I’m a little giddy at having my blog quoted in the New York Times in Ruth Padawer’s article for the Sunday NY Times Magazine “What’s So Bad about a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress.” But I was taken by surprise this morning when I started to read the piece online – I wasn’t expecting to get emotional reading my own words from a blog post last year. I guess it felt different to write on my blog, where I often feel I’m talking to myself, than to “speak out” in advocacy of my child to my whole country.
I think Ms. Padawer did a fantastic job on the article. Those of us with kids who occupy the “middle spaces” have gotten wary of press attention; rather than nuanced descriptions of reality they too often are only interested in the most extreme ends –”On today’s show, the youngest person ever given hormones!” etc. (That kind of representation is exactly what prompted my comment about feeling squished out of existence.) I so appreciate her efforts to really open up that middle space and share it with her readers.
Over the last three years I’ve come to see some of the reasons it’s so hard to talk about gender in the U.S. – there is the homophobia, certainly, also the sexism that makes it worse to some for a boy to be “girlish” than for a girl to be boyish.” But there is lots more — for example, not all gay men liked to play with stereotypically girls’ toys or wear dresses as kids. Every article or blog post about this topic inevitably elicits some objections from men who don’t want to be stereotyped as feminine just because they’re gay. And not every boy who likes to wear dresses will grow up to be gay — although from what we know, a lot of them will. So it’s tricky not to conflate and reduce; it would seem a major victory for me if the words “some” or “many” could just be adopted in gender discussions.
Then there’s the confusion between transgendered and complexly gendered — which I think this article does a much-needed job of clarifying — and the perception sometimes that advocating for understanding of one is putting down the other. For the record, I’m delighted with this NY Times piece because this is a hue of the gender spectrum that has received scant public attention, not because there’s anything wrong with transgender kids. If my kid were adamant that he is really a girl inside, seemed depressed, insisted we call him “her,” or acted almost self-injurious because of the disconnect between his perceived gender and his biological one, we would do our best to honor that reality. It’s just not the reality that our particular family has. (Right now, anyway.)
On that point of dealing with reality, I sometimes hear an opinion expressed variously as, “if it’s just a phase, why encourage it?” “You’re just setting him up to be teased; that’s bad parenting.” or “Whether arbitrary or not, all cultures have norms. Learning to live within them is how society works. Would you let him go to school naked?” All these basically say that it’s better to conform to societal expectations, even if they are not particularly meaningful, arbitrary, or even wrong. I could say a lot in response ideologically, but here is my personal experience.
Our son tends to be a little worried, and very self-conscious. A counselor colleague told me once that although we all get that hyper-awareness of the gaze of others in adolescence (what do they think of me, are they looking at me, do I stand out, am I the only one who doesn’t know, etc.) some kids just come into the world that way. He doesn’t like to stand up in the cafeteria to throw food wrappers away at lunch, because it attracts attention to him. He has yet to buy himself a snack because he’s too self-conscious to go up in the lunch line. He didn’t volunteer to answer a question the first half of kindergarten because he wasn’t sure it was the right time to talk. He is intensely, almost painfully tuned in to what the other kids are doing, and whether he’s standing out. When a kid like that is just as insistent that he wants long wavy hair past his shoulders, and beautiful clothes with butterflies and sparkles, I have to believe that it is an incredibly important part of his identity. Important enough that it trumps his concern about standing out or being different.
I think denigrating and denying such an integral part of his self could not lead to good. So far, loving him and teaching him to be kind and responsible seems to be working pretty well.
A last note: if there is one sadness I have about the article, it’s that some parents of “boyish” girls may feel that their own parenting journeys are being dismissed. I know it’s not easy, and I honor your efforts to support your daughters! Maybe Ruth Padawer can write her next article on girls who won‘t wear dresses?