Guessing Gender

EZ & me, PDX 2013

EZ & me, PDX 2013

For the last 6 years or so, there have been many comments about my son’s perceived gender from others – mostly strangers. For the most part, EZ has either been oblivious to these comments, or has ignored them, in that way that little kids can sometimes so effortlessly do. But in the last few months, they seem to be sinking in and sticking.

Perhaps it’s because he is becoming so much more observant of the world around him, as well as trying to figure out what his role is in all of it. But lately, whenever somebody mistakes him for a girl (which happens on a weekly basis, usually), it really seems to bug him.

I continue to march the party line: There is no one way to be a boy (or girl). I remind him that maybe people aren’t used to seeing such awesome, long, blond curls on boys. He repeats the “colors are for everyone” mantra when somebody challenges his favorites of pink and purple. But still, it sinks in.

And it’s wearing on him.

We were away in Canada a couple of weeks ago so I could speak at a conference. At check-in he was mistaken for a girl, and then again, later in our stay an older woman wished us a “good night, ladies” as we got out of the elevator. He’s been bringing that up a lot lately.

And his solution? Maybe he should just be a girl.

And it kills me. This would be a whole different challenge if I thought my son was questioning his own gender identity. For now, he’s not. He loves being a boy and all that it encompasses. I look at him and I just “get” boy radiating off him, whatever that means. However, despite all his “boyness,” EZ still steps outside the narrow construct of what it means to be male in our society. His deviation, whether it’s his preference to keep his blond curls long, or for the color pink, or for things that sparkle, are just a few parts that make up the totality of who he is. But for some people, that’s all they see and they immediately default to girl.

The conversation above took place at bedtime, when we normally have our special heart-to-hearts. I understand his frustration. I can’t imagine hearing people call me one thing when I know I’m something else. I could see it turning into something so annoying that you’d just want to change things, especially at six. Since then, we’ve had many more talks about what it means to be ourselves, no matter what anyone thinks. He knows that he doesn’t need to change for anyone but himself. We’ve talked about how sometimes people can be thrown off by his beautiful hair or color choices, but that all he has to do is politely correct them and move on. If they seem stuck on it, that’s their problem, not his.

Slowly, he’s starting to get it. I’m sure this isn’t the only time we’ll end up talking about this, and as he gets older he’ll come across many points where he has to work through being true to himself while coming up against societal expectations. My hope is that we’ve created a foundation where he feels confident and comfortable in his changes. Just as I don’t think “becoming a girl” is the solution here, I also hope he doesn’t box away his true joys and preferences because they don’t fit a certain mold. So far, so good on that front. My guess is that his acquiescing to just “be a girl” is his way of working out how to enjoy what he does while still living in a society that has fairly rigid gender boxes.

We live in a rather progressive little bubble, where it’s not unusual to see boys with long hair or girls with buzz cuts (in fact, as I’ve mentioned before, EZ’s fathers hair is quite long…possibly longer than mine at the moment). It’s also not unusual to see folks who identify as genderqueer. This isn’t about who or what my son has been exposed to – he’s aware of differences. However, when it becomes about him and his identity? He’s still trying to figure it all out.

Earlier today, my beloved local radio station played Kingsley Flood’s “Sun Gonna Lemme Shine.” The DJ, Monte, told folks to make sure to check out the video. Not only did I check it out, but I went to learn more and found a great HuffPo piece from Kingsley Flood Naseem Khuri.

It felt like Khuri was speaking to me:

The whole thing is complex. Kids just want to be kids and do what they want, so why do other kids get to determine that they can’t? At the same time, difference — from funny names to boys in dresses — can be unsettling to an unaccustomed kid.

It’s complex for parents, too, who must weigh their desire to nurture a kid’s identity with their desire to protect. I’m not a parent (remember that musician thing — I effectively live in a van), but when I saw that boy wearing “normal” boy clothes, I felt sad. He didn’t feel like he could wear what he wanted and, in a real way, was forced to compromise his own identity.

So for now, here I am, weighing my desire to nurture my son’s identity with my desire to protect.

Yes, Share.

