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.

43 thoughts on “Guessing Gender

  1. Avital, I’m having the same issues/worries/fears/discussions with my daughter. Strangers call her Buddy or Son, and refer to her as “he” or “him” all day long. For now, she’s ignoring it or seemingly uninterested. My fear is what to do on the day when it will start bothering her. Fingers crossed it never does! She is such an awesome adventurous girl… I don’t want to lose that to society.

  2. I love this because our two year old has long flowing blonde curls, no interest or understanding of genders and loves princesses as much as he loves trucks. We don’t emphasize gender pronouns so I think he is really confused when people pigeonhole in such direct ways when we are out in public. My husband has actually walked away from people mid-conversation because the words that come out of their mouths have been so ridiculous, silly and obnoxious. I am still trying to learn as a mom how to respond to people who continually refer to him as a girl despite our passive attempts at correcting them without making a big deal out of it, but I think I will begin to simply say that “there is no one way to be a boy or girl”.

    Thank you for another great post!

    • Thanks, Jenna! I’m still flabbergasted by the time I had to repeatedly let a waitress at restaurant know that E was indeed a boy, despite her continued insistence that he really looked like a girl. sigh. Although, usually when I correct folks, most are quick to apologize. It’s only a very select few who insist on pushing it. :/

  3. He’s incredibly lucky to have a mother who supports who he is. I commend you for allowing him to live his life and for having these hard conversations with him. Continually taking notes from you for when I’m a mama (B’H).

  4. We let our older kids wear whatever they wanted – my step-son used to wear a ballerina outfit and pink ribbons in his hair, and my step-daughter dressed up as the “Crazy Mixed Up Superhero” one Halloween. They are now 11 and 13, and are 2 very well-adjusted teenagers that have a solid sense of their own identities. I say let ’em wear whatever they want, and peer-pressure be damned!


  5. Avital –
    It is so interesting you sent me this post because I just blogged about Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s new project “The Masks You Live In”, a feature length documentary about American masculinity ( and the performance masks our sons feel pressure from society to wear.

    We don’t allow our boys a lot of space to explore the world in regards to them stepping outside the very masculine box many people put them in at very early ages. EZ is a wonderful boy who has the courage to be who he wants to be. The rest of the world may not catch on right away, but EZ knows intrinsically what so many others have forgotten — there are many ways to be a boy.

    • Yes! I just posted a link to that kickstarter on my FB page. It’s been all over my feed the last couple days. Excited to read your take on it. I’m all for people trying to break down the walls & stereotypes out there.

      Thanks for your kind words and continuous support! x

      On Fri, Jul 12, 2013 at 1:03 PM, The Mamafesto

  6. thank you SO much for sharing this. there is no parenting guide for all of this but it is so clear that your children are lucky to have YOU…for the support and guidance and just obvious love you have for them.

  7. I find it amazing how it is acceptable for girls to do sports, wear pants and dress as society sees boys should and yet if a boy puts on a dress or makeup people say it’s wrong. I try to explain to my own children how this is wrong and how many years ago men did wear dresses, even Jesus. And they also wore wigs. And there was a time when women weren’t allowed to wear pants. I hope that someday this gender role of what people expect as a boy or as a girl gets broken down. Only by us parents teaching our children one at a time that it doesn’t matter what you like or wear there is no specific way to be a boy or a girl and the only thing that defines boy or girl is our reproductive organs and nothing else, will there ever become an end to this misconception of boys and girls. You are being an awesome mother for letting your son be who he is. I have let my 4 year old wear nail polish before, sometimes blue and sometimes pink (he picks), and I have gotten some funny faces from people and they say I’m turning him gay. I just tell them I won’t stop him from being himself no matter what he likes.

    • Even our reproductive organs don’t determine our gender (one reason I get all cranky over folks who announce their babies “gender” in utero. It’s their sex! Not their gender!). Our reproductive organs may determine our biological sex, but gender is a social construct – one that is continuously being squished into boxes that no longer fit many. So encouraging to hear of other parents who remind their kids that there’s no one way to be a boy or girl! Thanks, Stephanie!

      On Fri, Jul 12, 2013 at 1:36 PM, The Mamafesto

  8. My son is 10 with long hair and is mistaken for a girl every time we go out. When he was seven and my daughter was four we were in Walmart and an older woman came up to us to complement my two daughters’ red hair. DD’s reply, “Oh, no. I am a girl and he is a boy. I have a vagina and he has a penis. What do you have?” I doubt she will make assumptions again.

