When Boys Wear Pink

Last summer, my pal Sarah and I started scheming up a way to speak at the Civil Liberty & Public Policy annual conference. Both Sarah (who incidentally happens to be one of the founders of the conference, oh-so-many years ago) and I have attended CLPP’s conference, each of us getting a lot out of the different workshops, the Friday Abortion speak out, the Saturday morning plenary, and much more, many times over the years.

Yet neither of us had ever spoken on a panel or had organized a workshop, despite our roaring activist spirits. I had my own reservations. I knew that the conference, which is held at Hampshire College, tends to draw a younger pool of participants – college students, recent grads, and folks just starting out in their careers. While there were a few workshops here and there about issues surrounding pregnancy and birth, I never saw any that talked about kids… and yet, that was exactly what I wanted to talk about.

My article, “Pink Scare,” had just been published in Bitch Magazine, and I was still immersed in the whole concept of how society reacts to children that blur traditional gender stereotypes. I wanted to talk to more people about it – to get discussions going about *why* our society clings to certain stereotypes that have become entrenched in our day-to-day lives, and more importantly, how can we work together to provide a more accepted fluid concept of gender. I could envision the panel in my mind, and when I mentioned my idea to Sarah she was immediately on board. We quickly began plotting.

Soon, we had a proposal all written up and emails out to a handful of candidates we hoped would join us on our panel. We had the drive, motivation and desire to get this out there. I, however, also had some doubts. Why would an essentially “hip” conference that caters to a mostly younger crowd want two older mamas to come and talk about gender stereotypes and children? Who would even show up? Even after CLPP had enthusiastically accepted our proposal and scheduled our workshop, I was still riddled with doubt. I had nightmares that only one or two people would attend, and mostly like they would be related to us.

Conference Registration. Photo via CLPP

Finally the weekend of the conference arrived. I had attended a few other workshops earlier in the day, since our slot was not until later on. The ones I had sat in on were amazing – I was inspired and revitalized and ready to kick some ass. I tried to bottle up all of those feelings to dip into during our panel (no matter how few people showed up).When I arrived in our smallish classroom, I had a moment of wondering if the folks at CLPP shared my fears. Had we been given a smaller classroom as opposed to a lecture room (or even just a larger classroom) because they thought we’d have a small turn out? My stomach may have twisted even tighter.

I welcomed our speakers who had already arrived and helped one of them fiddle with the computer projector. We had 15 minutes until our workshop was slated to start…and there was only one person sitting in the chairs laid out. But then – something happened. People started arriving and only five minutes later, with 10 minutes left to go before our panel started, the room was filled. Not only was it filled, it was filled to capacity with people sitting on the ground, the windowsills, and even spilling out into the hallway. I may have asked them once or twice if they were in the right place. (I know. I clearly need to work on that whole confidence thing)

Then, the panel began. I have to say the women that spoke on our panel are stellar at what they do, and were truly riveting. (For the record, the wonderful women were: Author Christian McEwen, Advocate Erin McNeill, and Author/Education Consultant, Dr. Jennifer Bryan)

But I wondered, how would those in the audience react?

I could finally let out the breath I had been holding since I decided to pitch the idea for this workshop. They too seemed riveted. And not only that – they were engaged, interested, and were grappling with similar issues, whether they had kids, or not. What really drove it home for me, was when we arrived at the question and answer portion of the panel. I had prepared a list of questions to ask our panelists on the chance that nobody in the audience had any themselves. I have been to panels like that. When nobody raises their hands and there’s that awkward moment of silence? Never good.

In our case? I never even had time to glance at my questions. Hands shot up and people wanted to talk. Some asked thought-provoking questions, while others shared personal stories.

Kids, teens, young adults, and “old” folks – it was all universal. Anyone who has ever dared to step foot outside these gender norms has understood what we were talking about and why it’s so important to allow for gender expression and freedom from a young age. It didn’t matter one iota if somebody was a mother or father. They didn’t need kids to get it.

One young woman shared how her 3-year-old brother enjoyed playing dress up, much to their mother’s dismay. She asked us for advice on how to be a supportive big sister. My heart both broke and cheered for her.

