50.50: Opinion

Tala the nonbinary alien, and how I got my library to go easy on gender

It’s time we stopped forcing young children into strict gender categories

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
3 October 2022, 3.28pm

Tala, the storytelling alien

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Illustration by openDemocracy via Hertfordshire County Council. All rights reserved

It started when my partner, Juliette, was pregnant. “Do you know what you’re having?” well-meaning midwives would ask at check-ups. If the question was directed at me, I’d usually make a joke out of it. “We’re hoping for a human,” I’d smile. Or: “Ideally, not a Tory, though I’m sure we’d still love them.”

When Juliette went into labour, the gender question quickly became the first that every medic we interacted with would ask.

And when our baby finally arrived – after the terror of a plunging heart rate, after that moment, immediately post-partum, when they weren’t yet breathing and my world fell apart, before I remembered that that’s normal, that my brother had warned me this would happen – my first interaction with my new child was to have a groin thrust in my face so I could sex them.

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I hadn’t slept much for 48 hours, and what with the umbilical cord and dark smears of blood and everything, I got it wrong for half a second. “A boy, er, no, a girl,” I mumbled. A pink knitted hat was produced from somewhere, and stayed on her head for much of the first month.

Maybe one day, Léa, as we named our daughter, will inform me that I got that wrong – about 1% of the population is gender nonconforming. But in the meantime, we’ve gone along with the assumption that she’s a she.

What we have tried to resist is the sometimes aggressive policing of gender, the pushing into boxes with fixed boundaries. Yes, Léa sometimes wears flowery pink dresses. And sometimes she wears blue trousers, despite almost every baby clothes website forcing you into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ sections when what you’re actually looking for is a jumper.

Parental Facebook groups are riddled with anxieties about these things. “I love this outfit,” a stressed-out mum or dad will say, “but I worry it’s too girly for a boy.”

It’s easy to think of these as old-fashioned concerns, a vestige of Victorian gender ideals. But in many ways, the imposition of gender on young children is a modern invention. My parents have a photo on their mantelpiece of two of my great-great-uncles in the early 20th century, aged around two and four. They are wearing lace dresses, and visitors tend to assume they are girls.

Aggressive gendering is more modern, a product of neoliberalism’s obsession with putting people in boxes, so that it can sell us different versions of the self. It has proved a key feature of surveillance capitalism and the social media age.

Last weekend we saw a particularly egregious example. There was one of those ridiculous meltdowns on Twitter that I usually try to ignore, an argument over the gendering of – or, rather, failure to gender – a fictional storytelling alien invented by a pair of young artists on behalf of Hertfordshire’s libraries.

It started with Maya Forstater, a prominent activist for the movement that calls itself ‘gender critical’, but which largely seems to obsess over attacking trans people and reinforcing gender norms.

A contact, she said, was deeply upset because the teddy bear previously used to tell stories to babies and toddlers was being replaced by a brightly coloured alien called Tala.

And – shock horror! – Tala uses they/them pronouns.

“The mother who contacted me about Tala was upset. Her instincts felt it was wrong, that the library was involving the parents non-consensually in an agenda they hadn't explained and were being dishonest about,” tweeted Forstater.

And the thing is, as a parent, I can kind of empathise. Since before Léa was born, Juliette and I have been involved non-consensually in an agenda that’s never explained: the desire to strictly enforce the gender binary.

Hello girls! Hello boys!

When Léa hit the age of six months, I started taking her to baby classes, mostly a weekly session called Bookbug, run by our local library and coordinated nationally by the Scottish Book Trust.

It’s an excellent hour, where a librarian sings nursery rhymes and the like. As pandemic parents, it was a rare opportunity to meet our peers – if, initially, outside and at a distance.

But one thing always bugged me. The opening song, the very first interaction our babies had with the education system, started by putting them into boxes. “Hello boys! Hello! Hello girls! Hello!” the librarian would sing. “Hello mums! Hello! hello dads! Hello!” There were usually only a couple of us in the latter category.

Aggressive gendering is a product of neoliberal capitalism’s obsession with putting people in boxes, so that it can sell us different versions of the self

After a few weeks, I emailed the library, saying how much we loved Bookbug, but that there was one wee thing.

“I wonder if it would be possible to go a little lighter on the gendering? Is the ‘Hello girls! Hello boys’! really necessary? We wouldn’t do it with any other social category. ‘Hello white people! Hello Black people!’ or ‘Hello gay people! Hello straight people!’ would sound weird and wrong, and I’m not sure why dividing babies up by gender is any different?

“As Léa gets a little older, it feels like the main lesson she would learn from the class would be ‘I’m this kind of person; that is that kind of person’. And I’m not sure we particularly want that to be the emphasis of her early education.

“Of course, I’m not saying that we should never refer to different genders, just as we might refer to the fact that there are children of different ages, or sing songs about people with different kinds of job. But it feels like the division at the moment is really quite stark. As Léa gets older, we’ll probably stop coming back if that’s what it’s going to keep being like – which is a real shame, because we love it otherwise.”

To my relief, they replied positively.

“You have made a legitimate point about gendering in the hello song that we had not considered. We have discussed this as a team and agreed that we will sing “hello/goodbye children” when singing the hello and goodbye song at all of our rhyme times from now on.”

They had also passed my suggestion on to other libraries, they said.

So, here’s the thing. It’s easy to take the piss out of Maya Forstater and her ilk for obsessing about a fictional nonbinary storytelling alien.

But the reality is that libraries often provide small children with their first experiences of formal education. They help to shape so much about what they think is normal, who they think they are and how they think they fit in.

We can’t avoid that. We just have to make decisions about what it is we teach them. Do we want our children to learn strict gender roles, that they have to fit into the boxes they are put in? Or do we show them that these are social structures, which they can transgress, reimagine and tear down as they please?

And in that fight, I’m with Tala the nonbinary alien, not Forstater and the gender police.

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