Sunday, August 12, 2012

What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?

Lindsay Morris
Above, a boy prepares for a fashion show at a camp for gender-variant children and their families. More Photos »
The night before Susan and Rob allowed their son to go to preschool in a dress, they sent an e-mail to parents of his classmates. Alex, they wrote, “has been gender-fluid for as long as we can remember, and at the moment he is equally passionate about and identified with soccer players and princesses, superheroes and ballerinas (not to mention lava and unicorns, dinosaurs and glitter rainbows).” They explained that Alex had recently become inconsolable about his parents’ ban on wearing dresses beyond dress-up time. After consulting their pediatrician, a psychologist and parents of other gender-nonconforming children, they concluded that “the important thing was to teach him not to be ashamed of who he feels he is.” Thus, the purple-pink-and-yellow-striped dress he would be wearing that next morning. For good measure, their e-mail included a link to information on gender-variant children.

Readers’ Comments

"Is it fair to push a child into the forefront of the gender identity wars?"
Bruce Leimsidor, Venice, Italy
When Alex was 4, he pronounced himself “a boy and a girl,” but in the two years since, he has been fairly clear that he is simply a boy who sometimes likes to dress and play in conventionally feminine ways. Some days at home he wears dresses, paints his fingernails and plays with dolls; other days, he roughhouses, rams his toys together or pretends to be Spider-Man. Even his movements ricochet between parodies of gender: on days he puts on a dress, he is graceful, almost dancerlike, and his sentences rise in pitch at the end. On days he opts for only “boy” wear, he heads off with a little swagger. Of course, had Alex been a girl who sometimes dressed or played in boyish ways, no e-mail to parents would have been necessary; no one would raise an eyebrow at a girl who likes throwing a football or wearing a Spider-Man T-shirt.
There have always been people who defy gender norms. Late-19th-century medical literature described female “inverts” as appallingly straightforward, with a “dislike and sometimes incapacity for needlework” and “an inclination and taste for the sciences”; male inverts were “entirely averse to outdoor games.” By the mid-20th century, doctors were trying “corrective therapy” to extinguish atypical gender behaviors. The goal was preventing children from becoming gay or transgender, a term for those who feel they were born in the wrong body.
Many parents and clinicians now reject corrective therapy, making this the first generation to allow boys to openly play and dress (to varying degrees) in ways previously restricted to girls — to exist in what one psychologist called “that middle space” between traditional boyhood and traditional girlhood. These parents have drawn courage from a burgeoning Internet community of like-minded folk whose sons identify as boys but wear tiaras and tote unicorn backpacks. Even transgender people preserve the traditional binary gender division: born in one and belonging in the other. But the parents of boys in that middle space argue that gender is a spectrum rather than two opposing categories, neither of which any real man or woman precisely fits.
“It might make your world more tidy to have two neat and separate gender possibilities,” one North Carolina mother wrote last year on her blog, “but when you squish out the space between, you do not accurately represent lived reality. More than that, you’re trying to ‘squish out’ my kid.”
The impassioned author of that blog, Pink Is for Boys, is careful to conceal her son’s identity, as were the other parents interviewed for this article. As much as these parents want to nurture and defend what makes their children unique and happy, they also fear it will expose their sons to rejection. Some have switched schools, changed churches and even moved to try to shield their children. That tension between yielding to conformity or encouraging self-expression is felt by parents of any child who differs from the norm. But parents of so-called pink boys feel another layer of anxiety: given how central gender is to identity, they fear the wrong parenting decision could devastate their child’s social or emotional well-being. The fact that there is still substantial disagreement among prominent psychological professionals about whether to squelch unconventional behavior or support it makes those decisions even more wrenching.
Ruth Padawer teaches at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Editor: Vera Titunik
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Share your thoughts.
    • janeh
    • colorado
    Lotta ignorant remarks here. I have a boy who, at age 8, begged for a Care Bear with a tiara and purple dress and some nice strappy sandals. He had recently told me that he wanted to be a girl because girls got all the good STUFF, clothes and crafts and toy animals and so on.

    When I was a little girl, I wanted a Hot Wheels set and my parents wisely complied, so I knew what to do. I got my son his Care Bear (and tiara, dress and sandals - it was his birthday). The Care Bear staff included an almost certain tran who was incredibly nice about it.

    The kid is in middle school now, obsessed with video games, world conquest, physical activity and a little girl named Allie. And BTW I'm a married straight woman.

    Don't overthink this, people. Human beings try out all kinds of things, especially when they're young. And so what if it leads in an unusual direction? Does the roof fall in?!
      • cjm
      • New York
      Years ago I worked within a family whose youngest son, about 14, had allowed his hair to grow long. He was wearing wooden clogs and womens' clothing. One day he asked me if I thought there was anything wrong with his hair or clothing? In an attempt not to criticize him or make him feel odd, I said he looked fine for a boy his age, and at 14 it's normal to experiment with clothes and find his own way. The truth is he looked ridiculous. His hair was unkempt and wild, often he wore lipstick, badly put on, his clothing was far too large for him, and even the clogs appeared strange.