Someone else shared a very moving personal story of how expectations of gender stereotypes, and the inherent shaming that occurred when they weren’t fulfilled really messed with his own sense of identity and who he was.

A young father from the Bronx, who happened to engage in UFC-style competition talked about the mixed reactions he gets when he wears his pink Planned Parenthood t-shirt to spar in. He also talked about the message it sends his son.

The audience kept asking questions, and so we stayed and answered. We were there well past our allotted time, lingering for another half hour or so talking about the very real problem of gender stereotypes. After I got over myself and my own self-indulgent worries about the panel, I realized that regardless of that fact that we were talking about children, the notion of gender stereotypes affects everyone – both in personal ways and on a much larger scale.

Everyone is impacted by the way mainstream society writes the narrative about gender. It’s why we get so up in arms or uncomfortable when a little boy paints his toe nails, has long hair, or wears pink shoes. It’s why when LEGO creates a “girly” set, we get pissed.

Like every year I have attended CLPP, I left the 2012 conference feeling inspired and energized to keep on fighting the good fight. However – this year, after presenting for the first time, I felt a renewed sense of spirit and motivation powering me on. A sense of defeat can easily grab hold, especially when faced not only with opposition but ambivalence. More than once I’ve been on the end of “So what? What’s the big deal?” The fact that I know there are so many people out there that actually do *get it* along with me, and realize that changing the way we look at and talk about gender will benefit everyone makes it much easier to put up with that ambivalence and keep pushing forward.

I already have plans to submit another “different” workshop proposal for CLPP 2013, but this time – I’m going in knowing that regardless of the specificity of the topic, there will be those out there, from various walks of life who will get it, latch on, and work along with me.

6 thoughts on “When Boys Wear Pink

  1. Thanks so much for talking about this. Here’s our story: For about three years (when he was 5-7) my son’s favorite “special occasion” outfit was a spangled, fringed leotard handed down from his sister. His dad and i didn’t think too much about it until folks started making little comments that implied we had better get to work quick on defining his sexuality. That we were somehow damaging him by allowing him to explore his preferences for CLOTHING. It began to make us self-conscious, and I’m sure we passed it along to him. He outgrew the leotard and didn’t ask for another, and now he (mostly) dresses in what is socially acceptable for boys his age. But i look at pictures of him in that outfit and all I see is joy, and I wonder why it made others so uncomfortable for him to be himself and hate that we let it impact our parenting.

  2. The session sounds great. I’d be interested to know whether it put the whole question of forcing children into traditional, heterosexual gender categories into the wider context of the backlash against third-wave feminism (and moves towards greater equality for the gay community)? I’ve been relatively happy with the explanation that much of the gender coding of products for children comes from corporate/capitalist agendas that are uncritically accepted by parents who have themselves been socialised to accept market forces as natural arbiters of culture. But this explanation is beginning to feel insufficient, especially in the face of the increasingly open backlash against women’s autonomy in the US and other places. So I’ve started to wonder whether any of this is really ‘about’ children at all. Big business, religious groups, plenty of ordinary people, clearly feel very uneasy about gender equality and the subversiveness of gay culture – but most of the time can’t openly oppose either among adults for fear of law suits for discrimination or harassment. What they do seem to be able to do is to project their strong, semi-concealed feelings, on to children, who can be controlled and reprimanded by any adult for crossing gender/sexuality boundaries. Any unwitting attempt by a child to subvert (allegedly) traditional categories lays them open to correction (‘that’s not for you: that’s for boys’; ‘boys can’t dress like girls because it’s not manly’). And now that is beginning to sound to me exactly like the sorts of things that – for example – plenty of men in the workplace are just dying to say to female colleagues but can’t, quite, or have to find oblique ways of expressing by blocking female promotion, etc – or that a lot of people would love to say to cross-dressers, transsexuals, etc, but mostly can’t. It’s so well known that sexuality is a product of nature, not nurture, that no one can honestly think that trying to control (or indeed, not controlling) what a child wears will have any effect on their sexuality. So it seems to me that it must be a more immediate gratification that the adult is getting from trying to control the child: an opportunity to lash out with their homophobia in a way that won’t be challenged by anyone.

    I’d be interested to know what other people think about this.

  3. Pingback: Previz #66 – Pink & Blue | I Rez Therefore I Am

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