Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Gender Bender Fender Benders

One of the most popular searches that bring people to my site continues to be “boys who wear tights” or some variation thereof. I’m really hoping that this represents parents who are looking to gain insight into or support for their oddly attired sons, rather than … well, I don’t even want to go there.

HB hasn’t been wearing tights as much lately, but he continues to make gender-ambiguous personal adornment choices. He’s currently a fan of nail polish and skin-tight jeans—jeans that can only be bought in the girls’ department, because even the skinniest of the skinny boys’ jeans are too floppy for his taste. He is also cultivating a Mohawk that he talked me into dying black (blue was his first choice, but that proved too challenging). Much of last year he wore a suit and tie (even to the Caribbean); he learned to tie a tie before he could tie his shoes.

For a while I wasn’t sure if he much cared that anyone found his appearance odd. This summer, though, he left his super-accepting school and ventured off to day camp. A groovy, anything-goes kind of camp, but unstructured enough to allow for a lot more teasing than school.

The first thing he got grief for was his swim wear. He finds boys’ swim trunks ugly; he prefers sunsuits. But after one day of being teased for wearing a “onesie,” he switched to trunks.

Another was his nail polish. A boy who waited at our bus stop frequently asked, “Why do you wear nail polish?” And HB would do what he usually does when he finds a question rude or intrusive: he acted as if no question had been asked. (It’s almost spooky to watch that.) On the very last day, though, the kid asked him yet again, and HB finally burst out: “I’m not even wearing nail polish! It’s all worn off!”

“But why DID you wear it? It’s for girls,” the kid said.

HB was quiet for a moment, then looked the boy in the eye and asked, “Do you have a dad?”

Now, HB knew this boy’s situation very well: he was adopted from Russia by a lesbian couple. So the question was really a challenge: You want to talk about people being different? I’ll talk about differences. Game on.

The boy happily gave an answer (that he has a biological father, etc., etc.), and the moment passed and they resumed making scatological jokes.

I wasn’t thrilled about HB essentially teasing someone else, but I was proud of his ability to maneuver through the situation without losing his cool. When he talks about these encounters, he is most frustrated by the fact that no one else can see that their clothes are ugly; he doesn’t question his own taste at all. When he does try to conform (e.g. with the swimsuit), he says it’s because he just gets tired of having to explain himself over and over. And I find it interesting that socially, he is pretty shy; he wants to stand out for the way he looks, not for what he does.

The day after camp ended, HB asked me to paint his nails in rainbow colors, and wore his sunsuit to the pool. He also asked me to buy him a pink shirt: “A lot of boys turn their backs on pink, but it’s a nice color. And every color is for everyone.”

I’ve had some nice comments from guys to my earlier posts about HB’s penchant for tight-fitting clothes and what this doesn’t mean about his future sexual orientation. In fact, HB already seems to have a pretty firm hetero orientation; he gets all soft and gooey around girls (“Lena sometimes pulls on my Mohawk, but gently, and it feels really … niiiiiice.” I can almost hear the bass line thumping) whereas with boys he is mainly interested in beating them at ball sports. On the other hand, he would like to be Miley Cyrus when he grows up. But also a professional pitcher. He was very into t-ball … as long as he could wear too-small pants and some nail polish ... Listen, make your bets if you want, but I truly do not care where he ends up on the orientation spectrum.

I don’t get why anyone gets bent out of shape about any of this. Do you?


Orange said...

I think your kid is awesome, and I think my kid is awesome, and I think we're awesome parents for nurturing them to make the choices they want to make about their appearance.

What's sad is that likely a majority of American boys who like pink and purple, who like to wear their hair long, who like nail polish, who like to play with "girl" toys, or tend to cry are berated by their own families and shamed for acting "like a girl" or "gay" or what have you. There was a recent case of a young man killing a baby boy (not even his own! he was dating the mom and was babysitting) because he was acting like a girl and crying or something. At the other end of the spectrum are the parents who just don't want the boy to get teased, so they say "No, let's get that shirt in a BOY color."

Orange said...

