“Is this a girl?”
An elderly lady, seeing my baby, asked my husband and me this question as we were waiting to get on the funicular to visit Bergamo’s Upper City over the weekend.
I smiled and replied: “His name is Lorenzo.” Except that in Italian – "Si chiama Lorenzo" – you don’t need to use any pronoun.
Nacho, my husband, said: “I guess we have to wait for him to tell us when he knows.” (Again, no pronoun needed in Italian.)
I was thankful that the old woman didn’t pay attention to Nacho’s remark because I wasn’t ready to get into a conversation about gender early on a Saturday morning.
But Nacho is right. When Lorenzo, who is eight months old now, grows up, it will be up to him to know how to answer that question.
Well, kind of. Because even as I write this, I need to be constantly making a choice about the pronouns I use. Since Lorenzo was born with a penis, this is all I have to go on for now, so I use the masculine pronouns. I could be choosing to use a non-binary pronoun like they.
If I were speaking German, I would simply say das Baby, which uses the neutral gender, and I would choose the word over der Säugling, which is a masculine term regardless of the baby’s actual gender. If I said das Baby, then all the following adjective choices would be neutral, and I would be quite happy to be grammatically correct and non-binary at the same time.
Of course there is also the issue of the name. We did think for a while of picking a gender-neutral name for our baby, but we were also trying to find a name that worked both in Italian (my mother tongue) and Spanish (Nacho’s mother tongue). As a name, Lorenzo already carries a lot of information.
I was recently in Sweden at the Uppsala Health Summit on healthy urban childhoods, and I got the chance to spend an extra day in the city to visit the Uppsala Child and Baby Lab. There I interviewed several researchers, including Christine Fawcett, who studies the social interactions of infants and children, including methodologies such as eye tracking.
In 2017, she co-authored a study on gender-neutral preschools in Sweden.
If you don’t know about gender-neutral preschools, they are for children aged 3 to 6 years old and they favour gender-neutral play and words, for example. Keep in mind that Sweden passed a law to include a gender-neutral pronoun to the dictionary in 2015.
The study that Fawcett co-authored compared children attending gender-neutral preschools with others in regular preschools, and found that children attending a gender-neutral preschool were a little bit more open-minded about playing with playmates they didn’t know. They also made fewer assumptions based on gender stereotypes.
Fawcett is currently applying for research to study how children understand gender by testing their facial reactions. When it comes to colours, for example, babies consider green and blue to be part of the same spectrum. So, when it comes to gender, she has many questions:
When are children chopping faces up into categories, and what kind of environmental input plays into that? Do they categorise faces as one gender or another, or is the binary categorisation something they acquire because of social inputs?
I am thinking about my friend Malina, who sews clothes for her children. When her son Bastian asked for a dress, she did not bat an eyelid and produced one with a beautiful whirling skirt that Bastian can use to whirl around like a dervish. He had heard so many people tell his sisters that they looked beautiful in a dress that he wanted one too. Plus, in school teachers told them that gender is not defined at birth. Other boys liked his dress, by the way, and everybody seemed happy.
So I hope Fawcett gets more funding to carry out her research, because I would love to understand how early children start categorising, and how that process comes about.
On the subject of names and gender, I remembered a Radio Ambulante podcast that profiles Micah, who was born in a conservative Jewish community in Mexico and suffered a lot until they could accept they were trans and get their gender changed on their documents. Although Micah was born a girl, they said they felt different from childhood.
So how can we be more inclusive, and supportive of cases like Micah’s or like Lulu’s, who became the first trans child to be recognised in Argentina thanks to a very progressive law?
I would like to go back to the elderly lady in Bergamo who asked about Lorenzo’s gender and tell her that it may seem like an easy question, but it is not. But I missed my chance. So, how would you answer if you were to sow a seed, to problematise that question without being confrontational or aggressive? And would you let your son wear a dress if he asked you to?
I look forward to hearing your thoughts, as usual.
Bye for now,