      I didn't know what to say, but now as an adult of 40 years old he is a full blown out-of-the-closet homosexual who lives with his mate in New York. In looking back I now believe he knew exactly what he was doing, and his questions were provocative, and he knew that also. He was testing me. He wanted to know if I could be truthful, because the truth was he was deliberately trying to look absurd and embarrass his family, and he certainly achieved that goal. However, what I found most disturbing was that he seemed more interested in humiliating his family than being gay. So I failed. What he needed to hear was that he was an embarrassment, and he was. But his life worked out, although in the end he became estranged from all members of his family. Perhaps that was the outcome he really wanted. Sexual freedom and getting away from all of them.
        • paperpushermj
        • Left Coast
        After reading endless comments from the New Age touchy Feely Crowd who seem to think they are somehow graced with a new way of seeing things.
        Give one example of your new enlightened views producing numbers of happier better people. Different Cultures around the world have had thousands of generations to work out the bugs to produced quality Adults.
          • Jody
          • Brooklyn
          I am a trans mtf. It can be meaningless to put into words what one feels and why. Parents are more afraid of there boys wearing dresses because we live in a survival state of being. Even woman wearing sexy outfits feel vulburible and afraid to aggressive men. Woman wearing army outfits or do not like wearing dresses and instead prefer jeans makes it far more acceptable and less invasive in the reason that it promotes strength and survival which our human perception looks at it as honor,envy and triumph. Peoples opinions or judgements will ultimately not have an effect on how one lives. We must understand that the reason of the debate or confusion is our state of mind and not our logical educated results. Parents are worried and afraid and so may the kids be too. They are afraid of there children becoming vulnerable and attacked by society as oppose to there kid becoming a navy seal. It is a blessing on which we are now questioning our state of fear and determine are we going to lift this illusive blanket. There is a difference between caution of running red lights and there is a difference between cold heart fear that is induced for the insecure primal being to control and manipulate. Maybe it all boils down to just one word. FEAR. hope this helps.
          With Love and Light!
            • Todd Fox
            • Connecticut
            Is it possible that sending a child to a camp where boys dress up in traditionally feminine clothing creates an unhealthy fixation with clothing and make-up? The essence of femininity, or masculinity for that matter, isn't defined by what we wear. I understand that parents want their child to feel supported, but the fashion shows seem more likely to produce fetishes than genuine gender fluidity.
              • MrMan
              • Portland, OR
              Kids are not sure of who they are. And little boys often like to dress in girls' clothes. No big deal. Where I have a problem with this is the attitude that he can dress any way he wants and go to school. A kid this age does not know he has some sort
              of gender identity confusion. He just likes dressing in dresses. As the artlcle aptly points out, most kids outgrow this.

              What's wrong with explaining to him that the school, and social settings, have dress codes and other expected codes of behavior? I used to hate wearing a tie to work too. Should I get out of that because "it doesn't express the real me?"

              He can dress in a dress at home if he wants. But school is another matter. How about mom and dad stop letting him dictate what goes on in his home, dress him appropriately for school and that's the end of it. There's no need to tell him to be "ashamed" of wanting to dress in a dress. This is about having some sense of rules and social customs. If 99% of the class are firmly planted in what gender they are, and expect to see the two genders dress in certain gender-specific clothes, why should they have to put up with this? If a kid decides he likes dressing like a horse, do we have to allow that too, lest we be called "intolerant"?
                • dan
                • ny
                +1 for adding some gender-neutral third-person pronouns to this language of ours. In addition to reasons made clear here, it would address countless problems with twisted grammar.
                  • Hope
                  • New England
                  Obviously the answer here according to a lot of comments is to stifle a child's creativity and individuality, something harmless that makes them happy, so parents who allow their children to be bullies can in fact be protected against the reality that they have raised terribly mean spirited children instead.
                    • Everyman
                    • Las Vegas
                    I just can't help wondering if the real issue is not with the children in the "middle space," but with gender stereotypes. The "choices" these children have, whether girl or boy, are socially determined.
                      • annette johnson
                      • New York
                      I found the comments to be more interesting than the article.
                        • Daniel Levin
                        • Brooklyn, NY
                        Agree with Park City--I rarely read through such a long article online. Sensitively told about a delicate subject for which, like gender, there just aren't crystal clear lines.

                        I was touched by how many fathers came around to accept their boys on their own terms. Reminded me how much children teach their parents.

                        My favorite line was P.J.'s response to "Why don't you want to be a girl?" "Because I want to be who I am!" If I had been writing, I would've ended the article with this line, but that's a small gripe about a fantastic article.