Wait, I ignored your question. Yeah, people are assholes with a lot of their self-worth contingent on their conformance with the patriarchy's demands. If they don't enforce the traditional standards on everyone else, how will they know they're [not gay]/[a man]/[a proper woman]?

Jess said...

Some people are assholes, that's one reason. But some people are just scared. I've watched people play gender police with their children because they are grappling with gender themselves, and are so afraid, both for themselves and their children, of what the consequences will be if they are found by others to be gender deviant. And of course, some of those fears are unfounded - but some of them are NOT. Gender policing feels uncomfortable, and is easy to label as bad - but the truth is that especially in more conservative areas it's a skill that parents may be passing on to their children for very real, important, perhaps life saving reasons.

Unknown said...

So, so true. It kills me when my 6 year old has to question his own fashion choices for fear he will get teased. He likes all kinds of different socks and so we buy them in the girls dept. He tends to like hearts, bright patterns and then of course the Jonas Bros!

He also paints his nails and loves that we do that activity together. What really got me last summer was when one of the fathers at the pool made a big deal out of it. He stills paints his nails, but now he insists on taking it off before any group gatherings.

Why can't people see how they affect kids with their comments and just keep quiet?

PS. he also like pedicures. Not a habit I am going to support....can't afford it!

DoctorMama said...

@Orange & Jess: I don't actually think that picking on someone for being gender-bending is being an asshole (though many assholes do it). When people do it, it seems reflexive, almost, like telling a toddler not to touch something hot. I have friends who have a hard time with some of HB's choices. And while people have been harmed or killed for their perceived differences, I'm sure having had accepting parents had nothing to do with those victims' fate. But yes, that is probably behind some of it at least.

@Debbie -- sounds so similar! Except the most expensive thing HB has requested is hair extensions.

sue said...

Huh. I was expecting something more "out there" from the sunsuit. Those are pretty common around here - probably 30% of the kids at the pool wear them, girls or boys.
My boy is a lover of dresses. He actually has very good taste in them. He's starting to get a little more conscious of other people's opinions, and more interested in them. Generally, when a kid laughs at his dress, he'll look them in the eye and say "no, YOU look funny." and stick out his tongue. Then he'll change the topic to poop or cars or whatnot. Once, this summer, a kid was particularly mean (and got scolded severely by me for it) and my guy looked at me with tears in his eyes and said "he thinks I look funny, but I DON'T. He's WRONG." I hope he's still as confident and direct about his choices when he's HB's age - he's nearly 4 right now. I haven't a clue what his orientation will eventually be, but we like to call him an Executive Transvestite, a'la Eddie Izzard.

Anonymous said...

"Huh. I was expecting something more "out there" from the sunsuit. "

Me too. They're pretty common around here, too, thogh the 6-7 year olds are starting to abandon them. I'm a big fan of rashguards (or sunsuits), 'cause they cut down on sunscreen use (especially for mine, who are naturally dark, so a "sunsuit" basically means a bit of sunscreen on the face).

I was expecting one of those frilly things toddler girls wear.

I'm amused that your son likes to be noticed for what he wears (at first it just seemed like he wanted to wear what he wanted), but the request of the pink shirt, and the conscious assertion that other boys don't wear them but he wants to anyway seems like he does indeed want people to take notice.

My son has reached the stage where he cares a lot that other boys find his clothes acceptable. I wish he was willing to fly his own colors.

What Part of Princess Don't You Understand ? said...

Your kid seems awesome. You are lucky to have him , and he to have you !

Ewan said...

To answer the question: yeah, insecurity.

I am impressed that your 6 year-old *thinks* that much about clothes :). My 7 year-old son likes particular socks, but other than that could apparently care no less. I am happy that he has no hangups about nudity, though.

Sundance Doula said...

Yeah, what Orange said!

And I'm loving your blog, Dr. Mama! Especially the older posts about co-sleeping and extended breastfeeding. What a lucky kid you have!

Jess said...

