactly what I was thinking – I’d probably stare at the hawt tattoos, hair, radiant love between you and your cute baby! 🙂

      Thanks for sharing your story and those stunning photos

      • I’d be another one in the staring camp. You are all so beautiful, and radiant really is the only way to describe the glow that sparkles right off you. I even made my fiance come take a look at your amazing photos.

        Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

  6. I just saw the 45-48%’s in this article and had to cry.

    I’ll never be disgusted at my own country, but a lot of the people in it really need to think outside of the pink and blue box.

    • Look at the numbers the other way. Over half of the American population *doesn’t* think that way. Can you imagine if this poll was done in the forties? The fifties? We are getting better.

  7. ahhhh sigh that was really well written, I really like the part about being in love with eachother and the family you choose, my heart skipped a beat the first time I was Aunt Shanna by a non blood relative, we have amazing extended family but well its nice having people you love that aren’t bound by blood. And we have queer family members (both blood and non blood) that have been through so much but by always being their amazing selves have proven so many people wrong about any preconceived notions, you all seem like such a beautiful and happy family!

  8. Lovely piece and lovely family. I sooo hear you on the gendered clothes thing, it’s insane. Nosy question that you can feel free to ignore, but have you all settled on a term for Avie to refer to Elroi? Or just by Elroi’s name? Or perhaps a term of Avie’s choosing?

    • I think that’s a perfectly good question and one we pondered for a while. Elroi doesn’t feel comfortable as a mommy or as dad. A few years ago, when it was just the two of us and 8 animals, I took a Spanish class. My teacher would often ask if we had any preguntas or dudas, meaning questions or doubts. I liked the way duda sounded so I would say it a lot. Somehow it evolved into the parental term the animals “called” Elroi. We thought it might work for Avie too because eventually he could call E Dude if Duda was too embarrassing. Avie is welcome to come up with his own terms for both of us too. (I just googled duda and found out that in Polish, it means “bagpiper” or “bad musician” or “one who makes needless noise.” Elroi’s family is very Polish so I’m thrilled that there’s a Polish link even if the meaning would better apply to me as E is the musician in our family. I’m the talker.)

  9. I live in Texas. (That should be enough said, but I’ll continue.) Most people in this state are… for lack of better terms, stupid. They are stuck in the pink and the blue and can’t see past it.

    Luckily, there are the open-minded people around here that can see past gender, tattoos, etc. You three are amazing. I applaud you two for giving that baby an amazing home filled with love.

    :] Your family is beautiful!

  10. I agree, baby clothing is annoyingly gendered. Luckily the choices get better in the toddler sizes and above. Hannah Anderson has lovely clothing that is not overly gendered.

    Don’t be alarmed/worried if Avie shows typical male personality traits (or is “all boy” as some people say–which is a stupid phrase anyway). Based on my own experience and my friends’ experiences as parents, sometimes kids show all the stereotypical traits of their gender with absolutely no input from their parents at all. My son was amazed by the semi-trucks at the rest stop when we took a road trip when he was 5 months old. We never pointed them out, he saw them when we got out of the car and was hooked. My friend’s older daughter saw the princess stuff at the store, and was insanely excited, even though her parents had never so much as uttered the word “princess” at home, and she was too young to watch tv.

    We just go with the flow. 🙂

    • We’re happy to go with the flow too and wouldn’t mind at all if Avie ends up uber-masculine. I am a very feminine woman and have always felt comfortable as such.

      But I’ve watched as other little boys in my life have been angrily forbidden from trying on “girly” dress-up clothes and I think that’s just plain ridiculous. Also, research shows that from the time boys are infants, they’re programmed to emote less because parents take longer to respond when male babies cry compared to female babies. Without realizing it, we’re programmed to expect boys to be “tougher” from the outset so they, in turn, become tougher. (Gender essentialists will disagree with me on this but there’s plenty of research to back it up.)

      So, when Avie hurts himself, we have a policy of hugging him while acknowledging that what just happened was painful and probably surprising, letting him know that it’s okay to feel upset, and then, as he calms down, telling him that everything is going to be all right. We think that if you immediately tell a kid he’s fine when he falls, it invalidates the few moments where he really does not feel fine and impresses upon him that he shouldn’t be upset, or shouldn’t express his upset feelings.

      Our goal is not to create a gender-neutral person, but to allow Avie to define his own gender his way. I can get down with princess stuff (as long as Avie understands the oppressive and imperialistic socio-cultural implications of the princess narrative…j/k!) and Elroi loves muscle cars so I think we’ve got Avie covered. 🙂

  11. Good golly, I remember your beautiful wedding from years ago and used your photos as inspiration for the radiant blue in my own marriage ceremony. How quickly the time has passed since your gorgeous day. Thank you for once again letting the internets glimpse a peek of your lives. I find you both and, now all three of you, quite inspiring and nothing close to invisible. Best wishes for your family.

  12. I agree with everything said above about the difficulty of finding gender neutral clothes etc.

    But mainly I wanted to say that your family is freakin’ gorgeous. GORGEOUS!

