Moco & Maize Steinman of art duo Mandem give insight into raising a genderfluid child.
Raising children isn’t a task anyone is up to. They come into the world completely unpredictable. You can’t say if they’ll grow up to excel at math or at mischief. Their sexual orientations will begin to reveal themselves at unknown times. It’s impossible to know if they’ll be artists, or scientists, or humanitarians. What’s also impossible to predict is the gender – if any – they will identify with.
The latter was the case for young Kiki, the gender-fluid, sometimes non-binary child of parents Moco and Maize Steinman-Arendsee. Kiki prefers the pronouns they/them/their, and as an aside from being non-binary (not a defining factor of who they are), they are also extremely talented in art and linguistics. They are loving, kind, and possess the brains of well-attuned adult.
Kiki’s parents (and Kiki!) sat down with About Magazine to discuss what it’s been like raising a non-binary child, how it’s changed them, and the pride and humility their child brings to the both of them.
About Magazine: Let’s start by hearing a little bit about your child, Kiki.
Moco & Maize: Kiki is a super-affectionate and clever child with a tendency to hyper-focus on research into their interest of the day (currently ant-keeping). They’re also bouncy, hyper, and resilient in the face of tragedy, though easily made sad by failure or rejection. At the end of this semester, they’ll have just turned 7-years-old and will be in third grade. They’re in public school via a virtual/online option, which allows them to work through things at their own rate and (more importantly) allows them to do math while jumping on the trampoline, wear pajamas all day, and take sanity breaks whenever needed. It’s a great system, and Kiki is doing well with it. They want us to add that they have multiple imaginary friends who are very important to them, and that they’re a very kind person.
Kiki’s pronouns are they/them/their. Kiki is, presumably, non-binary. Correct?
Yes, that is mostly correct. If you were splitting hairs, I think you’d say “non-binary spectrum” because they alternate between being a boy, or a girl, or both a boy and a girl, or agender. Under some classification schemes one might call this gender-fluid, but non-binary works.
Tell us a little bit about how that discussion came up between the two of you as parents, if you don’t mind.
We are asking Kiki all of these questions because we don’t want to speak for them, but when we asked “how did you realize you were both a boy and girl,” they express confusion because that’s just how it is. I think most six-year-olds when asked “when/how did you realize you were a <gender identity>” would be confused – it’s just how they are. And Kiki has been outwardly expressing this gender identity since before they can remember. So we’ll try to answer without them.
But to be honest, this is hard to answer – it didn’t come up between the parents, it developed naturally with getting to know Kiki. They brought it up. So you get a narrative.
We started with the awareness that we didn’t actually know their gender. We did originally use their “designated at birth” pronouns (which we’re not going to mention here), but with the psychological awareness that we were open to whatever gender identity they developed. We also were choosing mostly non-gendered clothes (to the best of our ability) and such early on because we wanted this to be something that could develop naturally.
Before they could talk, Kiki started developing a strong preference for clothes and toys that were coded for the “opposite” gender; and as soon as they could talk they started saying they were the “opposite” gender of their assigned-at-birth sex – and correcting people about that. So, we started using the pronoun “they” because we weren’t sure what gender was going to stick. Around 3 1/2-years-old, Kiki started going through a six month femme stage, and at the same time started identifying exclusively as a boy. At that point they’d explain to everyone “It’s okay, boys can wear dresses too,” and correcting us whenever we misspoke or referred to “boy clothes” or “girl clothes.” But they grew out of the “all femme all the time” stage when they were around 4 to 5-years-old, and then they verbally articulated that they were BOTH a boy and a girl, and sometimes neither a boy nor a girl, and that they just wanted to be able to change between them. Consistently since then, they have been fluid in their identity – mostly settling on “both a boy and a girl.”
You two also began using the they/them/their pronouns, and you mentioned to me previously that Kiki asked this of you. Can you tell us a little about how that conversation and decision went?
