Carolyn Dever: Birth of a Queer Parent

This article was originally published by Public Books and is reprinted here with permission.

By virtue of their youth, trans and queer kids offer something new. Coming out today is less exclusively a narrative of young adulthood or middle age, and increasingly an experience of childhood or early adolescence. When kids embrace models of social identity newly available to their generation, the parents who love and care for them confront new forms of obligation, and even new forms of agency: with every queer child is born a queer parent.

But queer parenting doesn’t exist on its own. Queer parenting also means precarity parenting, as families face down a fragmented and insufficient system of supports while they attempt to optimize the conditions for their kids’ success. Queer identity and economic precarity have rewritten the conventional scripts of parenthood together.

Parents hold in their hands the capacity to reshape core concepts of social identity, a fact that runs directly counter to the understanding of the family as inherently conservative. In fact, parents make choices every day about how to raise their kids. Those choices are sensitive to the social and economic incentives that translate into opportunities for children to survive and thrive. Because their LGBTQ kids have changed the narrative of childhood gender and sexuality, parents find themselves at the live edge of social transformation.

Today, queer children and teenagers can be out and proud from a very early age. According to sociologist Mary Robertson, queerness offers kids the chance to express a range of nonnormative ways of being: capturing a rich mix of gender identity and sexuality, race and class, ability, and educational and work opportunities.[1.Mary Robertson, Growing Up Queer: Kids and the Remaking of LGBTQ Identity (NYU Press, 2018), pp. 5–6.] That fact is transformative to their families of origin, and from there outward to the conceptual contours of normative identity. One by one, and collectively, queer families demonstrate the futility of any effort to “erase” trans and queer identities.

Queer Parents and Social Agency

“It is rare to have an opportunity to watch an emergent social category in formation,” writes sociologist Tey Meadow in the landmark study Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the Twenty-First Century. Only in the last decade or so has gender nonconformity emerged as a serious challenge to the normative bureaucratic institutions that form children’s identities: doctor’s offices, schools, and social services; shops, dressing rooms, and bathrooms; proms and playing fields.

This represents the dramatic reorientation of gender identity from a fact of anatomy—it’s a girl!—to a private psychic expression particular to an individual, evolving uniquely over time within the life of each person. In Meadow’s eyes, this marks not a post-gender moment, when gender no longer matters, but gender’s proliferation: not the failure of a child to conform with one of two categories of gender identity, but the failure of categories themselves to capture the full diversity of gender expressions.

If gender nonconformity emerges not as the failure of gender but as its form, the parents of queer little kids become agents poised to dismantle the traditional sex/gender system. Meadow writes: “Parents are becoming ever more likely to fight for a child’s chosen identity, to contest the labeling practices of others, to engage in more directed interpersonal work to assist children in further articulating a discrete identity, to purchase clothing and toys that reinforce that identity, and to enlist social institutions in identity creation and maintenance.” Families operate alongside courts, schools, and the medical establishment as institutions that regulate normative categories of gender and sexuality in kids.

But in the past decade, administrative processes within such institutions have begun to adapt. Social shifts in understanding gender as psychological rather than anatomical have enabled parents to adopt modes of agency and advocacy on behalf of their kids. For many families this agency emerges in the context of vulnerability to state interventions that both reflect and exacerbate inequality.

The state is an active participant in the work of gendering, in both positive and negative ways: “On the one hand, the state confers recognition, in the form of legal name changes and gender changes, antidiscrimination protections, and disability rights paradigms (which can be particularly useful in schools). In this way, we can see gender as a resource distributed by the state. On the other hand, the state also both regulates and punishes deviance.”

At the same time as families are learning to manage state interventions in their kids’ gender nonconformity, they are increasingly exposed to the economic precarity that is in part a function of post-recession instabilities. On both fronts, the cold jaws of social and economic inequality loom, threatening to snap down and trap young kids for life.

Precarity and Parental Agency

When inequality is high, helicopter parents launch. When families are vulnerable to discrimination or poverty, ferocious parental ingenuity kicks in. And when social gains are available to a select few, parents will do whatever they can to ensure that their kids are prepared to benefit. Families and parenting are changing in more ways than one.

