Babies and gender: where I’m at now

Before my baby existed in any way at all, I had decided how I was going to handle the whole birth-assigned-sex/gender thing. You can read the whole post about it, but my basic approach was that I would go ahead and use whatever pronouns most commonly align with the baby’s birth-assigned sex, while also avoiding gendering the baby in other ways.

This is, in fact, the way I’ve been approaching my baby’s gender (though I will be using ‘they’ pronouns for the baby on this blog, at least for now. I can’t quite articulate my reasons for this right now). It’s definitely a path-of-least-resistance approach, but it seems fine for us. Honestly, though, now that I have a nearly-one-year-old (OMG!), I am mostly just amazed at how ridiculously, transparently deluded most people’s perceptions of baby gender are.

Seriously, though. Other than the fact that they’re statistically likely to identify with the gender commonly associated with their birth-assigned sex, I really don’t think my baby has a gender yet, nor could I really guess at what their gender will be. Heck, at this age babies apparently don’t recognize themselves in a mirror, their sense of self is just that nearly-non-existent.

People really, really love to insist that baby’s genders are just so apparent from birth though! Oh, sure, little Susie was just born knowing how to shop, you say*? And Bobby, wouldn’t you know it, he’s been just *obsessed* with breasts since the day he was born (LOLOLOLOL!!!)? Obviously our culture’s current particular understanding of the gender binary is completely natural and not at all learned.

Meanwhile, depending on what my baby is wearing, they’ve been declared everything from “what a perfect boy” to “such a pretty little girl”. I promise you they were exactly the same baby each time.

I really just don’t perceive my baby as a gendered being at this point (which was sort of my goal – I don’t want the way I treat them to be coloured by their probable gender, and the best way to avoid sub-consciously doing that is prevent my sub-conscious from seeing them in a gendered way in the first place.) Though I also realize that saying I don’t perceive them that way doesn’t make it true.

But, I’m pretty sure I’ve actually pulled it off! The reason: after my parents’ most recent visit, my father sent me a message saying that he loves my baby, except he called the baby my “daughter”. And I was momentarily confused and didn’t know what he was talking about? Because I don’t have one of those? I just have a baby. (Who will soon be a toddler, and a child…) Like, I think that I had literally never thought that word in connection to my baby.

So that’s something!

*There’s a lot to unpack here, but in all seriousness, in one of the baby groups I sometimes go to, one of the facilitators(!) waxed poetic about how she’s sure girls are born with the shopping gene or something. Like, properly went on about it. It was something.

Other People’s Perceptions

It is always really interesting for me to navigate interactions with new people, especially now that I am at a point where my gender presentation is effectively ambiguous a lot of the time.

Of course, unless I am in a particularly queer/trans-friendly space (and even then, really), unless I feel like having a conversation about my gender (I don’t always; shocking, I know), I know that at some point, probably very early on, any person I am interacting with is going to decide I fit in one binary category or the other. And I’m cool with that; I’m much cooler with it since I stopped being put exclusively in the “F” box, I must say. And this isn’t because I think there’s something wrong with being female, or being feminine, or being perceived as either of those things, it’s just that I enjoy the novelty of the “M” box, and also simply that getting a mixture of conclusions from people on my gender tells me that I am sending complex signals that don’t really fit either, and that in all cases people are rounding me into (not really up or down) whatever category they put me in mentally.

ink3A lot of the time I don’t even know what I’m seen as; most day-to-day interactions with strangers don’t extend that far, unless the person in question wants to use a formal form of address (ma’am/miss/lady/sir – why are there so man more words for women, seriously?) Sometimes someone will peg me as male base don appearance and then decide that I am “actually” female when I speak to them. Sometimes they apologize. At this point I just brush aside or generally ignore all gendered forms of address, and also the subsequent apologies therefor and push forward with the actual interaction and the business at hand. It seems to work.

Then there are the weirder experiences, where I am having more of an honest-to-goodness conversation with someone, and their perception of my gender becomes relevant to the conversation because they want to commiserate with me on some sort of gender essentialism (i.e. some sort of “I mean, as a girl, you totally understand…” or whatever). And sometimes I do understand whatever thing, and I’m happy to commiserate, but a lot of the time I’m just left with a very weird feeling. Like, I simply don’t know what some people see when they look at me. I know, because of the contradictions in the ways I am read, that they can’t possible just be seeing simply another girl, (let a alone a straight one, although most people insist on assuming straightness against all possible signals to the contrary; le sigh). It seems to me that some people (and it definitely isn’t everyone), upon deciding which box I fit in, selectively ignore all signals to the contrary, and don’t even really see me anymore. They just see a generic dude or woman, as the case may be.

And it’s very, very strange. And I mean, I rarely talk to people about what they see when they look at me, so I don’t really know. I am not super concerned about it with my friends, or people close to me, because I know that what they see is, at the end of the day, a multi-faceted and complex person. I know their perspectives on me will be different than my own; we are all working with different subsets of information. But I know that they see me as way more than just my gender, and that’s why coming out to them about it didn’t really matter or make a difference in my relationships with them.


