Don’t mistake me. I know they exist, because I see them. They’re pretty active online, for example, and have lively communities offline as well. I’m talking about where they are in media and pop culture, because right now, it appears to be pretty much nowhere; along with the rest of nonbinary people, of course. There is something particularly sinister about the erasure of nonbinary parents and children when it comes to pop culture and mass media descriptions of families, though.
First, there’s the morbid fascination with binary trans parents, who are closely followed as though they are somehow difficult from regular parents. This is particularly true for men who bear their own children, something the media seems to have a particularly hard time with because of essentialist ideas about childbearing and parenting. Hence, scores of media specials and pop culture evaluations of binary trans parents and their role in society, many of which are also filled with damaging, troubling imagery.
There’s, for example, the concern trolling about whether being raised by trans parents will somehow ruin or scar a child. Some armchair diagnoser gets propped up on stage or in front of the radio to opine on how having trans parents is likely to shatter a child’s life forever, because children clearly aren’t capable of handling such a thing. Whether parents transition before or after their children are born, it’s treated like the defining moment of the parent-child relationship, as though nothing else there could possibly matter. For children growing up in families with trans parents, there’s a sense of constantly being under the lens, being evaluated, being tested and found wanting, where everything you do is suddenly defined not by who you are, but by your parents.
And there’s the endless consumption of stories about trans children, which comes with equal amounts of dubious psychology and probing into personal matters. Whether it’s stories about how amazingly progressive parents are for letting children be themselves, or scaremongering about how children are just being allowed to pick genders willy-nilly and it will ruin the world, these depictions of trans life can also be very damaging and harmful, even as trans children might want to read them to know that they’re not alone and what they are experiencing is normal.
They’re very zoolike, misgendering their subjects and referring to their ‘other names’ constantly, trotting them out for media consumption. Some children certainly do volunteer for it and are great ambassadors, but they shouldn’t have to be. No one should be forced to assert a minority’s existence, and argue for that minority’s right to occupy public space.
These stories also tend to be binarist in nature; children in general seem to be more genderfluid when left to their own devices, and one of the problems with the framing of trans children in media and pop culture, as well as in discussions by parents, is that it is framed in binary terms. It’s assumed that if a child is not a little boy, she’s a little girl, because there are no other options. Even as people encourage her in her transition and exploration of her gender and who she is, she might feel like she’s not quite a little girl either, but she has no resources to turn to, and neither do her parents, because nonbinary people don’t really exist in media and pop culture, and depictions of families with trans members, parents or children, are all about the binary.
The erasure of nonbinary parents is a focus of particular interest to me because it probes more deeply into how people think about parenting and childhood and who raises children. If you see a picture of a person nursing a child at the breast, you’re likely to assume that person is a woman, when that might not actually be the case; scores of nonbinary people are erased every day in the simple act of nourishing their children, because to breastfeed is to be labeled a woman.
For those with a less femme gender presentation, people might call them ‘butch’ or ‘androgynous,’ even if these labels aren’t used for self identification, but the underlying assumption is that someone breastfeeding a child must be a woman (and certainly can’t be a man, ever). In the same way that trans men have their identity erased if they get pregnant and carry the pregnancy, nonbinary people are invisibilised in the way people talk about breastfeeding and childcare, as very much gendered tasks that are assigned to binary genders.
Nonbinary parents exist, I know, because I see them and talk to them. But if they have thicker bodies and breasts, they’re called women, and if they’re leaner and appear to have penises, they’re called men. Mothers and fathers are the words we use to describe parents and the emotional connections some may feel with their children. These words can be part of someone’s identity. ‘Parent’ seems more distancing; you don’t think of a child calling for ‘parent’ across a crowded train station, you know? But it’s the word that may be left for nonbinary parents who don’t feel comfortable being identified as mothers or fathers because they aren’t either of those things.
Increasing representation of nonbinary people in general in pop culture, in the news, in the mainstream media, is critical. But in discussions of representation, parents and children are often set aside as something to get to later, when I’d argue it’s pretty key. Parenting can be central to someone’s identity, and critically, advancing acceptance of nonbinary parents, and educating people about nonbinary children, will make the world safer for both these groups. Because at the same time they are erased and hidden away, nonbinary parents are also under threat for not performing gender right, and running the risk of having their children taken away because they appear to be unfit parents.
This cannot be allowed to stand; not when there are nonbinary parents and children out there who are ready, willing, and able to be represented.