Why do we go around referring to people—literally naming people—by what we think is between their legs, or the gender they present, rather than simply the way that they would like to be referred to?
When someone tells me their name, I refer to them by their name, if I can remember it. I don’t refer to them by a name that I think fits the way that they “appear” to me, and I don’t give them a name that I think matches a part of their body that I am almost never allowed to see in almost any public situation.
The more I think about how bizarre it is that we refer to anyone, let alone children, by their genitalia and divide them along these lines of him and her reveals its own ridiculousness. What reason do we possibly have to do this to each other if we say that children should not be sexualized and “should have” freedom from sexuality?
Some children do not even learn about sexuality or their bodies—how can they possibly be prepared to be constantly named for the genitalia they have (or are presumed to have). Surely people need to learn things about their own body parts, in fact, their entire bodies. They should understand the unique way their body functions in the world. They should understand how to clean their specific genitalia—and again, this is specific to their bodies (it is, for example, not necessarily true that all advice pertaining to how to clean, or pee with penises will pertain to how my kid relates to their penis).
But beyond the body itself, what things in life do people who have penises need to learn that is different from what people who have a vulva need to learn?
Its not that we are gendering each other, we are sexing each other, guessing at each others genitalia. Even when we know the preferred pronoun someone has, we still assess them by the way in which they present (to us, at that moment).
What are we hoping to understand or know about a person by knowing their sex? Is it because we would like to understand how we can relate to them sexually? And vis a vis a child—why is this important? Is it because we are trying to understand whether or not we can depend on them in certain ways, predict their behavior, their actions, in certain situations? What keeps us from simply wanting to learn about what they offer to the world, what their passions are, seeing their body mass, discerning their strengths and weaknesses through conversation, through physical interaction?
My coparents and I have recently decided that we will more actively try to refer to our child with gender neutral pronouns. Our child has a vulva and we are sure to teach them about it, how to care for it, how to use the bathroom properly. No, we have not yet talked to them about experiencing pleasure with their vulva—though they have already experimented a bit. We have spoken to our child about how babies are made and born, and we have spoken about the parts inside the body, the ovaries and the fallopian tubes, the uterus. We have shown them how to keep their vulva healthy, how to clean it properly, the differences between their anus, their vagina, their urethra.
Our child has also been exposed to naked trans-bodies (because of their parents) and to the interchangeability of gendered pronouns. They have been exposed to the idea that gendered pronouns do not have a consistent relationship to genitalia. They have also been exposed to ideas of changing the body, of modifying it. They have suggested to me that maybe I might want to cut off my breasts, that they might do that when they are older. That maybe when they are older they will get a penis. They are gaining experiences that are challenging how one might view sex as static, not to mention the way that gender is not static.
I have a lot of hope for the new generations, even when our child still comes home from school and has picked up that certain kids “should not” or “should” wear certain kinds of clothing. They are receiving these tired signals. But I believe they can soon tire out. And I believe that we have the power to switch our linguistic habits to bury some of the binaries we are presented with.
Lets challenge ourselves to ask someone’s pronoun preference, and when we don’t know what their preference is, lets use neutral pronouns.