The entire family did transition to using they/them pronouns, though it’s not as simple as “Kiki asked us,” per se. We have both self-identified as “genderqueer” for over a decade (we were both gender nonconforming), but within the context of being in a queer relationship and not in the context of changing pronouns or thinking much about that aspect. When we were queer youth, the idea of changing one’s pronoun was a lot more niche than it is now (we are a bit older than most people think we are) and trying to survive (as disowned queer teenagers) was more on the forefront of our mind for a long time. And it also seemed to us before that being trans was a very binary thing, that there wasn’t space for someone to be “not a boy and not a girl.” But talking through with Kiki how they felt about gender helped both of us realize that this was also a more authentic way of thinking about our own lives as well. I suppose it helped that Kiki would frequently ask us our pronouns/genders (“Today I’m a girl. What are you today?”) and no one had ever asked either of us that in a safe environment before. (Plenty of, “So… are you a boy or a girl?” from street harassers, of course!) So just having a reason to interrogate that was amazingly healing.
I’ve met several parents, actually, that came out as trans or began to identify as trans after seeing that their children were gender nonconforming and thinking “that’s just like me as a kid” – and then realizing that they could love their children regardless of gender or binary presentation. A good parent with a trans kid can come to this line of thought: if I can love my genderqueer kid, then the problems I had as a child couldn’t have been my fault – it was a societal fault, or a parental fault, or whatever… and if my child should be proud of who they are, then how can I try to repress it in myself?
We’ve both had this experience along multiple vectors of abuse, while watching our child grow up. There are all these little moments that have nothing to do with gender and everything to do with love, such as “when my child breaks things and cries about it, I just want to cuddle their little heart and make them happy again…. how could my parents have hit me when I broke things?” And then you forgive yourself for having been a “bad child,” because you never were. But that’s getting a bit off topic.
Do you think that more parents should adopt the ‘they’ pronouns? And what are the more important aspects of it that you would stress?
Kiki feels strongly that parents should start with a gender-neutral pronoun – we’re all fans of “they” for that – and switch to he or she (or keep they) when the child becomes aware of their own gender identity. Kiki says it can negatively affect a child to be misgendered, and that if you call them he or she they might be mad that their parents have been using the wrong pronoun.
From a slightly more adult perspective, keeping in mind how slowly society changes and what challenges face a child, we would suggest a more moderated answer.
So, yes – more (all) parents of gender nonconforming children should ask their children if they would like gender-neutral pronouns and be willing to support that if the answer is yes. There is sometimes a rush to assign children to a binary gender – even with trans kids – and this shouldn’t be so parent-driven. Parents already say, “You were born with this genital configuration so we’re going to gender you thus,” and switching over to, “I see you have these gendered interests so we’re going to re-gender you this other way” isn’t the answer. Allowing kids to have the space to explore their gender while using non-gendered pronouns is a really good measure that takes into consideration the concerns regarding young transition while also acknowledging the reality that trans kids often know their authentic gender very young. And of course only a non-gendered pronoun is going to be an authentic fit for a child whose gender exploration is going to also end with a strongly non-binary identity. This needs to be youth-driven in that parents should ask and listen about their children’s authentic gender expression.
Kiki is probably right that it’s also true that more parents should start out saying, “We don’t know for sure what my child’s gender is,” and that starting with a gender-neutral pronoun and waiting to see what gender develops would be a brilliant. But in real life, this is a battle that may not be worth it in most cases. Using a non-binary pronoun means you have to defend the pronoun and face transphobia really early on, and there’s also this sense that then you’re putting a weight on a child to pick a gender ASAP because everyone is asking about it. For us, when Kiki was very little, it was easier to use a gendered pronoun until such time as they expressed a preference, even though in terms of clothes and toys we mostly gave them non-gender-stereotypical things. That said, I think what would be really glorious would be if parents could avoid aggressive gendering of children (i.e., buying them only toys marketed to one gender, adhering to gendered colors or styles, etc.), and then just check in occasionally to see if they have a preference on gendered terms and pronouns.
Did having a non-binary child change your opinions about things like gender-reveal parties, and learning the sex of a child before birth?
Learning the physical sex before birth can help parents prepare to take care of that particular configuration of physical body parts, and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially since parents need to be prepared for the fact that doctors are going to try to pressure parents into gential-altering surgery if the child is born with a penis or intersex genitals, and parents shouldn’t go uninformed into that situation. Knowing what physical parts the baby is going to have can be totally separate from assuming gender.
