. . . The Answer, of Course, Is Nothing

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?




This entry was posted in Gender complexity, Holding Contradictions, Musings on the News, Personal, The space between and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to . . . The Answer, of Course, Is Nothing

  1. Kelly says:

    Loved it too – but am definitely in the category of moms of boyish girls who feel left out of the article.

  2. William Salyers says:

    Excellent companion piece to Ruth Padawar’s NY Times Magazine article which to which I linked on Facebook. All stereotypes distort perception,and relationships. Growing up in the segregated south, I was very aware of the way racial stereotypes enforced discrimination. After 35 years working with and for people with disabilities, I cringe at the effect of severely disd-labeling people. Gender stereotyping affects people who just like different clothes as well as people who discover an affectional orientation kto people of the same gender that seems woven into them at birth. The slogan of the disability rights folks makes sense: “People first!” Not “A disabled person” but a person with a disability.” On another note, talk to kids before attach a gender label to them. Perhaps we can build a relationship where gender is irrelevant to the extraordinary person before us.

    • pink says:

      Or maybe not irrelevant, but not predetermined? Our genders, our bodies, our ethnicities, who we love, are all hugely relevant to us, which is all the more reason we should get to decide how they define us.

  3. I’m very glad I read that article partly because I have just settled on the idea that gender is a spectrum and so seeing an article on kids who inhabit the centre of the spectrum was great, especially since I’m heading towards the middle (not a kid, but only now discovering that I don’t necessarily want to be a “girl”). Part of my delight at the article is that it led me to your blog and I’m very interested in reading your experiences and thoughts.

    • Bill says:

      My daughter and I are doing research on the history of closed-toe sandals. We have encountered gender related issues such as: Why are there “boys'” shoes and “girls'” shoes when pror to the early 1900s all children wore the same type of footwear. Also, children dressed the same until 5 or 6 years old. I have a copy of a picture of President FDR at age 3 wearing a fancy dress, Mary Jane type shoes, and long hair. Nobody seemed to care about such clothing then. One of our concludions is that manufactures and advertisers played a major role in separating male and female clothing to maximize profits. No longer was it permissible for hand me down clothing to be used by siblings of the other sex. Anyone have any thoughts of this?

    • pink says:

      Thanks! I’m constantly amazed at the diversity even among the kids in the middle – one of the frustrations of parenting them is feeling you have to protect a lot of space without being sure what part of it they will end up occupying. But how great it will be for each of us to find the space that fits us!

  4. Erica says:

    Really enjoyed the article. And I was wondering, based on what you’ve mentioned above about your son, have you considered whether he has social anxiety disorder or not? I’m only asking because I myself have been struggling with it since I was in middle school and my life would be a lot different if I had been diagnosed early on.

  5. Grateful to my parents says:

    When I was little I was something of a tomboy. I thank God that my parents didn’t rush to label me as a “blue girl” or a “Prince Girl” or assess me as trans-gender. I was simply a girl with non-stereotypical interests and that was the truth and all of the truth.

    • pink says:

      I think I agree with you about the value of giving kids judgment-free space – but I’d say it’s not parents for the most part who rush to label their kids. Most parents I know are very frustrated with labels (see the blog Labels Are for Jars, for example) and wish their kids could be raised free of them. And most parents I know follow their kids’ lead about what it means to them.

    • Fed_Up says:

      Oh, I hear you! I spent the first few years of my son’s life patiently waiting for him to tell us (in some way) that he was gay. And why? Because he was always sensitive, clingy, artistic, loved babies – especially baby animals – you see where all this is going? But, at age five, he saw for the first time – thankfully at home ,on the tv! – his first sight of two men kissing. We thought he was too young to even notice, but he let out such a screech of disgust (he must’ve jumped a foot and a half!) that we were shocked. It would have been comical if the two of us weren’t so totally taken by surprise – and if I hadn’t gone, in that split second, from worrying how I was going to shepherd my “obviously gay” son through public school, to wondering how on earth we could have raised a little bigot! But, no, I had overreacted – as had he. It just turned out that – normal kid-squickiness from PDA’s aside – the very idea of being attracted to his own sex was just so foreign to him that he was too surprised to react politely. Even the look on his face as I patiently explained about gay people was of horrified disbelief. Like I said – thank G-d we were HOME, in PRIVATE! But my point in all this? If I had gone with what I thought he was, based on what I had obviously misinterpreted as cues, I could have damaged him. As it is, he’s now a happy ten year old who is still sensitive, artistic, sentimental, loves to deck himself out in the sharpest (brightest) suits he can find, have his hair *just so*, and coo over every baby – especially animals – that he can find. Even we “open minded” parents have to avoid labels & just let our kids be!