Parents parent differently in response to incentives and opportunities. In those areas of the globe that have witnessed the rise of income inequality over the last half century, parenting strategies have changed dramatically. Parents adapt their styles and strategies in order to optimize their kids’ opportunities—for survival, for success, for happiness—on a ladder of achievement that is increasingly perilous.

“The story often told about financial success in America is that slow and steady saving over a lifetime, combined with consistent hard work and a little luck, will ensure financial security, a comfortable retirement, and better opportunities for one’s children,” write Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider in The Financial Diaries: How American Families Cope in a World of Uncertainty. Yet the lived experiences of families shred this myth, revealing instead an often silent precarity that Morduch and Schneider describe as “America’s hidden inequality.”

For generations, most families have not seen themselves reflected in the mirror of America’s dream. Surely “American’s hidden inequality” was not so very hidden to families of color, nor to queer or single-parent or poor households, nor to anyone outside the great mythology of aspiration. Indeed, the mechanics of parental aspiration in the US today are an outcome of decades and centuries of resourcefulness from families “other” to the normative middle-class ideal.

What has changed? Precarity is now a daily feature of the white, middle-class experience. Developments in technology and human capital distribution since the 1970s have extended financial fragility, and all its social implications, even more broadly. As Morduch and Schneider tell the story, the “Great Job Shift” of the last half century transferred risk from employers to workers, and power from workers to employers. Today, many workers lack a paycheck that is steady, predictable, and sufficient to meet basic needs—a development extended to US federal employees and contractors during the “Trump shutdown.”

Poor families earn less. But they are also subject to brutal income volatility, to unpredictable cycles of earning and expenses. Such vulnerability is increasingly common in the context of rising informality of working arrangements—unpredictable shift work, freelancers replacing full-timers, gig workers patching together a quilt of sidelines—that preserve all flexibility for the employer at the expense of the employed. Income volatility in turn produces extreme vulnerability to the cyclical needs of kids, such as childcare, school supplies, medicine, new shoes … college.

Critical events such as car or health problems are then devastating—though in many cases, vulnerability results in great creativity: “The families we met had developed a range of strategies for managing their cash-flow challenges, as well as for balancing their longer-term goals with their immediate and near-term financial needs … The strategies were often thoughtful and creative, helping families preserve their resources for their highest priorities.” Absent a social safety net, ingenuity makes a virtue of necessity.

It’s about cash-flow management. Programs that rethink the temporality of savings—emphasizing needs emerging sooner rather than later—can help families manage the peaks and valleys of unpredictable income. Strategies of borrowing and sharing among broader communities can insulate individual households from vulnerability, and also create a network of affective bonds: “Social meanings matter to households’ long-term financial decisions and even their day-to-day cash flows. Money is more than a symbol of financial worth, and people rarely make financial decisions based purely on math. Instead, money can be a way that people structure their choices and express their values.”

With ingenuity comes a rewriting of the rigid conventions of social identity associated with the “American dream.” At stake is survival in an inhospitable social field, rather than loyalty to a status quo that has come to strip most people of the capacity to thrive. Inequality, suggest Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti in Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids, has a powerful shaping force on the choices parents make, and how parents interact with their kids. Developmental psychologists generally understand three distinct approaches to parenting style: authoritarian, or strict and controlling; permissive, or oriented toward children’s independence; and a more hybrid approach, authoritative, based in reason and the development of values.[2.Doepke and Zilibotti adopt this framework from the developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind.]

Doepke and Zilibotti’s study asks why parents adopt a particular parenting strategy. What are the sensitivities that shape parental agency? And what strategies are most effective given the constraints and opportunities facing a family?

When inequality is high, intensive parenting styles—think helicopter parents or stereotypical Asian American tiger moms who take the authoritarian approach—undergird aspirations for upward mobility. In cultures with a flatter social terrain, greater equity among schools and universities, and a reliable social safety net, more permissive or laissez-faire parenting styles prevail. “When it comes to parenting,” write Doepke and Zilibotti, “incentives matter big time.” In a country like the United States, which has witnessed dramatic increases in inequality over the past 30 years, parenting has changed dramatically in turn: “Tiger and helicopter parenting grew increasingly popular just when inequality rose sharply.”

