The Gender Thing

My son in a dress

My son in a fancy dress

As those of us who waste time at work reading media headlines know, the issue of little boys playing with girl stuff has gotten a lot of panties wadded around a lot of conservative ankles recently. There was the ad with the boy getting his nails painted, the kid dressed as a girl for Halloween…

…and, simultaneously, there was my then-two-year-old son donning his older sister’s dress to preschool, pretending to walk in my shoes with his heels up, and getting deemed a girl by passersby because of his flouncy golden curls. Even today, at 3 1/2, Sam sometimes goes for days being a fairy princess named Chana, arguing with his sister that he IS a girl and DOES have the necessary equipment, and speaking in a high-pitched voice.

But is he a cross-dresser or gender-confused?

No. He’s THREE. He also tells us that he’s four, lives in an imaginary office where he has five daughters, shoots imaginary rainbow pellets with anything long enough to work as a gun, and believes he can fly.

He also pretty much adheres to a standard of saying the opposite of whatever his sister says. So, if she says it’s cold, he says it’s hot; if she says he’s a boy, he claims otherwise. (And she gets annoyed. It’s so predictable.)

What gets hard is all these voices out there, around us, telling Sam what he can and can’t be, in ways you wouldn’t, these days with a girl.

No one ever told Josephine that she needed to:

- Wear a dress

- Only wear pink

- Not play with balls or cars

- not pretend to be a boy supercharacter

And if anyone had, I would have hit them (like a boy?). But no one would; we all know better. Yet frequently, caregivers and others tell Sam – in my presence – :

- Boys don’t wear dresses!

- You don’t need a headband

- Be a big boy, don’t cry

- You’re a boy, you can’t be Supergirl

- You don’t want to play that, you’re a boy

- He needs more boy things

- he’s  a mama’s boy

There’s this huge concern that somehow, if he puts on a skirt or plays with Jo’s pony dolls or cries or prefers fancy clothes that there’s this huge, pending danger that he’ll end up – oh my gosh, as a girl, or gay. That if we don’t beat in enough Boyness now, he’ll be lost to that gray land of indeterminate identity…

…and what? He’ll actually know how to do laundry? He won’t beat his girlfriend? He’ll have healthy emotional expression? He’ll know how to trust people? He’ll be a fun dresser?

It distresses me how ANXIOUS people get about this.

Now, I didn’t really have a tomboy in Josephine; she has definitely been a girly-girl. But she does love to climb trees, kick balls, see fire engines, play rough and dirty with dogs, have adventures – she and Sam both. No one is worried about her not being girl enough.

I look around at most of the men I know who are my age, and I feel a great deal of pity for how many of them are so emotionally retarded, expressively restricted, psychologically bound up. Males in our society are offered such a limited range of identity – their clothes are standard-issue bland, their demeanor can range from tough to tough & quiet, their hair can be short and maybe a little shaggy, etc. And when they skew even slightly off this teeny band of Normal, they risk getting harassed, called names, beaten up, discriminated against, worse.

As I’ve often thought, feminists have only done half the work by trying to get women outside the strict boundaries of cultural gender biases. If we don’t get guys, starting when they are little boys, accepting themselves as whole people, developing their whole selves, we’re going to have an unequal society still, perpetuating this notion that women are civilized and men are not. Which is actually a very old notion. And doesn’t hold men accountable for much.

In an age when we need role models of every kind…

… well, I just beg you: Let my son wear a dress. Let your son try nailpolish. Let your kids cry. Let your children explore what it means to be human, whatever that means. And breathe. They’ll be okay – they’ll be even better than okay, if you just let them be who they are.

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