  6. Ana says:

    I found your blog through the NY Times article. I am not a mother so I can’t say I fully understand the challenges of parenting, but I firmly believe in everyone’s freedom to be themselves. Parents like you are doing an amazing job of pushing our world to become a safer and more accepting place for everyone. Your child is so lucky to have an accepting parent, and if I ever do become a mother, I will strive to be like you, no matter who my child wants to be.

    On another note, I feel like there are so many discussions about gender the world needs to have. While it does seem that boyish girls are accepted with a little more ease than pink boys, there is definitely a struggle there – this can especially be seen in how many of the female Olympians are being treated. And there is even the discussion about women who consider themselves feminists but embrace “stereotypical” activities. In my case, I was brought up by a mother with big career goals, who never did the “stereotypical” female things. I came across things such as sewing, knitting, and cooking on my own and I enjoy these activities immensely – but not because anyone told me I should. I sometimes get backlash from other women for embracing these activities I get accused of “setting back the feminist movement.” But shouldn’t feminism be about women doing whatever they want?

    Anyway, that’s my rant 🙂 Thank you for creating such a wonderful space.

  7. We can’t change who they are….we need to accept our children and love them unconditionally. I recently wrote a book about my experience raising a gay son who played dress up as a child and now dresses celebrities for a living. Check it out! Playing Dress Up available at Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/dp/147755582X/

  8. blue milk says:

    Well done, you, think your quotes were fantastic!

  9. I read the article, and a couple of things disturbed me. Partly, the heavy emphasis on gender-fluidity as a pathology. Second, it became very clear that this wasn’t really a story on gender-fluid kids as much as it was on the anxieties on parents of gender-fluid kids.

    These children are not sick, or in need of treatment. And all the gender-fluid adults I have ever met had one thing in common – they were tremendously strong people.

  10. Lisa A says:

    As the mom of a young boy determined to not fit in a box, I was comforted by the NYTimes piece and finding your blog. My creative, flamboyant, bold son teaches me many lessons but it is a struggle to stand up to others that so desperately want to change him. Thank you for bringing voice to this topic. Your words remind me that we, as parents, are not alone and even, indeed, doing the best we can for our sons.

  11. 40isthenew13 says:

    Excellent, and well said quote in NYTimes that drove me immediately to you blog. What a perfectly concise way to state the issue… broad and personal all at once. Bravo.

  12. Here’s another fantastic blog from the mom of a gender-creative kid: http://raisingmyrainbow.com/

  13. jean says:

    Being of the middle, and trying to relate your posts to my experiences, I cross-dressed as a child, was ‘caught out’ and humiliated, just from being caught out being what I clearly should not have been viz. the effeminate boy. I was offered help of sorts but retreated to what I expected the world expected of me – in short I ran scared (this was in the 1950s). Consequently I’ve lived in two worlds all of my life and hated it, mostly in denial and overly acting out the male life-style. What you and others of your generation are doing – allowing freedom of expression for your children, is totally laudable and I wish I had had that freedom and that courage. Of course I cannot say what I would have done with it all, but perhaps there would have been fewer conflicts in my life. So don’t ever doubt yourself. You’re all ‘spot on’.

  14. Jere says:

    I just have to say I cried throughout the article! I felt so alone and I could never even find what to call it that my boy wants to wear heals, my clothes and make up! I have done my best letting him be who he is at home but scared to let him go out in the world like that. We live on a small island and small schools. Last thing I wanted to do was to be there reason why he got bullied. Mind you his teachers and councilors have told me he can handle his own! He is a pretty tough kid and doesn’t accept people just being mean. That was good to hear but still as a mom I don’t want to see him suffer! I don’t feel so alone anymore but man do I wish I was somewhere I could get some support! Go to a group and have my son meet other kids like him so he doesn’t feel alone! I am moving next year so hopefully we can find a place that will be more accepting if he does wear a pretty pink dress 🙂 Thanks so much!!!

  15. AJ says:

    Great post. I am a gay man and I’m glad my parents just let me be when growing up – we are very aware how we are being perceived and I loved the line “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.”