Based on those incentives, parents exercise extraordinary agency in the choices they make for their children. There is a direct correlation, Doepke and Zilibotti demonstrate, between prosperity and access to the full repertoire of choices available to parents, and between the stress of precarity or poverty and the social limits of parenting. All well-meaning parents “attempt to do what it takes to get their children to succeed, given the economic conditions in play.” Yet, in the authors’ words, the “parenting gap” in resources can turn into a “parenting trap” in outcomes, requiring ever more ingenuity and assertive action.

Economic conditions of the 21st century have rewritten the conventional scripts of parenthood and introduced new roadblocks on the way to security and prosperity for children. The social constraints of parental identity evolve in turn as parents invent and use new tools in their aspirational pursuits.

Queer Parenting, Precarity Parenting

What does it mean for kids to not just survive but thrive? To what social conventions are parents beholden when they act on behalf of their children’s futures?

In light of dramatic changes in social conventions of gender and sexuality, what it means to set a kid up for happiness looks different than it used to. Parents make choices on behalf of the well-being of their children every day, choices that are often creative or unconventional, and that are almost always deeply personal. Parents emerge as gender warriors when social possibilities of gendered identity begin to expand, and the health and prosperity of their trans kids depends on finding a place to thrive within that world.

Yet for those gender warriors, it’s early days. Within the ethnographic study that produced Trans Kids, Meadow’s own gender nonconformity and the identities of the study’s subjects remained a persistent topic of negotiation and scrutiny. Meadow describes “a peculiar kind of carnal sociology,” with the investigator’s identity clearly also in the mix. “Others’ reactions to my gender,” Meadow writes, “their assumptions, discomforts, and interests became an embodied ethnographic project. It was in these self-conscious moments that I believe I came closest to knowing the gender nonconforming child, by which I mean living the experience of having one’s body and identity be the object of a particular type of searching gaze, one tinged with worry, fear, expectation, sometimes hope.”

Subject to hyper-scrutiny, trans kids embody a charged form of epistemological uncertainty. It’s up to their parents to translate such a perceived instability at the core of a child’s self into a successful form of social identity—and by doing so, to support that child’s capacity to survive and thrive.

Parents, writes Meadow, “became ‘radical translators’ of the gender order; they leveraged gender expertise gleaned from the fields of education, psychology, medicine, and politics to convert their child’s subjective self-understandings into socially sanctioned forms of identity and personhood. At the same time, they engaged in tremendous emotional labor to present themselves, the primary conduits of expert knowledge, in ways that were culturally assimilable to the people who ran institutions.” Meadow maps various models of parent activism, including work to gain institutional access for children who transition from one category to another, and more radical work to expand the “constellation of options for childhood gender overall.”

If parents are the radical translators of the gender order, they are also the translators of the economic order: queer parenting and precarity parenting both recognize the prescriptive social order even as they work to loosen or undo its shaping power over children’s lives. Activist parents share a need to mitigate emotional and material risks, remaining inside normative social identities even as they attempt to change them: “From engaging in the gathering and tracking of evidentiary support for their parenting practices, to developing nuanced vocabularies for communicating with children and other adults, to the monitoring of their child’s expressive conduct in public, assessing and responding to uncertainty became an automatic feature of how they parented.”

There are few role models for trans kids’ adult identities: “Older transgender people,” writes Meadow, “did not have the same kinds of transitions as contemporary trans youth,” because social discourses of gender (non)conformity have gradually moved backward into childhood. It’s a moon shot for parents fighting for a future for their gender-nonconforming kids, creating social space and personhood in a way that has never before existed. The social category of trans youth is truly new to this generation. It has emerged against the backdrop of a modern economic order in which the stakes of inequality are sharper every year.

“These families are dismantling the sex/gender system as we know it,” writes Meadow. Theirs is a 21st-century story of modernity, told against the backdrop of inequality and uncertainty. It is also a story of agency, with a child’s future happiness and prosperity at stake. Moved by social and economic incentives, parents who were once gatekeepers of the status quo have stepped forward as agents of its potential transformation.

Featured image: Mother and Child (2018). Photograph by Bruno Nascimento / Unsplash. 

  1. Mary Robertson, Growing Up Queer: Kids and the Remaking of LGBTQ Identity(NYU Press, 2018), pp. 5–6.
  2. Doepke and Zilibotti adopt this framework from the developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind. 

This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.