That said, to be honest we were never very comfortable with gender-reveal parties. I think people assume that a kid’s genitals are going to tell you a great deal about their personality and that’s just not a given… so there’s a sense that the kind of person who cares so much about the infant’s genitals isn’t going to be very able to let go of those preconceptions and be happy to allow the kid to develop into whoever they want to be. But maybe it’s just something neurotypical people do that we’ve never grokked. It wouldn’t be the first thing that seemed confusing.
When people asked us, “what do you want?” assuming we’d answer boy or girl, we used to respond, “A clever kid.” It threw people for a loop when we answered that way.
Also, a name-reveal party would be more fun.
How supportive have the reactions of other parents, teachers, and children been about the non-binary pronouns?
It’s a mixed bag. Concern about that is a small part of why we’re doing virtual school (though to be honest that has more to do with Kiki’s learning style).
Kiki says that the teachers at the Youth Club they attend have been very supportive but still don’t pick up on using “they.” However, they are not being bullied about it and that’s pretty cool.
Kids are often confused — they ask Kiki a lot of questions about “how does that even work, being a boy and a girl?” and Kiki tells them “I just am.”
When we use “they” casually in conversation, we get a lot of “wait, there’s more than one?” and then people trying to explain grammar to us, which is frustrating. Of course we’re prepared with the entire linguistic history of singular they, but even people who have within minutes used the singular they without realizing (as in, “I don’t know who left these keys but I’m sure they’ll come back for them,” or even “Are they a boy or a girl?”) then act confused when we used the singular-they to refer to Kiki! Despite common usage, people seem reluctant to use it for people who self-identify as such.
Online we get a lot of support — a lot of questions, a lot of people seeking to understand, and that’s really encouraging.
Aside from the use of the they pronoun, you could do anything to adjust the school of thought on gender identity, what would that be? Either as parents or as people.
Kiki says everyone should use “they” for people they don’t know and only use he or she if they have confirmation that’s the right gender identity/pronoun. Kiki says they wish people would not use physical appearances to assume gender identity – like long hair vs. short hair.
And Kiki says they wish other parents would realize that they’re hurting their children by not letting them choose their gender. They said that if their parents didn’t respect their gender, “I would be sad and have to wait until I was an adult with my own house to get out of their presence! I would have to lie to my parents … but I would tell my friends in secret that I was nonbinary.”
We think this question is more complicated than it first appears, because in asking about “adjusting the school of thought,” the question assumes that there’s just one school. And there are people on every side of the aisle that do think that there’s just one school and everything else is wrong. But we’re more inclined to think that gender and gender identity are both societal constructs… that the reason we have gender nonconforming folx appearing all across society is that almost all of the schools of thought are attempting (metaphorically speaking) to draw a round, 3-D world on a square, 2-D map, and necessarily that means warping elements and flattening elements and also choosing an “up” and a “down” and a “center” in a way that reflects all kinds of biases and false assumptions. Making a 2D square map is an inherently biased process. Likewise any school of thought on gender is going to have biases based on the culture it comes from, the gender of the people making it, and all kinds of religious and social and class issues.
If there was one thing I wish people knew, it would be that their school of thought was a construction – a flat map of a round world, or a classical mechanics system that doesn’t explain quantum-level functions. It’s good enough to get around with, but it’s not going to be 100% true or accurate, and the more granular your resolution (e.g., the individual rather than the masses) the less it will hold up. Likewise the more binary the school of thought, the more stuff in the middle of the spectrum that gets erased. But binaries are easy, and the instinct is to fall back into them (“cis” and “trans” are also binaries in many ways).
People who are genderqueer or nonbinary or “other” may find that they don’t have the words to describe what they feel and are, until such time as the construction and the language evolves. That’s why some people will talk about being nonbinary as “a fad” right now, because just ten years ago the language and ideas weren’t popularized enough that people “in the middle” had words for their feelings. Nonbinary people always existed; they just didn’t always have the language to describe their lives. So…. be kind to those who are struggling now to find the words. Be kind to yourself if you’re looking for this language. And if there wasn’t room in your construction previously to allow for a space between “boys” and “girls,” then do your research and make sure you really think your construction works…. because binary divisions are almost nonexistent in nature. There’s always a gradation.
Moco & Maize are artists of several varieties, collaboratively making up the duo Mandem. You can visit their website here.