                        Bravo! Fascinating to read as a teacher, son, and expecting parent...
                          • tea
                          • New York
                          I'm pregnant with my second child, this one a boy, and this quote from the article “I had enough life experience to know that the way we construct masculinity sets men up to either be victimized because they’re wimps, or to be victimizers to prove they’re not." sums up why I think raising a boy has the potential to be so much more challenging than a girl.
                          Should my boy be anything like the boys in this article, I just hope I can be even a little bit like their amazing parents.
                            • Tony Finn
                            • London
                            What a great article. We have so much to learn from this generation who are prepared to challenge the rigid conditioning and conformity expectations of others. Parents who are making the adjustment in how they think and relate to their children with gender space identity should be saluted.

                            It's not the kid who wants to walk down the road in a dress who has the problem
                            It's not the parent who has a daughter who is a tomboy who has the problem
                            It's not the teachers who are supporting these kids who have the problem
                            It's not the law makers who are changing the laws for more acceptance who has the problem
                            It is the fear that is installed in all of us who wish to be different because surely everyone has to be the same otherwise the world would fall apart. Really?
                            Einstein, Florence Nightingale, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Edison, Hedy Lammar, all disprove the arguments touted by the neanderthals out there. They all thought differently, saw things differently and I have no doubt challenged the perceived wisdom and norms of their time.
                            We should embrace such differences and open our minds to the potential of others rather than constantly suppressing and putting down others.

                            Don't let the burden of your fear contaminate others and ask yourself what am I really frightened of. The parents are not claiming to have the answers, they are simply trying to find a way of asking the right questions.

                            I wish you all the very best!
                              • Jeff Maloney
                              • Kansas City, Mo.
                              Maybe I'm just an old man, but to me, its a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world.
                                • Achmed
                                • Mofuq
                                Societal, parental, and common sense fail. And people wonder why many conservatives think institutions like the NY Times exist just to tear down our society.

                                This behavior has to come from messed up parents. It's OK if this boy wants to wear girls clothes, be gay, or play with girl dolls. He should still be loved andd protected, and his parents, teachers, and leaders in society should do everything to help him have a productive, happy life.

                                But to pretend there are no norms of behavior, that any old gender role or fetish is just fine, just pick one from the last Ellen episode you watched, is flat silliness and the same old lefty nonsense.
                                  • Sarah
                                  • California
                                  Thank you so much for this article. I had tears flowing while reading, as I identify with so many of the parents concerns and struggles. My 4.5 yo is a gender fluid boy. Just like the some of parents you mention, I was already prepared to accept him for whoever he was and not try to change him; and yet I still struggle when he requests to wear his girly clothes or accessories in public. Not because I want to suppress him; but because I fear the stigma from other people's reactions will make him ashamed of himself.