No, I certainly didn't mean that having accepting parents DID contribute to those victims fate. But I have heard parents state explicitly: I have suffered because of my gender non-conformity, and so I want to teach my child the ways in which others will expect him to conform, so that he will be safer than I was before I learned.

I want to be clear that I think accepting parents are obviously a gift to non-conforming children, and that I would imagine they typically increase those children's level of safety, especially emotionally speaking. The point I wanted to make is that it's easy to condemn those who gender police their children, but sometimes those parents understand VERY well what it feels like to be gender non-conforming, and while there is a part of them that accepts their child's right to express themselves, there is another part of them that is just plain scared. It's not that they are dumb or assholes or unenlightened, you know?

Anonymous said...

The thing is... he's going to be what he's going to be. A parent trying to change this will just make it more tense. I think you're doing an awesome job!

My little brother wore nail polish, etc. It was a phase. He's grown out of it. Most kids will... and if they don't, who cares!

mary said...

people get bent out of shape because they have to reconfigure their maps when they encounter something that doesn't make "sense" to them. that's if they are human enough to do that. if not, then they try to reconfigure you to fit their maps. maps for life. you know, the short cuts that we all make in our brains to make sense of life.

anyway, i think people also get bent out of shape because they think that looks correlate with inner value, which, sometimes it does, and sometimes it does not.

i think you're an amazing mother and HB was born to you for a reason. =)

Ozma said...

OH MY GOD. Did he really say "a lot of boys turn their back on pink?"

I love your kid. I just love him. But I'm afraid it is getting close to the time for a road trip to your house so your kid can meet my kid.

You are doing something right. My daughter does question herself when she is criticized for wearing boys clothes and so forth.

I'll explain that another time, when I show up on your doorstep for a playdate.

I'm really learning from this though.

DoctorMama said...

@Jess: I agree -- I get what you're saying. And one person I know wondered that about the neighbor kid with two moms; "that's for girls" is a sentiment his moms might encourage in some ways to spare him pain they've known.

@ozma - that was verbatim. And you're welcome any time -- no exaggeration.

Green said...

Your son is a male Rachel Zoe for the next generation.

P.S. Male rock stars wear nail polish.

DoctorMama said...

Oh and -- where is this mythical land of sunsuited boys? Here they're for toddlers only. Boys wear trunks plus rash shirts. I got his online but even so could only get him girls' versions (that's what he's got on in the picture).

Rosemary said...

The Mythical land of sunsuited boys? Australia. My eight year old nephew wore a sunsuit almost exactly the same as HBs. Though, it is a bit of struggle to get them much larger than that.

Anonymous said...

OMG those pictures are so great I would LOVE to have a son who dressed like that! I can only hope myownself's dear future offspring will have such style!

And yeah - in both California and Israel, those sunsuits are very common on kids. Anyplace there are a lot of white people in the sun. Parents get tired of greasing the kids up all the time, and people are more aware of damage. It wouldn't look out of place at all here.

Sounds like it's time to play "Free to Be You and Me."

Anonymous said...

All my relatives got completely freaked out when my nephews wanted to wear make up when they were three. The widespread gay panic -- wow, they had no idea how horrible they were.

The idea of CARING about a small child's "masculinity" is like -- god, I don't know, like clitoredectomy (or even malecircumscision, for that matter). All these behaviors betray adults' need to contol children's sexual identity.

The other thing that's odd to me is that the adults who interfere with their children in this way are COMPLETELY unsefl conscious about it. They view it as part of the job of being a parent. Gah.


Steph said...

I love it! Bravo to you for allowing him to be himself.
I hope my 3 week old son can someday be as awesome as yours.

Anonymous said...

For me, my son's sexuality is a non-issue. For my family (especially my in-laws) it is huge--they are enormously homophobic. To the point of absurdity.

I would also worry about our society's penchant for violence against gays. That would be the real thing that would haunt me. Please don't hurt my child because of who he loves. But people do. Hopefully, by the time my child is of age, times will be better in regard to gay rights and gay safety.

