Fun With Pronouns: He, She? How to Refer to a Kid Who Has Pat Syndromecarolyncastiglia
Kids who don’t follow gender norms don’t bother me. I don’t care if you’re a boy in a skirt or a girl in army fatigues. Dressing gender-neutral is fine, too, but things start to get a little complicated when a pre-pubescent kid in boys’ clothes with long flowing hair has a face that could go either way and a gender-neutral name. Classic Pat Syndrome! What’s a parent to do? There’s no polite way to ask a kid, “I’m sorry, please don’t take this the wrong way, but are you a girl or a boy?”
There’s a kid at my daughter’s school who has a gender-neutral name and look. And my daughter was pointing him/her out on the playground to let me know this child is one of her new classmates. “She’s in my class,” my daughter said. I looked at this kid and thought, hmm, I’m not convinced she’s a she. So I asked, “How do you know she isn’t a boy? I think she might be a boy.” But as soon as I looked again, I thought, no, maybe she’s a girl. I wonder if (s)he’s a Storm, the Canadian baby without gender who is only referred to by name, removing gender entirely from the equation. And that’s fine, but, as I’ve noted in the past when talking about the gender-neutral movement, what do we do about pronouns? Pat’s in my class. Pat’s a cool kid. I really like Pat. Pat Pat Pat! That’s a lot of Patting.
Then again, now that I think about it, maybe calling someone by their name all the time is the best thing you could do for a person.
I married a man who called me nothing but “babe” – officially the most hated pet name on the planet – for 11 years. (Yes, even while we were in the midst of divorcing. Maybe he just never knew my name and was too ashamed to ask? We’ve all been there! For a decade…) I was not a person to him, I was a thing, so it was easier for him to keep things distant. Maybe pronouns have the same distancing effect. Maybe pronouns depersonalize us, make us less who we are. Our names are the core of our identities, so I can see the appeal.
I’ve been surrounded by gender non-conformist friends since I was in high school and I’m totally fine with however your Gingerbread Person is built. I’m just not used to knowing how to address this kind of fluidity in children. Like, I can process a boy who wears skirts and I can process a girl who is boyish but a kid who is exactly somewhere in-between boy and girl, who gives no clues at all? I wonder if this kid is like I was when I was little and very sensitive about my gender being known. I was a girl with short hair and my mother dressed me in gender-neutral clothes (it was the 70’s), and I would get so upset when someone called me a boy. I can remember being in a restaurant with my grandmother pouting at some stranger who had just complimented what a good boy I was. “I’m a girl!,” I said, arms crossed. What if this child isn’t in control of his/her expression? What if the gender-neutral clothing/hair thing is a parent’s experiment, as in the case with baby Storm? Gives you a lot to think about. As noted on Jezebel in a post about Storm, “trans advocates and others have long pointed out that we don’t actually have the right to know what somebody else’s junk looks like, and that our desire to know can actually be invasive,” but “we’re used to immediately knowing the sex of most people we come across.”
I’m sure at some point I will know this child a bit and everything will fall into place. Until then, I guess I’ll just have to work around knowing how this child identifies and what this child’s sex is. Trying to suss it out politely would be too awkward and exhausting:
Photo credit: MSN