  9. My son is only two but he’s mistaken for a girl every single day. He has complete control over his appearance, I only insist that he’s clean and his hair is brushed when we go out. He has blond hair past his shoulders. His 4yo sister cut a chunk out of his hair and I asked him several times, in a variety of ways, on different days if he wanted to cut the rest of his hair to blend with the missing chunk or if he wanted to keep it long with a chunk missing. He consistently says he wants to keep it long. He also likes to wear bright colors (WHY should boys be limited to dark colors?!) and he prefers kilts over shorts. He directs me in how he wants his hair (sometimes a braid, sometimes a hair clip, sometimes just down). He loves frilly dresses. I’ve wondered how constantly being mistaken for a girl will effect him as he becomes aware of it. It bothers my husband (the reactions, not that our son likes what he likes). And I know what you mean – When I look at him he just radiates “boy”. He’s enthusiastic about things that go, he’s athletic, he’s “all boy”, but still he likes to plan his outfit when he wakes up in the morning (his favorite outfit is “motorcycle shirt, kilt, blue shoes”). We’re also fortunate to live in a place where boys with long hair are a common sight (One time I met a little girl with very long hair and I thought she was a boy!) We’re also really big into “colors are for everyone” and my 4yo says it a lot: colors are for everyone, trucks are for everyone, clothes are for everyone. I’m definitely going to start working in that there’s not one right way to be a girl or boy. I’m sorry to ramble, it’s just – US TOO! ya know?

    • Thank you so much for commenting, Molly. It really feels good to hear of others in similar situations – if only because the hope for changing these norms strengthens!

      Somebody else brought this up, and I guess I should address it re: E’s hair. I’ve asked him on numerous occasions whether he wants it cut or not (for me it’s more about the amazing amounts of knots that occur & the heat in the summer), but he is dead set against keeping it and refuses cuts. As long as it’s clean and relatively snarl free, I’m fine with it then (although in hot summer months he either needs to wear it in a pony tail or with a cloth, soccer-style headband, the latter of which he prefers).

      On Fri, Jul 12, 2013 at 2:13 PM, The Mamafesto

  10. ds decided to grow out his hair when he was about 6. A few years later, while at a beach resort, he had those braids & beads put in & kept them in for about a month. He kept growing his hair. He sometimes wore hand me down shirts from his big sister. People called him a girl constantly. He didn’t care. He’d very rarely correct them – only if he had to interact with them for a longer period. Casual convos in stores, he wouldn’t bother. Whatever, he’d say to me later – IF it came up, which was hardly ever.

    The ‘worst’ years for public double takes were about 9-13. He just kept on doing his thing. He’s 15 now, & has long hair past his waist. He’s also 6 feet tall & is just starting to get a bit of ‘man face’. I think by this time next year there’ll be an adams apple & some facial hair & it will once and for all stop confusing people.

    Anyway, all this to say btdt & I think my ds’s casual take was so spot on. Whatever. Don’t worry about it, do what makes you happy & comfortable. We never had long conversations about it or discussed this. We just smiled, kept going places, and kept on living our lives how we wanted to.

    Sometimes things turn into deals because we make them so, kwim?

    • The thing is – we don’t make it a big deal, and until recently E didn’t either (in fact he hardly ever mentioned it). I think that’s why this is hurting my heart so much. Despite all our (both overt and subtle) cues that there’s no one way to be a boy/girl/kid, E is still absorbing outside influences/perceptions & it’s started to get to him. When we have our sweet evening talk, I just answer him calmly like I do all other queries, while twisting up inside.

      What’s interesting is that his dad has hair down to his low back, and when I ask E about that, he notes that his dad’s “hairiness” (i.e. facial & body hair) makes it obvious that he’s a boy, but since he’s a kid he doesn’t have that yet so it’s harder for people to know.

      On Fri, Jul 12, 2013 at 2:30 PM, The Mamafesto

  11. Thank you raising this issue which is SOOO important even though it can be a difficult topic to discuss. I have had a few conversations with Moms who’s sons have at times expressed interest in wearing dresses, or playing princess, or doing other things that are stereotypically considered “girl things”. A lot of these moms are trying to find the balance of letting their child be themselves and protecting them (just as you are). As Moms we just want our children to be happy. If having long hair, or wearing purple or pink makes your son happy, then he should be able to do it. Why do we put our children in boxes at such a young age? Why is it so important to differentiate between male and female when there is a lot of overlap between the two genders?! Something that I am not sure I will ever understand.
    My heart aches to hear your conversation with your son and to sense that he feels ashamed of being a boy when people mistakenly call him a girl. That must break your heart. You are doing a great job speaking to him about this openly. He is too young to understand the complexity of gender norms but statements like “colours are for everyone” or “there’s no one way to be a boy (or girl)” are perfect. Simple language and concepts for him to understand. Your son is so lucky to have such an open minded Mommy with unconditional love. He will turn out great because of you. Great video too!! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  12. My daughter is the exact same way, she is turning 6 and is mistaken for a boy all the time. she does not like pink and dresses so her blues and greens and short bob are mistaken as a boy — just a generalization because she is not the stereotypical girl in glitter and pink. so it does go both ways. she just started having the same type of realizations as well. almost the same conversation in the car this morning … well maybe I should be a boy then and I asked why her response was because I don’t want to ever wear a dress — after I promised her she would never have to wear a dress EVER she said ok I will stay a girl. At VBS a grandmother volunteer got mad that she ran when girls were supposed to run — well she is a girl — another mom had to vouch that she was a girl (I think it is awful). I have run into so many other mom’s who said they were just like her when they were little but now every girl has to wear glitter, pink and dresses or they aren’t girls — so sad. Have you had your son’s IQ tested? We had to for other reasons and found out she is highly gifted and I read a case study about a girl just like ours (same age — 5) that kids don’t really establish an identity until they are around 9 or 10 but since she is cognitively advanced it makes sense (although she is super immature socially which does not help if you want to be different) : )