There is still something so very powerful to me when someone reflects my internal sense of myself, including my gender, back to me. My husband is really, really, wonderfully good at this, at hearing the things I say about how I feel about myself, and the words I use to talk about and describe my experience of myself, and really taking them on. He accepts these things without question in a way that I think many other people aren’t really able to (and I don’t even remotely blame other people for this – binary thinking is deeply entrenched) and reflects them back to me in ways that make me feel truly seen.

The funny thing is, I don’t even know what he sees when he looks at me, either. I doubt that he is any better at escaping binary thinking and perceptions than I am, really. But it doesn’t even matter. Having someone else in my life who consciously and conscientiously takes on my inner sense of my self in the way he does does wonders to reduce my sense of burden of carrying it around by myself.

Basically, all I really want to say is that this is one of many things he does (and it’s really a simple matter of well-chosen words) that make me feel utterly awed and… just so fucking lucky, at how loved I am.

(Thank you, my love, for giving me a safe space to figure out who I was, even when you didn’t know that was what you were doing, and for sticking with me through it all. I don’t think you really know how much all of the little things you do impact me, but I don’t know if I would have had the strength for all of this without you <3)

The relative nature of gender presentation

The concepts of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are generally talked about as fairly well-defined categories. Now, this is not to say that these categories are at all concrete, and the definitions certainly can vary between cultures, but I do think it’s fair to say that most people can tell you whether x quality is more masculine or more feminine in their particular cultural milieu.

And I do say “more masculine” and “more feminine” there deliberately, because of course, things usually aren’t simply one or the other, and most people acknowledge that there’s some sort of spectrum here, and some qualities that are more definitive of either masculinity or femininity than others. (So, for instance, ‘having a beard’ may be considered more distinctly masculine than, perhaps, ‘being tall.’ Though both are qualities that are more often associated with masculinity, there’s often more leeway for a feminine person to be tall without it being perceived as detracting from their femininity, than there is for them to have a beard and maintain others’ perceptions of them as feminine.)

Ultimately, what we’re dealing with is some sort of murky idea of the ideal embodiments of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity,’ wherein different personal qualities carry different weight as indicators of one or the other category. Makes basic sense, right?

But here’s where this starts to fall apart for me. Consider, for instance, this fairly androgynous person.

Photo by Alexandre Cicconi. Click through for the full set.

If I tell you that the person in the picture is a man, you’d probably think that they’re a fairly feminine guy. Very pretty face, eyebrows that appear to carefully manicured, and all that. But then, if I told you that the person was a woman, most people would have the exact opposite reaction, and declare them a very masculine woman.

So, is it as simple as simply adding up a person’s qualities and getting to their position on the surface of masculine-feminine sphere, then? The way that the descriptor used for the same person can change so violently by altering one piece of information (their sex) certainly tells us just how important we (society, anyway) consider sex to be as a factor in masculinity or femininity. The single variable of sex carries enough weight, in this case, to swing the pendulum from feminine-leaning to hyper-masculine.

But it actually tells us something more than that, as well. Because it’s not that we switch from seeing the person as feminine to seeing them as masculine. We switch from seeing them as feminine for a man to seeing them as masculine for a woman. We’re operating with different base-lines, which are determined by our belief about the person’s gender. In fact, the arithmetic of masculinity and femininity seems to be predicated on knowing (or guessing) a person’s gender. (Remember how I started out by describing them as androgynous? In this context, then, androgynous doesn’t mean “a mixture of masculinity and femininity” so much as it means “of indeterminate sex”, since we no longer necessarily consider them androgynous when we assign a sex.)

I would go even further, and argue that we use the metric of sex as a starting point from which to set a target for this person’s gender presentation. For every aspect of a male-identified person that is not distinctly male (i.e. a femininely pretty face), they become considered more feminine (though in this case, I would hesitate to go so far as to say that it makes them unmasculine – the two don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, either). And when we change, and evaluate the person as a female, we similarly notice all the qualities that don’t ‘match’ with the femininity that we as a society insist on associating with femaleness, and that are instead distinctly masculine (and in this case, I do actually think that the word ‘unfeminine’ actually might be applied by a great number of people. Considering that I’m being told that unmasculine is not a real word, while unfeminine is, I suspect that the societal recognition of one concept, but not the other, is meaningful. There is, perhaps, the implicit message here that while it is possible for men to be feminine – i.e. a lesser form of man? – but that women, no matter how unfeminine they may be, can never truly be attributed with the glory that is masculinity. But I digress :P)

It cannot be denied that we, as a society, evaluate people in vastly different ways depending entirely on our perceptions of their gender. A man and a woman expressing themselves in exactly the same way are perceived in completely different lights. And, while this example tells us nothing about how this affects the way people are treated, or the level of respect that they are granted, it is certainly something to be cognizant of in our interactions with others.