My non-binary* kid Harry, now 26, grew up believing in Santa Claus. In “The Toilet Paper Bride” chapter of my memoir about raising a gender fabulous child, I agonize over whether or not Santa will bring little two-year-old Harry the Barbie Dream House he wants. That was the same year his cousin David, who just happens to be gay, visited us on his way home from England, and I learned he’d wanted the Barbie Dream House when he was a kid, too.
So I wondered if because Harry loved Barbie and her Dream House that meant he would be gay someday, too. I was clearly clueless, because that’s like saying if boys and girls don’t play with different sets of toys they’ll grow up to be gay or lesbian (which we know is not true.)
I just didn’t understand the concept of gender identity back then. In fact I didn’t even know what gender identity meant until Harry explained it to me his freshman year in college. I didn’t understand there was a gender spectrum or that my kid was simply gender nonconforming, two other terms I didn’t know before discovering Diane Ehrensaft’s book, Gender Born, Gender Made five years ago.
But it’s not all about gender-nonconforming kids and toys. Clothes, colors, careers, behaviors and characteristics all get gendered, too.
Before my appearance on “The Morning Blend” in Milwaukee the week after Thanksgiving, the hosts shared a recent survey of 9-year-old boys who were asked to name what they “don’t like about being male.” Here’s the list of replies:
- “Not being able to be a mother.”
- “Not supposed to cry.”
- ”Not allowed to be a cheerleader.”
- “Supposed to like science.”
- “Supposed to play football.”
- “Boys smell bad.”
- “Having an automatic bad reputation.”
- “Hair growing everywhere.”
That 9-year-old boys think they smell bad and that they don’t like the idea of becoming hairy are pretty funny. But it’s the “not” and “supposed to” reasons that really call out the pressure put on children to conform to society’s rigid expectations of gender. And they start to feel it at a young age.
So it’s my Christmas-Hanukkah-Kwanzaa wish that every child, no matter their age, is allowed to explore outside the gender boxes of pink and blue, express themselves freely, and play with, wear or dream of becoming whatever makes them happiest.
As for Harry’s gifts this year, I didn’t get him any toys. But I’ve wrapped up some pink, some sparkle and a hint of Barbie, too.
*If you’re still familiarizing yourself with all the categories of gender identity, non-binary is an umbrella term for anyone whose identity is not exclusively masculine or feminine.
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