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.