Over the past few days, I have had several friends with young boys of their own share with me steps that they are taking to allow their sons to break out of the confining gender stereotypes our society tries to enforce on childhood. These parents are following their children’s lead, but my friends have indicated to me that it was through me sharing my own experiences that tuned them into their own sons’ requests and helped guide their responses. Turns out, having an example doesn’t necessarily make anything easier, partly because each kid is different.
I mark the beginning of our journey with the day our son put on a red leotard and our painful, awkward response to that. I want each of you to re-read that post so that you can be reminded that this is a journey. Yes, my husband and I are now comfortable with who our son is and are ready to support him however he chooses to find his way through this world, but we weren’t always. Even when we thought we were. Homophobia, as well as other cultural stereotypes and taboos, is so pervasive that even when we don’t think we are sexist (or racist or ageist or classist), we often cannot help but be affected – even when we don’t want to be. Prior to the day my son put on that leotard I would not have suspected that I had those feelings inside me. For heaven’s sake, I was the vice-president of my LGBU in college! Turns out, that’s irrelevant. When we aren’t living it each day, and sometimes even when we are, it is easier than we may think (or want to admit) to ignore how our actions and those of society at large affect the people who have no choice but to deal with painful prejudice every day. We internalize mainstream culture.
My friends have indicated to me that they feel conflicted or embarrassed by some of the feelings they are having during these first days as they purchase that first pink set of pajamas or that first dress. They hope their son doesn’t tell anyone in the store that it is for him. Or they feel that if they help shape their son’s response that they are being narrow-minded and prejudicial. First, a reminder: I did not start publicly sharing our journey until we were several months into figuring out what it all meant. Especially in the beginning, as we find our footing, as we realize the shoddiness of ‘cultural norms’, it is all rather disorienting and frankly, we don’t have many resources or role models. We are forging a new path. It is entirely normal to seek to avoid uncomfortable interactions and equally normal to be exhausted by the heightened state of anxiety you may find yourself in, in anticipation of ugly reactions.
I feel it is appropriate at this time to point something out: the LGBT community is our ally. I do not feel, however, that we are all simply becoming more accepting of raising gay and transgender children. We are, and that’s wonderful, but it is not only what I believe we are doing. Our children all have their own journeys, and I do not pretend to know what they are. If I assume that my son is gay or transgender because he likes to wear dresses, well, I am no different from the homophobes who assume the same thing (and yes, if you assume my son is gay because he is wearing a dress, you are a homophobe). Yes, there is a difference – if he is, I don’t give a damn. But there is simply no need to label our sons (or daughters) for their actions. They are not thinking about these things right now – that’s just us, thinking our adult thoughts and having trouble being patient. What we are doing is allowing our children to experience a fuller childhood, unencumbered by the gender stereotypes of our society so that they may grow up to experience adulthood more fully. I feel passionately about this. The only way to get men who are empathetic, compassionate, tender, caring (and fabulous) – is to allow them to develop those qualities in childhood. If men are what they want to be when they grow up.
We are teaching them to be more accepting of those who are different from themselves. We are teaching them that it is okay to question the status quo. We are teaching them that they are safe with us – that they really, truly can explore in childhood and we will still love them. Parenthood is hard. Children push our boundaries and it is entirely normal to feel uncomfortable and exhausted when that happens. To all the parents everywhere allowing their children to push their boundaries in all the different ways that can look, I applaud, encourage and recognize you. We got this.