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This couple raised their child as gender neutral. Now she’s 16.

Before they even had a baby, Royce and Jessica James had decided the phrase ‘be the change you seek in the world’ would apply to them. Meeting at college, Royce and Jessica would spend late nights exploring their ideas about the world and how it could be better. Ideas about racism (Royce was black and Jessica was white). Oppression. Gender.

Both passionate advocates of social justice and equality, blowing up gender stereotypes was one of the changes they sought in the world and so they decided to be it. To live it.

In an ideal world, a baby girl will be able to wear a blue jumpsuit without people assuming she’s a boy.

A little boy could wear pink and decide he wants to take up ballet and nobody would raise an eyebrow.

In an ideal world, we let our children discover their gender as an identity, rather than have it prescribed to them when they’re born. And so that’s what Royce and Jessica decided to do when they found out they were pregnant.

In a recent podcast episode of the Hidden Brain , we got an incredible insight into how that turned out, as host Shankar Vedantam explored the lives of Royce and Jessica James who decided to raise their daughter gender neutral.

Soon after the couple met, Jessica became pregnant unexpectedly and it was then they decided whether to walk the talk on their beliefs.

“We had started talking about how we’re not going to be getting her baby dolls and Barbies,” Jessica said.

“We want her to have open-ended, free play toys like blocks, animals and lots of lots of bright colours, instead of just pastel pink and princess or fairy motifs.”

Their daughter, Isis (named for the Egyptian goddess of health, marriage and wisdom), was born two months premature. Despite her parents firmly deciding to dress her in gender neutral colours like yellow, green and white, one day while still in the newborn intensive care unit, the nurses dressed Isis up in pastel pinks with frilly ribbons in her hair as a surprise for her parents – who were horrified. 

“Somebody nearby turned and looked at my baby in my arms, my little pink baby doll and said, ‘Oh, she’s so precious and delicate and dainty,’ and I was enraged,” Jessica said, explaining that in trying to get their tiny daughter out of the intensive care unit, she needed to be strong and healthy – the opposite of how she was being perceived.

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“We’re not going for precious and dainty and delicate. I noticed from that moment how other people would talk to her. And I felt words are powerful. And right now, we want all of our energy to be towards growth and strength and power.”

This was the only experience Jessica and Royce needed to confirm the repercussions of projecting a gender on their daughter and it reinforced their decision to raise her with gender neutral clothes and toys in a bid to not have her internally or externally constrained by ideas around what it meant to be a girl.

What Royce and Jessica didn’t expect were the consequences that it would have on their broader family.

“We had family who were sending us dresses for Isis [that we weren’t using] and the family members’ feelings became were really hurt,” Jessica admitted.

“They said that they were not sure if they could have a relationship with our daughter if they were not going to be able to understand how to relate to her.”

The relationships with their respective parents struggled, as well as their siblings. As Jessica explained, many took their gender-neutral parenting style as personal insults.

“What we tried to say to our family is this is not an assessment or a judgment of you and how you choose to do things or how you may have chosen to do things in the past. It has nothing to do with that.”

Of course, it wasn’t just Jessica and Royce who bore the consequences of raising their daughter in a gender neutral way, but Isis, too.

“A little boy wanted her to take her clothes off and prove that she’s a girl on the playground because she has short hair and she’s wearing primary colours and doesn’t look like a girl,” they said.

“Of course, she wasn’t going to do that. That was horrifying and so there are those moments that we think, ‘OK is this something that we created.’”

This is the control that Jessica and Royce had over Isis when she was a child – when they could choose what she wore and how she wanted to identify.

But, what about Isis? What about what she wanted, now at 16 years old?

Stores in the UK are deciding to mix boys and girls clothes. Is this a good thing? (Post continues after audio.)

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“It was sometimes painful to be raised in a gender-neutral way because I had to tell people that I wasn’t a boy,” Isis says today.

“Sometimes people wouldn’t believe me when I said that I wasn’t able, especially children which was ridiculous.”

There was silence for a moment when Isis was asked whether she felt her parents went too far. Then she said, “I think that they gave me the freedom that I needed.

“They’ve never said, believably, ‘No you can not wear this,’ or, ‘No you can absolutely not do this.’”

Isis says her pronouns are she, her, and hers, and that she identifies as bisexual. How much of this was a result of her parent’s parenting style? Isis says she is made up of both of them, but there is still Isis, who would have existed in whatever house she was raised.

“I believe that everyone has something that is totally your own. I say is one third I got from my dad, one third I got from my mum and one third is all me.”

It’s a fascinating story – by all accounts, Isis (who now has three younger siblings who have all been raised in the same gender-neutral way) is a confident, self-assured young woman who knows what she wants and who she is. You can listen to the full interview of ‘Be The Change’ on NPR’s Hidden Brain, here.


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