                                  I also have questioned if it was something in his environment that had made him this way. Was it that princess movie that we let him watch at age 2? Was it the two girls from pre-school that are his best friends? Were those things having an influence on him; or was it that he was already predisposed to be drawn to princess movies and girl friends? Was it my socially liberal attitude that allowed a small interest to become a fascination? Was it some sort of rebellion to be as different from his very traditionally boyish and domineering older brother? I guess I will never know for sure; and in the end does it really matter? All that really matters is that he grow up happy and healthy. Having an accepting family, and more importantly self-acceptance, will be a big part of making that happen.
                                    • mindhead1000
                                    • California
                                    What a fine article. It captures nicely the variability in individual's self-image as we grow and mature. Like all social behavior group norms regarding gender can be difficult to navigate the further you deviate from the norm. I am impressed by the degree to which Freudianism seems to still have a grip on the American view of human development. Things might be a bit more complicated and deterministic than we would like to think.
                                      • Shari Tarbet, Phd
                                      • Albuquerque, NM
                                      Nothing wrong with a boy who wants to wear a skirt or a dress just as there is nothing wrong with a girl wanting to wear pants. However, let's be correct about terms. This boy isn't 'gender fluid' but still free of the roles imposed on us by our society/culture that wants to dictate to us what is 'male' and what is 'female' completely separate from what his genes will later dictate. Lots of boys play dress up at a certain age and dress in both dresses and pants, cowboy outfits, etc. That is natural and shouldn't be drummed out of them any more than it should be drummed out of little girls. Whether or not his parents or the parents of the children at his school are understanding and accepting of his wanting to wear a dress to school, there is the real chance that other boys already acculturated will make fun of him and may even bully him. Still, I applaud the parents for having the foresight and courage to let him try this out. As they have already seen, he has not only referred to himself as both a boy and a girl, but has moved more to calling himself a boy. Even as a boy, if he wants to wear a dress or a skirt, why not? It shouldn't be what defines his gender orientation.
                                        • dp
                                        • NJ
                                        How about a compromise? Have the boy wear a Thobe, a Muslim ankle-length shirt/robe. It will look like a dress to the child, but is meant to be worn by males.
                                          • JenofNJ
                                          • NJ
                                          When I was a kid in the 1960s, my older brother played with our Barbies and liked to bake. My mom didn't encourage or discourage his behavior. Eventually, he figured out who he was (a heterosexual male) and Barbies no longer interested him. But he always loved to bake, thank goodness. I'm glad his behavior didn't cause any alarm at the time. He was just a kid, exploring his world and trying on new things, trying to form an identity.
                                            • Tom
                                            • Nashville
                                            Are males to be despised as marauding, war-mongering rapists who subjugate and stifle women? Or are they to be celebrated for their libidinal creation of great art, literature, music, architecture, and sublimely useful mathematical equations, as well as their brave, mortal self-sacrifice in wars to protect the others in their tribes? Ever since I was born, I've heard from women and liberals that I'm the former, despicable for being male. So it's no wonder that some fathers have internalized the prevalent hatred of maleness and encouraged their sons to dress up as girls, the socially preferred gender. As for me, I flatly ignored my young son's occasional interest in his sister's cute, shiny girl things. I will continue to encourage him to become a man, because it's a great thing to be and I don't hate myself.
                                              • Heywood Jabuzov
                                              • USA
                                              How about everyone stops obsessing over pigeonholes and labels? Pigeonholes are for pigeons, and labels are for canned goods. Instead of worrying about boy, girl, straight, gay. etc. how about calling them "human beings"? And as far as "social norms" go...I don't think anyone has a responsibility to conform to someone's dictates limiting or outdated social ideas. Once you buy into the idea that it's legitimate for "society" to "impose" anything, you are already headed down the road of seeing bigotry and prejudice as an acceptable norm.
                                                • J.Lin
                                                • Chicago
                                                Dissenters, please stop trying to veil your bigoted views by pretending that these are issues of parental control and bullying prevention. You're saying that boys should NOT be allowed to wear dresses or exhibit culturally feminine traits/tendencies because…

                                                1. "… kids can't make that kind of decision! Being a parent is knowing when to lay down the law and tell your child NO! Would you let your son eat ice cream for breakfast if that's what he wanted???"

                                                Okay, yes, sometimes kids can't make certain decisions for themselves. And yes, being a loving parent means sometimes not letting your kid do something because you, as the adult, know better.

                                                But everyone is comparing A) the decision to allow your child to choose what to wear to the decision to B) the decision to allow your child to choose something that is unequivocally bad for him. If your son is making a good choice (broccoli instead of dessert!) or a neutral/unimportant choice (red vs. green socks!) you'll probably leave it up to him. Because yeah, he's 4 years old, he doesn't fully know what he wants (or will want in the future), but isn't allowing your kid to make choices what teaches him what he wants and will want in the future?

                                                You're trying to make this an issue of the boys exerting too much control over their parents. But nowhere in the article does it say anything to that effect. This argument only makes sense if you believe that wearing a dress is unequivocally bad for the boy.
                                                  • mbugua kibera
                                                  • nairobi
                                                  first, its of great importance to ask this question? why does the boy want to put on a dress? why not a trouser , a short and be comfortable?
                                                  no matter how hard one might try to justify it.. one can see clearly that there is a problem. why does a girl wants to look like a boy?
                                                  why does a boy wants to look a girl?
                                                    • James A. Coleman
                                                    • ATL
                                                    What is it about todays social it true that to much freedom leads to a breakdown of social reponsibilty. You would not allow your child to dress as a hitman and wear guns or talk about kill people or send a n e-mail telling other tht today little johnny will be bringing an AK47 to school but it ok we want him to feel free an unpressured. You are sick in my opinion, just plan sick! "WHAT WE CHOOSE TO DO IN LIFE...WE CAN CHOOSE NOT TO DO ALSO". STOP it is time for parant to be THE parant not just a friend. what is going to happen when all men stop being with women how is mankind going to serive this is sin and nothing more. children allow to liv as they dream is no more than children without guidance. The psychological professionals that said it's ok could be gay and will want more to be like they are. In your heart you know it is wrong so why allow it.
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                                                    Gary Kelly said...

                                                    My mother was a dressmaker, which came in pretty handy.

                                                    Yes, I was one of those kids who swapped sides every now and again... from cowboy suits and six-shooters to raiding mom's wardobe when she was out.

                                                    But, of course, we all grow out of childish things as we mature, don't we. I haven't pranced about in female clothing now for months.

                                                    GreginAdelaide said...

                                                    Never ever felt feminine. Never felt any urge to lisp or put hands on hips.
                                                    Not saying it's wrong or anything, not judging, but I don't understand it one little bit.

                                                    All I think, without any disapproval, is "each to his/her own" and let the world keep turning.