I just read Randi Zuckerberg’s HuffPo piece, “My Son Wears Pink: To Share or Not To Share?” and it took me a bit to figure out why it didn’t sit quite well with me. Zuckerberg takes on the question of whether or not it’s in our children’s best interest to publicly share photos of them that fall outside the “norm.”

Childhood is a time to experiment, to make mistakes, to be silly and creative, and to use your imagination. I know there are a lot of things I did in my childhood that are (thankfully) in a photo album somewhere in my parents’ basement, instead of permanently cached online. For example, I wore a full-body Darth Vader Halloween costume when I was just a little too old for it to still be cute. A great memory, but looking back, I’m glad it’s not part of my online identity.

And fair enough. We all have embarrassing photos we’d prefer never saw the light of day. However, it’s Zuckerberg’s presumption over *what* we should protect our children from that is the issue. Zuckerberg is specifically referencing a post about a woman who shares pictures of her 6-year-old son dressed up in tutus, make-up, nail polish and dresses. She wonders whether this mother is thinking about the potential ramifications these pictures may have on her son later in life.

I, on the other hand, am thinking about the potential ramifications of not sharing them.

Before I get into this further, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the 6-year-old boy in question is referred to as a “cross-dresser” throughout Zuckerberg’s post as well as the one she links to (note: the mother of the child did not refer to her son as such). It seems completely out of place to ascribe this adult term to a child who likes to play dress up. Kids – amazingly – enjoy playing dress up. Whether that means a young girl dressing up like Captain Hook (is she a cross-dresser?) or another child dressing up like Lotso Huggin Bear from Toy Story 3 (should we start labeling those kids “Furries?”) – it’s all just dress up. It’s fun! It’s silly! It’s creative! It’s childhood! So, can we please lose the labels? That would be a great place to start.

If we didn’t have such strict and stringent gender codification in our society, then pictures like this would be as innocuous as the mom who posts pictures of her son playing soccer or of her daughter playing with dolls. It’s only because these pictures step outside the norm that they become questioned.

Maybe – and just hear me out – instead of suggesting that we *don’t* share these pictures over fear that it will damage our children somehow, we actually share more of them in hopes of normalizing and accepting these types of things. SO much pressure is put on the whole “BUT WHAT DOES IT MEAN” part when a child happens to travel outside his or her traditional gender box. Some times it could mean a lot. It could possibly mean that the child in question is challenging their gender identity and there is truly something deeper going on. But for many children who step outside these incredibly rigid gender lines, it just means they enjoy bold, beautiful colors, or sparkles, or being fancy, or materials that feel nice and special.

Being a “pink boy” doesn’t have to mean anything beyond being a boy who happens to love pink. It’s adults who put the larger significance on it. When Zuckerberg lumps dressing up outside gender norms along with “making mistakes” of childhood, she’s placing a (negative) value on it, when it is simply just another part of a child’s life, along with digging in the dirt, reading books, playing sports, etc…

Zuckerberg says, “It’s a fantastic thing to be proud of your child. We should always love and support our children no matter what, and we should applaud parents who bravely support their child in the face of society telling them otherwise. But it’s one thing to capture an adorable moment and send it to a few close friends and family. It’s another thing entirely to send it out into the void of the Internet, without thought of future repercussions.”

Would she say the same thing to the mother who posts a picture of her little girl dressed up for a ballet recital?

I’m thinking of “future repercussions.” I’m thinking that posting pictures like these – showing kids having fun and being creative – sets a precedent that children have the ability to express themselves freely. These pictures also help challenge the status quo, so that the next time a little boy happens to paint his nails or wear pink, it isn’t cause to stop the presses, make a huge deal of it, and question the child or the parents. It would be just another kid, doing things that some kids just happen to do.

So, I say… Share! I’m not advocating sharing anything that would embarrass your kid, of course. But I also don’t agree that stepping outside gender norms is embarrassing or troubling at all. So share your child being his or her self – whether that be knee-deep in dirt or waist high in tutus (or rocking pink crocs & a purple hoodie while walking down the street with his dad… As the case may be).

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