As it has been pointed out to me numerous times, I like to write about gender issues on this blog. Some assume I do it because it is provocative and progressive, or that maybe I struggle with such issues myself, but my commitment to the issue is rooted in more of an inherent and general fascination with the topic of gender. And thankfully the issue of gender identity, particularly in relation to children (often times young children) is becoming more and more of a hot topic.
What used to be a subject that was largely ignored and/or sublimated, is now the subject of books, newspaper stories, and morning chat shows. But this struggle is hardly new and was impressively dealt with grace and sensitivity in the 1970s with the release of the enduring Free to Be You and Me song “William Wants a Doll” (see video below):
Most recently The New York Times ran a piece titled “Boys Will Be Boys? Not in These Families?” in the Style section of the magazine (are we to assume that gender confusion and gender neutrality are becoming stylish?). In the piece writer Jan Hoffman delves into the subject of how modern, forward-thinking parents are helping their own children navigate the world of unconventional gender roles. These are parents that, rather than looking the other way, are desperately trying to understand and support their children’s unconventional gender behavior, and ultimately prepare for what they fear could be a life filled with social challenges.
Many of the children outlined in this article (most of which are boys, but this should not imply that mainly boys go through this sort of unconventional gender behavior – on the contrary) are well beyond just wanting to play with dolls and having a preference for pink, these are boys who like to dress as princesses and near-assume the identity of little girls.
Next: Gender Orientation vs. Sexual Orientation
This sort of thing tends to confuse the public and parents alike, and has been known to elicit a sort of gay panic among parents who assume this behavior is the harbinger of some serious outing to come. But as mentioned in the same article, researchers say, the behavior of very young children may not be a strong predictor of their adult sexual orientation. “Even when the child has extremely gender variant behavior at 4, it doesn’t necessarily mean the child will be gender variant at 10 or 15,” said Dr. Edgardo J. Menvielle, who directs the Gender and Sexuality Psychosocial Programs at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “It’s possible they will remain who they are and they may also change in a variety of ways.”
So the message to parents is to relax if you can, and display a certain amount of confidence, resolve and fortitude for the benefit of your child and the wider community. This might be best represented by author James Braly’s monologue about his son Oliver’s desire for a pink bicycle (listen here). We have much to learn from our children’s innocence and curiosity, and trying to shield them from ridicule and move them swiftly toward conformity might not be the best path. What has your experience been with this issue of unconventional gender behavior? Do you have a gut reaction to it? How can our society realistically become more accepting of such exploration?