    Two things I wanted to add to the conversation

    1) It drives me nuts that people keeping looking for a biological explanation to gender non-conformity or to queer individuals. Gender and Sexuality are in a child’s energy, in their soul. You can’t find what isn’t there; as hard as they’ve looked for a biological explanation, they never have or will find one. The Navajo knew this: http://transgenderglobe.wordpress.com/2010/12/17/navajo-cultural-constructions-of-gender-and-sexuality/

    2) I don’t think we can address how boys are treated without looking to feminism. Why is it bad for boys to act like a girl? Because boys lose their privilege; that’s why no one is bothered by girls taking on boy traits to the same vicious levels. I can’t think of any group in society that if we said “you run like a _____ (Jew, Fag, ETC)” that people wouldn’t be hideously offended. When people say ‘you run like a girl’ no one bats an eye. We need to start with valuing women in our society if we want our boys to find acceptance along the gender spectrum.

    Just my thoughts


  16. Destany says:

    I just want to give you a virtual wink-and-a-nod. My friend shared the NYT article with me after we had been discussing my sons gender identity issues.
    The article (and subsequently, your blog) was more than helpful, it was a comfort. You didn’t mean to speak out, but thank you for doing so!

  17. Thorny says:

    I just read the article, found your blog through it, and was just really moved by it all. It’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve been brave enough to express my gender fluidity (or to even know what to call it!). My husband knew and has encouraged me to just be me, but I recently bit the bullet and let my dad in on it for the first time. I know I’m lucky to have their acceptance. I’ve never gone so far as a dress, but I did manage a skirt to work a few weeks ago. I’m really awed by the boys brave enough to be themselves at such young ages and wish I could’ve done it too. Anyway, thank you for your blog because I’m going to be visiting a lot now 🙂

  18. From the GID Closet says:

    I had to log out of my normal gravitar. This has shaken me to the core lately. It makes sense now. I remember asking my mom when I was 5 or 6 why there was no such thing as a tomgirl. I stand back and watch my niece be so fluid with her tomboyishness. The only people giving her problems are her aunts and mother that wish she would “dress up” once in a while. All in all she seems to be accepted as one of the boys.

    Me, well, when I was nine or ten I was fortunate enough to have a “girlfriend” who allowed me to come to her house and play dress up. She even helped me to rename my “alter ego” Tia. Even with boy’s clothes I was regularly doted on my newcomers to my grandparents shop, “She’s so cute.”

    I feel that if I had been born a girl I would have been lesbian. I have never been very comfortable around males of any age. There is so much more I wish to say but it would be a blog post in itself. As a forty year old father of a son (22) and a daughter (20) and soon to be grandfather of a little bundle of pink, I see how this has affected my attitude toward my son, and destroyed my relationship with my daughter.

    If only people had been so understanding thirty years ago…

  19. notatallsure says:

    I was ecstatic to discover Ruth Padawer’s Times article: to read of young people who are like me, who fit no gender niche, who revel being who they are and can’t be bothered with society’s opprobrium; who occasionally are lucky enough to have tremendously courageous loving parents who intuit that encouraging, or worse, insisting on conformity tramples a spirit.
    I’m a 63 year old guy. I loved putting on my sister’s girdles when I was 8, and I’ve enjoyed tight stretchy clothes ever since. I’m bisexual, went through a very gay phase in my 20’s, then married a woman for 20 years and have come to delight in and prefer women, ideally of muddled gender, ever since.
    I like wearing women’s jeans and t-shirts and underwear and I find it fun to clomp around in all kinds of high heels. Sometimes. But I’m not a classic transvestite. I don’t get off on trying to look like a woman. I just like what feels good to me, and that’s often clothes marketed to women. I’m not into skirts or dresses or makeup. Not that I have a problem with males enjoying that. (Or butch females, whom I adore). It’s just not who I am.
    I’ve been to transvestite gatherings, and they’re often disdainful and seem to feel threatened by someone like me, who likes some women’s clothes but doesn’t care about going the ‘Full Monty’. I’ve been called a ‘gender-f***’, (is this a family blog?), as if I’m stuck halfway in between. I do feel in between, but I don’t feel ‘stuck’. I’m happy being part female while wholly comfortable as mostly a man.
    What’s so refreshing about this blog, and the tenor, the nuance of the article, is hearing of young kids, and their parents, being fine with all gradations of gender complexity, with acceptance of all possibilities – from mild transitory or not, cross-dressing, to full transgender desires, and anything in between.
    I used to think I envied those who are definitely gay, or straight. Or male or female. Even decidedly transgendered. At the extreme ends of the spectrums. Because it would be simpler. But I don’t feel that way anymore now.
    Rickie Lee Jones is currently doing a terrific rendition of Bowie’s “Got your mother in a whirl, she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl…”. I hope it’ll be on her new CD (“The Devil You Know”) due out soon.
    Bravo, kudos and hooray to you brave parents and true-to-your selves younguns. You’re the pioneers of another liberation movement, like the gay pride movement in its infancy 60 years ago. And certainly a special thanks to all the magnificent transgendered, who have been bravely opening vistas for all of us who are happily neither one nor the other.