Lnorigb said...

my son is 15 now. when he was 3 years old he started having opinions abt his looks. he wore and still wears bracelets (even ankle), necklaces, ears pierced, short hair long hair mohawks. when he was 7 he died his hair bleach bottle blond. he seems to have sorted himself out into a shoulder length layers (no dye) hair, vans, jeans and tee's only kinda guy. he's now talking abt tattoos.

so to say they outgrow it... well i hope not.

and to answer yr question i believe there are 2 types of ppl who get bent abt style gender ambiguity are only bent cos they had that streak once upon a time and were TOO FRIGHTENED to indulge it. not even not allowed just too meek to push the envelope and they have residual anger at themselves they take out on others who do what they were afraid to do. and then the other type are just the herd followers. doubt i need to elaborate that thought for you.

Stefanie said...

I have 2 boys ages 6 and 3. The 6 yr. old is, like his father, very conservative. He does have his own sense of style but does not want to stand out or draw attention to himself in any way. However he did have me paint his toe nails this summer and loved it until a neighbor girl commented "I don't think boys are supposed to do that." He let it wear off but I'm sure he would want them painted again if it weren't for all the comments he got.
My other son on the otherhand is a lot like HB. Always has his nails painted and likes what he likes regardless of what gender is "supposed to wear them" He loves to dress up like a princess. My husband and I have no problems with it. Our older son thinks it's funny and often giggles at the things his brother wears but rarely comments.
Other people,one neighbor in particular, cannot handle a boy wearing "girls" clothes or doing "girl" things. You know like taking care of a baby doll or gasp playing with a hula hoop. Really drives him crazy when his own son joins in (until he sees his dad watching then he stops). I think it has more to do with the man's own issues than anything else. Some of the remarks come from friends/relatives that I think just have a hard time relating to our son or feel they should say something to him because otherwise "how will he learn that he shouldn't wear those". I don't get why it bothers them at all though.

Also I live in England and it is the style for boys to wear skinny jeans and capris. I actually had to order my boys pants online from the U.S. because 6 y.r. old won't wear them and they make going to the toilet v. difficult for 3 yr. old. Boys wear everything from full body suits to speedos to swim in ;)

Jennifer said...

My friends too have a hard time with some of kids' choices. And strangers seem to have a very hard time with them. It's annoying and I don't get it either.

Your HB sounds fantastic and the "Do you have a Dad?" response was priceless.

Sue said...

HB is just so stylish - I love it!

monicac2 said...

Your son sounds like a true individual, rather than a gender-bender (whatever that might be). I'll confess (as I was recently doing to a friend the other day on this very topic), that having grown up as a die-hard fitter-inner (ok, ya), I have to really watch myself as I parent my older daughter (age 8) who totally marches to the beat of her own drum.

My own inadequacies are painfully made all the more obvious as I watch my younger child who inherited Mommy's DNA and who always wants to be a follower not a leader, and always wants to fit in.

Who would have a problem with a leader, one might wonder. But with my older daughter - it's not so much that she is a leader, it's more that she does her *own* thing. She has a quirkiness to her personality that I, who deemed popularity the most important thing of all, never had and never wanted.

That said, I know two things to be true: (1) being an individual rocks (for example, not being desperate to be popular stomps peer pressure into the ground) and (2) my daughter rocks even more, and as her mom and main cheerleader, I embrace her, love her and support her for all that she is.

This parenting thing isn't just about the kids, it's about the parents too.

sue said...

Mythical land? I'm in Ithaca, NY - depending on the crowd you run with, there really aren't very many culturally enforced norms (my kids go to the rural school, and there are more there than in the downtown school) for kids and clothing. Or anything, really. It's definitely possible to self-segregate to an extent that your son would likely be one of the more sedate dressers in his social circle. No need to buy a ticket to Australia or Israel, though I have to admit, both sound a LOT warmer in the winter!

Kehla said...

OH MAN his Mohawk is awesome.

Flucky Mom said...

Good for you for raising such a true individual and not a lame kid who will go with the herd. It's important for him to stand up for himself and his beliefs. People will challenge him for many years to come, but he sounds like he's well grounded and isn't going to take any crap. And I love his mohawk!

