News & Politics

Transgender Men Announce They're Raising a Gender-Neutral Child

(Image via Twitter screen capture)

Zo is an adorable 22-month-old baby whose gender is a mystery. Well, not a mystery exactly. Zo’s parents know what sex Zo is (meaning, what genitalia he/she has) but they refuse to reveal it. This is because they have chosen to raise Zo “gender neutral.” Zo is referred to as “they” and, when asked if Zo is a boy or a girl, Zo’s parents reply, “We don’t know yet. We’re waiting for Zo to tell us.”

Zo’s parents are both transgender men, meaning they were born women but identify as men. So it seems fairly clear (to me at least) that their decision stems from their own feelings of being “assigned” the wrong gender. But with fewer than one percent of the American population identifying as transgender, the likelihood that Zo will face the same issues his/her parents did is highly unlikely. Assuming that Zo will grow up to identify with the gender that matches his/her genitalia, surely raising her “gender-neutral” is just as damaging or confusing for Zo as being raised as the “wrong” gender was for his/her parents.

In a video for TicToc by Bloomberg, Nathan Levitt, one of Zo’s parents, explains his decision to raise Zo “gender-neutral” by saying, “We felt like there are so many gender stereotypes that get put on kids… and then so many decisions are made from that.” Levitt and his husband are waiting for Zo “to identify as whatever gender they want to whenever they feel that’s right for them” and they are open to the idea that “that might change at some point.”

The conundrum here is that Zo’s parents clearly believe that there is such a thing as gender — as evidenced by the fact that they both chose to change theirs. If there was no such thing as gender, then surely they would both have been content to live in the female bodies they were born with. So, they believe that gender is real, they just don’t believe it necessarily corresponds with genitalia. But, given the reality of gender, surely raising Zo without any awareness of gender at all is a harmful and neglectful thing to do. It doesn’t make logical sense to dismiss gender differences as “stereotypes,” and to insist you were born in the wrong body and want to be a different gender. Either there is gender — in which case we should be honest about that with our children — or there isn’t.

Child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Aron Janssen, director of the NYU Gender and Sexuality Service, is in favor of the choice parents like Zo’s are making. “I think people see parents who are raising their kids as gender-neutral as experimenting on their children,” Dr. Janson says. “I think that’s incredibly, incredibly wrong… I mean, every decision we make as parents we are experimenting on our children.”

Presumably, Dr. Janssen is referring to the fact that, as parents, we are often flying by the seat of our pants, not knowing whether the decisions we make will be the right ones for the particular kids we have. And that’s true. But surely, given that nearly 100 percent of Americans identify as the gender that matches their genitalia, this is one thing, at least, that parents can be fairly sure on.

Dr. Janssen goes on to say that “when it comes to a core sense of who you are there’s no evidence to suggest that anything that we can do as parents will change how a child understands their own gender.” He means that a boy doesn’t need to be told he’s a boy in order for him to ultimately identify as a boy. And this is true. But surely this also means that parents can (and should) make an educated guess about their child’s gender (based on his genitalia) to avoid confusion, heartache, and years and years of therapy down the line. Surely being told something like, “I know you feel like a boy today, but you might be a girl tomorrow” is far more confusing and potentially damaging than making an educated assumption about a child’s gender while being open and considerate of his choices later on.

Either gender is real, or it isn’t. And since even people like Zo’s parents and Dr. Janssen seem to agree that it is real, it seems fairly obvious that we should raise our children to understand that it’s real. Presumably, Zo’s parents wouldn’t wait for Zo to tell them that he/she is a human being — locking him/her in a cage at night and leaving him/her alone at home during the day until he/she told them that he/she was, in fact, a person and not a dog. The body that Zo was born with is a really, really good indicator of the gender Zo will identify as. And, if it turns out Zo is one of the fewer than one percent of people who are transgender, a stance of openness and understanding on the part of his/her parents should suffice.

As parents, we have a responsibly to support our children in their growing understanding of their place in the world. And part of that place has to do with what gender roles they are going to fulfill. Gender is real. Everyone agrees. Our children deserve to know that.