Are Gender Lines Getting Blurrier?

An email was sent out to every parent at our local middle school the other day saying that one of the sixth grade male children wished from this point forward to be addressed and accepted as a girl. She had been dressing as a girl at home for some time and could no longer tolerate continuing to pretend being a boy at school. The email was honest and clear, sent by the administration. I am left holding my breath for this child who will be the object of curiosity and perhaps the brunt of ridicule as the news passes among her fellow students.

A day later, I read an article online, “What’s so bad about a boy who wants to wear a dress?” The parents of this boy sent an email to all the parents in their son’s preschool announcing that he would be wearing a dress to school. This child sees himself as a boy but enjoys dressing as a girl. When he was four, he called himself “a boy and a girl.”

“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.”

TomboyHad this story been about a girl wanting to dress as a boy, no announcement would need to be made, no worry about bullying would cause a parent sleepless nights, in fact, no one would even notice—even if that girl considered herself a boy. It is the boys wishing to be girls who are seen as stepping down in rank.

Parents of boys who are either transgender or living in what one psychologist has termed “middle space”, are claiming that gender is a spectrum rather than two distinct categories. Yet even the most liberal parents who fight for gay rights and women’s equality feel uncomfortable when faced with a son who wants to dress and play as a girl. But isn’t this new generation of liberal parents who are willing to swallow their discomfort and practice what they preach, who are allowing their children to follow their natural tendencies, at the forefront of a new way of looking at gender. Are we willing to go with them or is it too much to ask of a people afraid of and disturbed by such a change?

Fears have taken over in the past—not only fears of “what will people think?” but also of the heckling and bullying their children will inevitably face at school. After all, isn’t the likely insecurity imprinted from ridicule worth coercing a child, especially a son, to dress gender-specifically and play only with boy toys? When do fears lead parents in the right direction and when do they interfere with what is?

The parents of the child in my local community, who have accepted that their biological son so strongly identifies as a girl and has for many years, are standing tall behind their child’s wish to come out in the school community. My guess is that with such strong support at home, she will be prepared for the storms that are likely to occur at school and have the tools to deal with them. She has the encouragement to be herself. We can only imagine what the parents have confronted in themselves to arrive at this point, and it is that inner conviction, courage, and knowing that will sustain their child and help her find her way.

With the strong movement for gay rights and legalization of single sex marriages, I believe we have crossed over into new territory that is being driven by one’s inner convictions as opposed to society’s approval ratings—and that that must be a good thing. We will still have our fears and doubts but when we can put them aside to listen to those inner callings, we must be on a path to healing.

I would be most grateful for your thoughts and comments on this topic. Do you have a child who lives in gender “middle space”? What do you think you would do if you did?


4 thoughts on “Are Gender Lines Getting Blurrier?

  1. Great article regarding the blurring of gender lines. I agree that it seems to be more threatening when a boy wants to express a female identity as opposed to a girl wanting to express a male identity. I like your analysis about this being linked to a step down in rank or status. I don’t think gender is the same as sexuality though. The article seems to draw the assumption that because a boy wants to dress and live as a girl, that he is gay. It may be the case, but it also may not. Or he may not have worked out his position on sexuality at this point. Hats off to the parents who are so loving and courageous that their child’s happiness is more important than rigid social “norms” and expectations, and who resist indavertantly teaching a child that conformity is more important than self-respect.

    As always, your articles are rich with great information and great topics to ponder!

  2. Regarding ‘Are gender lines getting blurred’

    A big hello from Australia!

    I recently heard of a young boy in Australia who also wanted to be known as a girl at his school. My heart went out to him and his family. What a tough time they must have endured in coming to this realisation. They are obviously a strong family, who showed their love and support for their daughter. It appeared that the school accepted the change with the students being informed, however the young girl was told that she could only use the disabled toilet, not the girls toilet area. I felt (along with others) that this stigmatised and isolated the young person. As a parent, If the child was attending my children’s school I would not have been concerned with the girl using the female toilets. Perhaps a case of the horse jumping the cart, as we say here. Or, panicking before there was actually a problem. After all, we have doors on the toilets for the privacy of all.

    A good article Bonnie. Thank you for sharing.

    I also appreciated your article on children not listening. Very timely.

  3. We have a 6-year-old son who has enjoyed wearing what many might consider girl’s items–tutus, sparkling sarongs, rhinestone glasses, fancy hats, even high heels. He rarely wears these things to school, although he and several other boys have shown up with painted nails. No one in this school community thinks anything of it, and I am grateful that my child is free to completely express himself–at home and at school. (His favorite color is hot pink–and everyone in his class knows it!) To me it is not an indicator of sexual orientation as much as self-expression. He loves to dance and for him these clothes are an extension of the performing arts.

    However, as he gets older, I also know that the time is inevitably coming when he will be confronted or teased by children whose parents are not as tolerant or understanding, and who have unfortunately transferred their own fear & ignorance to their children. In anticipation I take the time to explore prejudice with him, explaining why some people taunt others and so on. I realize that empathy is a skill that only begins to surface at around age 6, so we have begun to examine things like “how do you think so and so felt when you said ‘I hate you?’

    I would love any additional commentary you may have on how to talk to children about our differences.

    Thanks so much for a great column and always spot-on parenting insights!

    It is the journey of a lifetime.

  4. Debra – How lucky your son is to have you for parents. It sounds like you’re doing a great job on accepting him and helping him accept himself, which never has to be a problem when acceptance is never questioned. It is his self-confidence that is always one’s shield against penetration of others’ prejudice and intolerance. As long as self-confidence is strong, he will see the judgement of others as their problem, not his. Keep up your conversations and don;t be afraid to bring up things he might hear from other kids and do some role playing if he’s up for it. That way he gets to say whatever his feelings provoke to you and then you can guide him to think of what he would say for real.

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