Kaviare said...

A friend sent me a link to this post and I was utterly charmed by your blog. I have been slowly working my way backwards in between working at my boring office job. I hope it's not too creepy to be doing that... I find myself just as engaged and informed by your posts from 2007 as your posts from yesterday.

I just came across this list of started-not-finished posts:
The story about the time I was attacked by a patient
How to study
Winter running
Why you should never, ever have a butterfly release at a wedding
How I lost my needle phobia
How not to introduce a neurotic cat to a newborn
My c0caine-dealing college boyfriend

Obviously you've since finished some of these. But I am intrigued by the mystery posts. I want to know about that patient attack and those butterflies!

Anonymous said...

This sounds kind of stupid, but our three year old has expressed a big preference for girls and no preference for clothing so long as he is not too hot or too cold.

I on the other hand want him to grow up into a happy healthy adult. I couldn't care less about how he dresses or what sex or gender he prefers.

It makes me happy in a way, because I suspect his life will be easier falling in the middle of the bell curve. It also makes me a little sad, because somewhere out there I know that there is a little boy struggling against his parents to be who he is. We would let him be who he his.

A Different Kate

Unknown said...

HB sounds absolutely awesome - and has better fashion sense than I do. Oh well. I'm a straight female lawyer and my style icons are always male (or Bianca Jagger in a men's suit) but since I'm built like a female the whole thing goes to hell....

Gender-bending, or whatever, doesn't bother me in the least - though I look at a nephew-in-law who at 10 is frankly quite "stereotypically queeny" and know that someone is going to give him a really hard time later in life (if not already). Which is stupid.

I should add that I did NOT grow up with gender/style progressive parents - I grew up with very gender-rigid relatives obsessed with what was "normal" but I never saw the point of agreeing with them.

Anonymous said...

I think the reason people get so upset is that they think the behavior can change the essential nature of the person--so if you let a boy wear nail polish, or let a girl have a crew cut, you are making it more likely they will be gay. The corollary would be that discouraging such behavior would somehow reduce that chance. It's amazing to me how many people still think that gender identification and sexual orientation are voluntary... --Scientician

Robin said...

I have no children and some would think that I am disqualified from expressing an opinion. I don't like to do something just because people think it is inappropriate so here it is: Let them do what they want to do as long as it harms noone. If I had a boy child who wanted to wear dresses or fingernail polish I would tell him to be himself and explain how people don't want you to be different but that you have to be yourself.

winecat said...

I say you are one cool Mama, HB is one awesome kidand by extension TH must be one cool dad. Now grandma on the other hand...

Granny Geek said...

Just happened across your blog while researching jogging strollers, and love what I see so far! My gender-bending Spouse and I are raising our gender-bending granddaughter who loves everything boy focused, except for the occasional princess top or sequined shoe. It's so much more accepted for girls to be "tomboys" than for boys to love pink and ponies and princesses. My heart broke yesterday in the store for a little boy whose mom was making it very clear to him that he may NOT have a shirt with flowers on it because flowers are for GIRLS. People can be such idiots when it comes to gender expression. I hope that once she's your son's age, she is as confident in dealing with others' issues with how she looks or what she wears or what she prefers to do as your son.

Gregory House, PA-C said...

I think this is all awesome. I can't wait to see what someone does with their life when they have such awesome parents. Probably change the world.

It also seems to me that HB is growing up in an urban environment and is probably just imitating some of the current fads. He may be different for his age, but he's not revolutionizing fashion. He's a Williamsburg boy deep down. I actually see lots of young kids wearing very fashion conscious outfits in manhattan.

Brit said...

I know this is forever after your post, but I just want to say that I think your boy is amazing. I think he did an awesome job at manuervering through the situation, probably better than I would've done.

sqpeggy said...

Have you heard of a book called "Princess Boy" by Cheryl Kilodavis? You and HB may appreciate it.

Angela said...

Damn. I wish I were as cool as your kid.

Not nearly daring enough to sport a mohawk (not that I want one, but still). Sigh.

indianman said...

That mohawk is really good.