Last year, I received a lot of hate mail after my appearance as a “gender and/or sexuality expert” on the Netflix series Bill Nye Saves the World, where I told a story of taking my sixteen-month-old child to the neighborhood supermarket. The story went as follows:
My child and I are walking down the aisle and a woman runs up to me and says, “What a beautiful little girl!” I respond with a quick, “Thank you so much.” We walk further down the aisle and I spot Pop-Tarts, turn to my child, and say in jest, “Hey Caleb, you want a Pop-Tart?!” Caleb smiles and the woman comes running back. “I’m so, so, so sorry; I didn’t know he was a boy.” I reply: “It’s ok, I don’t know either.” She walks away with a look of sheer confusion.
The telling of this account prompted multiple emails suggesting I am “perverting fatherhood” and “being more political than a parent.” My non-assurance of my child’s gender, admittedly uncommon, was met with the common assertion, “You are crazy!” Indeed, I endured this type of rhetoric prior to making the move into parenthood, as a Black Christian who unapologetically challenges anti-blackness, speaks loudly about the blackness of Jesus, and believes in the “whosoever” gospel that accepts all into the community of faith. For me, recognizing a child’s potential gender development over time, beyond what I or others have prescribed, is normal. While it was assumed that my gesture was about the potential of my child to identify as transgender (which could also be possible), the more probable shift in gender expression over time was never considered. Indeed, both expressions of self are in conversation, but the impossibility for either consideration was deemed inappropriate and impossible. My commentary was met with grave disapproval.
The general dissonance to my Netflix interview was rooted in the assertion that I was countering “what God designed.” Forego the fact that all of our ways of expressing what we understand as our sex (gender) shift over time and that no parent or institution can choreograph the process. However, when such truth is stated in public or practiced in parenting, much criticism is received and one’s parenting becomes the subject of deep scrutiny. In a sense, such clear aversion to flexible gender paradigms exposes an imagined “divine fatherhood”—wherein fathers determine the gender outcomes of boys; we shape them into masculine subjects that cohere as “normal” and stable in every way. Indeed, we, as fathers and mothers, inform our children’s perspectives on gender, and if stringent enough, can produce normative expressions. However, the stability of such gender performances are always contingent upon multiple factors, ranging from environments to everything unknown. Children are not canvasses on which we can live out our ideals and imaginations, but rather creative gifts who unfold before us. My commentary was attempting to extend this unfolding to gender, in addition to what may be understood as easier considerations (i.e., diet, color preference, sport of choice).
Conscious, intentional fatherhood has limited celebration in these parts, especially that which refuses to center the father in ways the Church centers “God, our Father.” Put differently, the Church’s comfort with “God, our Father” is a recognition of the differential understanding of the power of feminine and masculine genders. The imperative that the most powerful energy force in the world must be masculine sets in course a reverence for masculine reflection—which, in our culture at present, is personified most through male-identified subjects. This inadvertently creates a divine parity within religion, where women have no capacity to hold the highest form of energy or to reflect it within their motherhood or womanhood. “Divine fatherhood,” in this way, is endowed with power and authority that remains unavailable to women, within and outside the spiritual and domestic spheres.
Under this limited system, when I advocate for new paradigms for thinking about gender for parents, I am moving outside of my divine fatherhood—into something akin to crazy. From my perspective, I am moving outside of fatherhood as a scripted position, to which all men fall heir, period. Instead, I am choosing to provide a freedom for my child(ren) that was unavailable to me under the dogma of the church. In my insistence upon the unknowingness of children’s gender(s), I recognize the nature of all beings to change and become. It is a conscious, intentional parenting that disarms my indoctrination in traditions, as well as counters the paradigms of control embedded in the masculine scripts for which I was too often rewarded for performing. It is because of the necessity of not reproducing toxicity, or creating toxic tensions, for my child(ren), that I find myself committed to a flexible, conscious parenting—which imagines all our children could become; beyond some notion of “our babies are extensions of us.”
Feministing, queering, and loving are some of the most divine duties of my parenting. Creating an environment that recognizes women as equals and owners of their own genius and powerful energy is imperative. Yet, this cannot be done if “becoming a woman” is seen as a wholly evil act, to which we should chastise our children who are assigned “boy” at birth. Queering parenting—moving the paradigm beyond “reproducing ourselves” or creating little “God, our Fathers”—is a necessary act to ensure our children can carve their paths and live in their truths. Indeed, the Church and the community are often corroborating on crafting truths for us and our children, but we must resist and be persistent in our push for a climate that is conducive for the well-being of all children.
Finally, loving all that our children become and allowing them the space to explore is an act of creation, which is not hinged on the belief that who we as parents are is relevant to who our children become. To remember this is to enable a life-world for child(ren) where they are subject to make moves in the world without our parental approval or affirmation as the conference of “mistake.” To start parenting, as I did, with an understanding that childhood is a process of ever-becoming means allowing the space where children’s development is not stalled or stunted, where instead they can have more opportunity to manifest their divine selves.