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  21. Katie Glover says:

    I’m Katie Glover, Editor of ‘Frock Magazine’, a bi-monthly publication for transgendered people. I have read several of your blog entries and would really like to feature you and your blog in the next issue of Frock Magazine (you can see the current issue here: http://frockmagazine.com/frock016).

    I don’t see any way to contact you on this site so I wonder if you would be good enough to drop me a line and let me know if you’d like to be featured. I think the transgender community would be most interested to hear your story.

    Many Thanks, Katie

  22. Zee says:

    I’m from India and here we celebrate the notion of “Ardhnareshwar” – “Ardh” meaning “half” and “naresh” meaning man – half man – the Hindu belief that all of us is born equal man and woman – both forces within us are essential to our growth and progress as human beings and rational thinking individuals. Thought you may be interested 🙂


  23. zee says:

    I’m confused: do you want the New York Times to clarify about what it means to be transgender because you yourself do not understand what it is?

    Firstly, it’s ‘transgender’, not ‘transgendered’ (we don’t exist in the past tense; ‘transgednered’ is not a word).

    Secondly, not all transgender people are depressed, self-injurious, ‘really someone else inside’, or trying to switch from one sex to another. This is because…

    Lastly, transgender is an umbrella term for people who do not conform to the gender roles expected of them from society. I.e, that includes your son.
    Transgender people include: transsexual, transvestite, androgynous, or what you call ‘gender complex’.

    Hope that was helpful!

  24. I guess for your eyes only says:

    I was fascinated to read the NY Times article and to know of your blog. Having grown up a tomboy and then lesbian way back when, I have been sensitive to gender/sexual orientation/label issues since the mid-60’s. I am always appalled at judgmental people who think they have the right to comment on anyone, when they have no clue what human behavior is like. Your boys are brave. Your parents are brave. All of us who are trying to understand things we don’t understand are helping make a stronger society. Keep up the supportive work, and of course it is not all about boys! Great comment in the article though about how much harder it is for boys and men who do not dress or act conventionally. So glad you parents are trying to support your kids for who they are.

  25. M. says:

    Thank you for your part in that NYT piece, which really got me thinking again about my own issues dating back to when I was a little boy myself (issues that are still oh-so-present in my head even now) *and* thinking more complexly about my 10-year-old daughter, who currently refuses to wear anything with even a *whiff* of “girly clothes.” It’s an issue I want to suss out for myself and for my family as much as possible — I will not be at all surprised if my 3-year-old son follows in his old man’s not-so-masculine footsteps — and every supportive, intelligent, encouraging article I read helps me with my own issues and my family’s.

    You seem like a fantastic parent. Thank you. 🙂

  26. William J Lexie says:

    Being an artist and one that enjoys ‘ dressing up ‘ and it’s usefulness in my art making , I think of ‘ girl stuff [ especially girlie stuff ] as sssooo cool and awesome , artistic creative fun , I mean.. like why not , right . So perhaps these young guys are just expressing creative fun and I thought that this camp idea as pretty neat . HOWEVER , there is the odd thing out , which to me is troubling and that is the age group which just seems to young [ under 10 ] to make sense , so I question it .
    It could be easy to confuse ‘ dressing up ‘ with BEING ‘dressed up ‘[ by someone else ] . One does have to learn how to dress , like buttoning, tying, etc , certainly toddlers/ children need help in dressing , and just how self aware are children under 10 to be doing such as dressing up as they ‘ want ‘ ? [ Is there spoiling going on as well ? ] Generally a parent picks clothing for their child / toddler . { It is possible and probable {{ that at least some }} of those parents are just simply dressing up their boys as girls for their own reasons } But being OVER 10 when one start to come into their own , well that’s more sensible .
    And there is unisex styles that can work for that ‘ space’ such as tie dyes shirts , striped pull overs , sweaters , shorts, jeans , sandals , hair over ears / neck but not over shoulders , caps, at least til they are old enough to think more for themselves and perhaps to sharing a cool hobby at a camp with peers that enjoy the same .

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