While I was pregnant, the single most common question I was asked by strangers and acquaintances alike was a variation of this one:
“Do you know the gender?”
“Do you know the sex?”
“Do you know what are you having?”
Now, as a new mom, the questions have taken only a slightly different form:
“Is that a boy or a girl?”
As a feminist and a queer cisgender person with transgender people in my close circle of friends and family, these questions got under my skin. A lot. I was surprised at how rarely anyone asked a question related to how my pregnancy was going, whether the baby was healthy, or how being a new parent is going. I got these sex and gender questions at least 95 percent of the time. And they infuriated me. Why?
Let’s take the questions one by one:
1. “Do you know the gender?” Gender is not something knowable or even necessarily biological, scientifically speaking. Gender identity is something each individual develops and expresses as they age. So fetuses and babies do not have a gender.
2. “Do you know the sex?” This is the least troubling question, since it is at least scientifically correct. Babies and fetuses do have sex chromosomes. Every human being has them from the moment of conception!
3. “Do you know what you are having?” A baby is not a thing; a baby is a human. Using the word ‘what’ dehumanizes the baby. And again, gender is implied in the question as if the most important thing about having a child is knowing whether the child will fit into one box or another — boy or girl — and assumes these are the only two types of gender that human beings express.
4. “Is it a boy or a girl?” People’s need to know the answer to this question above any other when they see a tiny human of only 11 weeks old amazes me. Especially if they can’t draw a gendered conclusion by the clothes the child is wearing (not enough pink to clearly indicate “girl,” no bows or earrings, colors like gray or orange or green and patterns of dinosaurs or birds that don’t scream masculine or feminine) immediately. I wish this weren’t the thing most people cared about regarding my child when they are too young to express anything about their own gender.
But people mean well, right? A lot of the time these questions come from a place of kindness, interest, and seeking connection. All of this matters in a society where we experience so little authentic connection with strangers. At the same time, I have to wonder when people are not ok with not getting an answer, when they ask in a way that is demanding curious, not authentically curious. Is this question really coming from a place of generosity from all of these people? For some, yes. For many, I think not.
I think there is something at our deeper levels of subconscious or unconscious going on. Is it really anyone’s business what sex my child has been assigned? Since gender is not knowable at this stage of a child’s life (11 weeks!), people are really asking whether my child has a penis or vagina. That is completely inappropriate and weird! At the same time, people are showing that they are unaware of the ways that gender is constructed in our society, the ways that perpetuating the false idea that gender is a binary of girl and boy harms all of us and especially people who are transgender and gender non-conforming.
Listen, I didn’t know any of this stuff about gender when I was younger either, as a cis (non-trans person) who has to educate myself constantly on trans issues. But as I learn about the ways my trans friends were traumatized by being forced to wear tight dresses and stockings (trans masculine people) or made fun of for wearing pink or being more interested in making art than playing sports (trans feminine people) as children, I learn that the ways in which we force the gender binary onto our children really matters and is unnecessary.
We have to ask ourselves, are we more interested in learning something real about who this child is, or are we more interested in assuaging our own anxiety and having an answer for ourselves so that we can put this person into a neat category? We are living in a time of deep societal anxiety about people not fitting into outdated, inaccurate and harmful ideas of a gender binary as if the world will come crashing into chaos if we stopped worshipping the binary and instead embraced a beautiful spectrum of gender expressions. I personally would welcome that chaos. We can and must be more affirming of each other. We will all benefit, trans as well as cis people, by creating a world where we are each free to express gender in a multitude of ways.
I hope for my baby, who has XX sex chromosomes and no gender identity yet, that they will feel affirmed enough at least at home to express themselves how they wish throughout their lifetime, whether that be as a flaming femme, a tomboy, a trans guy, a gender nonconforming person, and/or someone with a fluid gender identity that shifts along the spectrum from day to day. The least I can do is be there for my child. I haven’t found a good way of responding to stranger’s questions and I’m 11 weeks into parenting — I’ve tried schooling people in trans 101 and that has gone horribly; I’ve tried ignoring the question and people have just repeated it; I’ve tried just saying “a girl” to end the conversation, but I’m not satisfied. What have you tried or what ideas do you have for how to handle these situations?
As parents and supportive adults we can pay attention to the ways our children relate to gender starting at a young age and be supportive of their likes and dislikes. As people who want to show interest in pregnant people or new parents, I encourage us to notice how automatic these gendered questions are, and to think of different questions to ask — there are so many other ways to show interest in a baby and in a baby’s parents! A few examples are:
1. How is your pregnancy going?
2. That’s a beautiful baby! What’s their name? They/them/theirs is a very useful gender neutral pronoun. I promise that using it more often is not as hard as it might seem. It’s really quite easy to avoid he/him/his and she/her/hers if you give it a try. If my father-in-law can do it, so can you! Also, if you find yourself using words like “pretty” or “strong” to describe a baby, ask yourself whether you’d use pretty for a boy and strong for a girl? It’s best to use adjectives that you would use to describe a person anywhere along the gender spectrum.
3. What is your favorite thing about being a new parent so far?
4. What new tricks is your baby trying out lately?
Let’s develop more affirming practices of babies without projecting the gender binary onto them, and of people of all ages along the gender spectrum. We will all experience more authentic connection with each other, and freedom to be ourselves as a result.
 Many people are not aware that there is quite a bit of variability in human sex anatomy, sex chromosomes and other sex characteristics, making even the biological categories of male and female too limited. Intersex conditions are at least as common as 1 in 2,000 babies. To learn more about this, check out theIntersex Society of North America.
 And eerily similar to the all too common and inappropriate ways that trans people are questioned about whether they’ve had “the surgery” or not; and the ways that gender non-conforming people are chastised for not presenting on the gender binary. Check out “Words that are Transphobic and Why” to learn more about language to avoid.