    • Oh, it totally goes both ways. And none of it is okay. I haven’t had his IQ tested, but that’s really interesting about the development of establishing identity. I’m curious to read up more on that. Thanks so much for sharing your story and I’m so sorry your daughter has to deal with folks questioning her because she presents outside rigid gender norms.

      On Fri, Jul 12, 2013 at 5:00 PM, The Mamafesto

  13. Oh Avital, I hear you on so many levels here.

    My oldest son has also started (re)growing out his curls, and his hair has really become his pride and joy. At the beginning of the summer, however, he had a rough time at camp when a group of kids started making fun of him for “looking like a girl.” It was such a complex issue too because he did seem to realize, really truly deep down, that there was nothing WRONG with him looking like a girl, or with anyone looking like a girl, whatever that meant. It was the nasty way that the message was delivered that hurt him. Lots and lots of unpacking to do with that situation, if you know what I mean.

    On a similar note, I get asked all the time when I’m going to cut the boy toddler’s long curls. My general response can be summarized somewhere along the lines of, “Um, why would I cut them since THEY ARE AWESOME.”

    In any case, thank you for sharing this–your thoughts, your parental wisdom, all of it.

    • Thanks for adding your thoughts/experiences, Kristen! I love hearing I’m not alone, but obviously don’t love hearing of others being teased/ridiculed/bugged about these sorts of things. As my friend Cheryl says, “To acceptance!”

      On Fri, Jul 12, 2013 at 8:57 PM, The Mamafesto

  14. I just have to say, your son is very lucky to have you as a mom. He is perceptive, both about his own authentic self and about the culture around him, and he has you to help him navigate it. My own son is 19 now, and to my mind remarkably aware of and sensitive to gender boxes – and like your son, he is growing up in the Valley where those boxes are theoretically larger and less rigid than they are most other places. Myself, I remember growing up hearing what boys and men were supposed to be like and thinking “Wow, that’s not really like who I am” and yet knowing I wasn’t female either. I dealt with it by living as androgynousy as possible, edging just over the line of the acceptable and then retreating, pushing back periodically in an effort to move and blur that line. As time goes by, I am more and more convinced that our gender identity is some sort of intersection between who we are deep down and the environment that shapes us. Which brings me back to the first sentence of this comment…

  15. My son recently said he looked like a girl because his hair was so long. So, he wanted it cut. I cut an inch off, layered it, thinking I was being conservative about it. He cried because he was so upset. I told him it will grow and that I was sorry. What else can I do? I just want him to be happy. Isn’t that what all moms want for their sons? I think you’re a great mom, which is one of the many reasons I follow your blog.

  16. It’s only a problem, when it’s a problem. I hope that other kids don’t give him too hard a time at school. Armed with your advice and support, he will become adept at dealing with situations and isn’t a lot of life about that very thing? Being accepted by you will give him courage.

  17. This post spoke so strongly to me, thank you for your insights and honesty. My son (8) has had long blonde curls since he was 3, it’s quite beautiful. He’s had strangers use female pronouns since then. In the past 2 years it’s really gotten to him. He’s anxious and shy in nature so he’s not gotten the bravery to correct them himself, it’s up to the adult with him. After, He says things like, “I just want people to see me for who I am” or “being a girl is fine/great, if you’re a girl but I’m not and I don’t want to be seen that way” and gets very down. It does lead to some very thoughtful conversations between us and he’s not one to make assumptions about others.
    One person, recently said something to me that got me to thinking…an older woman, after referring to my child as “she” said something like “well, I got so used to trying not to call the tomboys “he” that I don’t think twice about it anymore. Seems to me it would be worse to call a tomboy a boy”
    Keep your babes hair long if they want, let them wear any color, play with any toy…eventually we will get used to calling all of them “kids”.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Myssie. I think keeping those lines of communication open are key and it’s so great to hear you have that with your son!

      On Tue, Jul 23, 2013 at 8:54 PM, The Mamafesto

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