I would just like to say that it is my conviction

The other day I noticed a bargain bin at the bookstore and picked up the soundtrack to HAIR. The last time I had this album it was on a cassette tape, which I wore out listening to in the 1979 Ford LTD I inherited from my grandmother. I sing “Good Morning Starshine” when I wake the kids up in the morning, so I thought it would be cool to play it for them.

I think my partner has managed to be with me for eleven years without realizing that he’s involved with a HAIR freak. (I mean, who knows all the words to “Frank Mills”?!) I’ve been thinking about it, and I think I first saw this movie and heard this music at a very impressionable age and just adopted it as my personal philosophy of life. Beliefs like: people should be free to love whom they wish; stuff about race is complicated and tied up with our history in ways of which many white people are blithely ignorant; war sucks and hurts mostly innocent people; and a lot of “rules” about gender don’t make a whole lot of sense.

For example, here are the lyrics to the song, “My Conviction:”

I would just like to say that it is my conviction
That longer hair and other flamboyant affectations
Of appearance are nothing more
Than the male’s emergence from his drab camoflage
Into the gaudy plumage
Which is the birthright of his sex

There is a peculiar notion that elegant plumage
And fine feathers are not proper for the man
When actually
That is the way things are
In most species

Hmmm, yeah, that’s right. The most brightly colored birds? Boys. Peacocks? Boys. The lions that get to have big hair? The boys. Huh.

When I had my first child, who happened to be a boy, I did bring this philosophy to bear. I was not interested in trying to dress him as a girl. I was conscious about broadening his surroundings (from his clothes, to his carseat cover, to his bedroom decor) to include colors and images I thought of as sweet and beautiful for any baby, or as fun, or as whimsical. I was troubled by the underlying violence of many traditional boys’ designs. (I was also conscious that if we had another child who was a girl, which we did, I wanted to be able to reuse stuff.) I knew that pink is traditionally worn by girls, but to me, it’s just a color. It doesn’t have any intrinsic meaning, right?

I was startled by the strength of reactions about my son not being clearly enough marked as male. A cashier at the grocery store told me I would “damage his psyche, dressing him in pink.” I pretty quickly realized that people were embarrassed to have mistaken him for a girl — it is considered an insult in our culture to call a boy a girl, even by accident — and their embarrassment turned quickly to defensive anger. Slowly I started unpacking layers of gender role construction that go far beyond what is custom to what is mandated.

Looking back at images of my son as an infant and early toddler, I understand why strangers were often confused about him. He was born with an incredible amount of hair, which always made folks think he was a girl. (Somehow Mother Nature did not get the message that girl babies should be born with hair and boy babies should be bald.) A typical outfit might include a baseball shirt with pink and white striped leggings. Although in order to get any bright or pretty colors (not just pink, but yellow) I did usually have to shop across the aisle, I tried to find clothes that weren’t “marked” as feminine with bows, lace, puffed sleeves, or the like. (If you try this, you will realize that almost all little girls’ clothes are so marked, which starts to make you wonder if they’re specifically trying to keep the boys out of them.)

I started imagining a kind of toxic sea that we all swim in–an ocean of pink princesses being sexy at four; an ocean of fire-fighting, sword-wielding “#1s” whose only permitted emotion is anger. We mostly don’t talk about it, often don’t notice it, unless someone climbs out of the sea. Then worried bystanders start hissing, “Get back in the water!”

I would just like to say that it is my conviction
that the problem is the water, not the people
emerging from it. There is a peculiar notion that
boys who like poetry and beauty, and are taught
to feel love, empathy, and tenderness may
no longer want to put on camouflage and
go to war. And you know what?
That might just be true.

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6 Responses to I would just like to say that it is my conviction

  1. Bill Salyers says:

    You remember, of course, that I made the tape you wore out. Do you also remember the tape “Disinhair-eted” which included the songs left out of the Hair musical and movie? Some of my favorites were on that tape (and record). Interesting how Hair no longer sounds so radical, no?

  2. Pingback: Blue PANIC! My baby girl wears blue. « Practicing Empathy

  3. Shawn says:

    This is a beautiful piece. I have been battling this for years one way or another. I knew a young boy who loved Barbies. We watched him playing with dolls and clothes and figured that was probably an indication of his sexual orientation, but since we didn’t care about his sexual orientation, that was no big deal.

    It was interesting that when he finally ‘came out’ in high school, everyone just shrugged their shoulders and said, “Yeah. We knew.” He was bullied before he came out, but not after. When he could acknowledge the truth of himself, others were more willing to accept it as well.

    So it is with many things. If we accept other ways of thinking or being, we acknowledge the truth in ourselves as well as the truth in others. Acceptance lets pink into our palette and adds beauty to our sunrises.

    lol I like this comment so much, I’m going to turn it into a blog. I’ll link back to you!

    • Shawn, Thanks! I appreciate hearing your experience about people being willing to accept who someone is once it is no longer ambiguous. I look forward to reading your post!

  4. maddox says:

    I just found your blog and I think this is an incredible observation. God forbid that a person should confuse your cutely chubby, nearly bald, newly minted, human being for the ‘wrong’ gender, because… well because….. remind me why this matters again? It is unbelievable that even clothes for babies are so gendered, even when babies are pretty much genderless beings who have no consciousness of the color of their jumper (as long as their diaper is clean).

    This brings me back to the #1 question people ask about a baby – is it a boy or a girl? Not, is it healthy? is it happy? is it going to be loved and cared for? And people (for the most part) are usually ecstatic about either, they just get excited hearing their baby’s sex, but don’t have a real preference. So why do they cling to it so much afterwards?

  5. Christy says:

    I found this post especially interesting, as I so often do with postings about gender identity. As an educational researcher, my focus has been on dissecting the culture surrounding “traditional” education choices and in turn career pursuits (ex: women in science, men in nursing).

    This particular post really stuck out because there have been some recent news articles about color associations and gender identity. Until quite recently (the last 50-75 years), all children were dressed similarly in white “dresses”, and if a color was chosen, reds and pinks were given to boys because the colors were associated with violence and anger. Girls wore blues and greens, associated with calmness and tranquility. Most children’s hair was allowed to grow until the child was ready to enter schooling, and I can only imagine the assumptions of today’s society if a boy with long hair in a white dress were to show up at the playground. As a matter of fact, there is a professional posed picture of FDR sitting on a bench in a white “dress” with flowing locks. I don’t remember any of my history books saying he was less of a man because of his childhood dress!

    It makes me sad that while society has become more tolerant in some areas we are working so arduously to pigeon hole children (really, of all groups- children?!) into specific boxes labeled “Boy” and “Girl”. As we work to be more accepting of individuals’ lifestyles, relationship choices, child rearing processes, and career paths, shouldn’t we also be working to be more accepting of the identity an individual chooses for him or herself? If a woman chooses to wear black (or blue, or green), they are not called less of a woman- should we not extend the same humanity to boys who choose to wear pink or purple, which were, ironically, colors once worn by kings and powerful men?

    MLK longed for a time when his children would be judged not by their skin color, but by their character. We are are still waiting for children to be “judged” on their character not their outward appearance.

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