  13. Thanks for the post!
    Being visible as a queer family is something on my mind more and more these days since I’m two months pregnant and close friends of ours are three months pregnant. I know us pregnant ladies will struggle with being seen as lesbians and our wives will struggle to be seen as the future mothers that they will be. I would love anyone with more experience than me (my baby is only 15 mm long) to write a post about this.

    • YES! I would love to hear more about this as well. I’m semi-seriously debating shaving my head when I start to ‘show’ or something (and I’m rather femme).

      • I’ve struggled with being visible to my community and everyone else as queer ever since I embraced my femme identity around the age of 22. (I came out as a baby dyke in the appropriate lesbian uniform at 18.) The short answer is that I come out almost every day, all day long. I have a rainbow mom sticker on my car. If people ask about Avie’s dad, I explain that he doesn’t have a dad and that his other parent is my partner. I have Elroi’s permission to use the pronoun “she” in reference to E if I feel like I need to quickly make it clear to someone that I’m queer. It’s exhausting. But I have femme/passing privilege and I do think that by coming out all of the time, I help people realize that we don’t all look the same, we’re everywhere, and we’re actually very nice people. 🙂

        • I don’t have kids yet (or anyone living in my uterus) but this sounds a lot like my experience as a femme-ish queer woman in a relationship with another femme-ish queer woman. Colleagues and such are always surprised to hear that we’re not straight!

  14. Aly, this post was beautiful. I loved how you touched on the issues that your family deals with everyday, and ended by talking about how wonderful your family is, because that really is the most important thing, isn’t it?

    Although we are a hetero-couple (although not necessarily exclusively hetero-people), we also struggle with gendered clothing and toys. Everyone on the street assumes our daughter is a boy because we don’t dress her in pink or dresses. We don’t correct them. My partner explained his reasons for this really eloquently recently. He felt that Aspen would have so much pressure on her to be a “girl”, wear girly things, play girly games, that he wanted to give her as much time as possible where this was not a pressure she would feel. I have noticed that when people ask first, or realize she is a girl, they comment more about how pretty she looks, rather than who she is as a person. And she is already her own person!

  15. thanks for posting! The images of your beautiful family are actually making me a little teary eyed, there is so much love and sweetness!

  16. That is really well written, and interesting- from a ‘normal’ mom point f view (what ever normal is). I personally dig the pink clothes. Didn’t know I would until I had a girl. …I never really thought about all that you wrote about until now, tho. I have never faced the same struggles as you. …You all are a beautiful family. And your last paragraph sums it all up well. Good job.

  17. Oh yay! I love this post! Aly was a fantastic stand-in mom/petsitter to our kitties when Mark and I went on our honeymoon. Avie was just a lil womb-babe then. Time flies. Beautiful photos of a beautiful family. Aly, you are a great writer – I hope we’ll see more posts from you in the future!

  18. I LOVE this post. Our daughter Scarlet gets called “he” at the store all the time because of her short hair and gender neutral clothing. This was such a refreshing read, and your family portraits are just gorgeous.

    • We always end up with the opposite with our son Roland. He has his daddy’s big blue eyes and blonde curly hair, which he has a lot of. And even in rather gendered clothing (although I would have dressed him in red, blue, etc. as a girl too, because I hate pink 😉 ), I’ve heard him referred to as a “she” quite a few times in the year since he was born. People just assume I guess.
      I would love to see more posts from Aly and Elroi and their lovely family! Loved them on OBB and its great to see them here too!

  19. Aly, I found your post to be riveting and absolutely lovely! Your family is gorgeous, and “duda” concept is intriguing and cool.

    In trying raise Avie in an environment without typical constraints on gender expression (such as clothes and how individuals typically treat boys), do you choose toys for him that people may consider to be for girls? If so, can you give me an example, please. How do you navigate gendered holiday/birthday toy gifts?

    • Thank you! When it comes to toys,we aren’t opposed to “boy things,” we just want Avie to feel equally free to play with “girl things.” When we’re buying, we look for neutral toys like instruments or animal-themed toys, but when we lean to a gendered side, we usually go for girly. Avie will get plenty of footballs and trucks from his relatives, so we’ve made sure to throw in an awesome pastel kitchen we found at a yardsale, my cabbage patch doll from 1984, and a hot pink ride-on toy that turns into a baby stroller, etc. Eventually, he’ll be able to tell us what interests him and we’ll follow his lead on toy-buying then. As for gifts, we let our friends and family know before Avie was born about our desire to not bombard him with “boy things”. Most folks listened–especially when we pointed out that Avie’s possible future sister could then use the same stuff–and happily showered us with neutral or not overtly boyish gifts.

    • If they have options and aren’t called out for it, kids will choose what interests them. My daughter is pretty girly in the clothes she chooses, but her favorite toys have always been little plastic animals. All the dolls and Barbies she’s given just gather dust.

      On her sixth birthday, several people bought her Barbie dolls, all of them blonde, blue-eyed, caucasian. After her party, the Kid asked me, “Why did everybody give me the same doll?” I said, “I guess they bought you that one because you have blonde hair and blue eyes and light skin.” She looked at me with complete disgust and horror and said, “What do they think I’m going to do? Pretend this girl is me?”

      I kept a straight face then went and fist-bumped her dad. That kid’s the coolest.

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