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Your Son in a Dress

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Gay Uncle Brett Berk: There was an interesting, if not entirely original, article over at Salon recently about a father's struggle adjusting to his son's desire to dress up as Snow White for Halloween. Like most of these articles (which appear with an almost clichéd regularity on the parenting blogs), the sentiment expressed overall was one of alleged acceptance.

Unlike the Southern dads I spoke with for a consulting project I conducted for a major manufacturer of toy vehicles recently (dads who told me that if they caught their sons showing too much of an interest in "girly" things like cooking or sewing, they would have to "do something to correct for that"), the author of this piece claims to see in his son's dress-up urge not "a threat to my legacy, an insult to generations of men who fought wars and presided over propane grills," or anxiety over "a same-sex, vegan wedding ceremony," or a "rejection of power tools and the Super Bowl," but rather a fear of "a far more immediate evil ... children who mock other children."

In other words, the dad is suggesting that he's not concerned about his son's sexuality, but rather, what other kids might think of his son's sexuality. This trope is a cop-out at best, and counterproductive to boot -- and it's also one that's been overused by defensive parents in the face of their kids' non-gender-normative behavior or expression.

Faustina Kleivan dressed as Adolf Hitler

Obviously, it's a parent's job to protect their child. Some might even call this an "instinct" (if we still have such things). But as an early-childhood expert, a professional gay, a frequent contributor on the subject of gender and human sexuality and a boy who dressed as a girl for Halloween in elementary school two years in a row (thirty-something years ago), I can tell this dad that the solution to any anxieties he may feel about his son's dress-up desires does not lie in either conveniently projecting them onto others or pushing his kid to cave in to conformity. It lies in learning that (to borrow a mixed metaphor from the world of sports) the best way to put people on the defensive is to be offensive.

But let's rewind for a second first, and recognize the importance of not overstating things. Studies have shown that our narrow and bifurcated societal vision of gender -- the dichotomous division of things into "male" or "female" categories -- is one of the most powerful and prevalent (and often blunt and divisive) tools we give kids for making sense of the world. In their efforts to carve order out of this often-nonsensical division, they have to try stuff out themselves, explore the borders and limits of things. So just as a girl who bites once is not necessarily setting herself up for a lifetime of cannibalism, a boy who wants to try on a dress once is not necessarily setting himself up for a lifetime of RuPaulism. Thus, there's no need to lose your mind about it.

Second, it seems germane to note that this was all going on during Halloween -- a holiday that, if I'm not wrong, is all about donning outfits that do not necessarily designate or express one's true identity. If his kid wanted to dress up as a poodle, a skyscraper or a robot, would this dad be worried that it indicated some outré identity decision? While one's Freudian slip may be revealed by the subject one chooses to emulate during the holiday of habiliment, it's important to remember that a Halloween costume is a costume -- not (necessarily) a lifestyle choice.

More important than any of this, however, is the real lesson that lies at the heart of this story. When his son cops out of wearing the Snow White costume to school (after repeated and overt pressure from his parents -- including the purchase of a Barney outfit to replace it), the dad is relieved. And while he pays lip service to his internal disappointment and asks some cheap rhetorical questions about it, he fails to recognize that there's really no one else to blame but himself: He and his wife quashed their kid's adventurous, nonconformist spirit. And why? Because one little girl in the boy's class told him (echoing her own efforts to make sense of the world in her 4-year-old way), "Only girls can be Snow White."

Back when I was still teaching preschool and my young charges would catch me doing something that was allegedly "just for girls" (i.e.,mincing about, wearing a pink scarf, kissing my boyfriend),I would spin about and flatly inform them, "Well I'm a boy, and I'm doing it, so it must be for boys, too." It didn't take much more than this to expand their horizons and get them to understand how silly -- and flexible -- these gender definitions can be. It wasn't long before the kids were themselves echoing this sentiment back to each other when such senseless critiques came up (and playing "gay marriage" on the playground without protest).

No one wants their kid to be a target of criticism. But everyone wants their kid to be a unique individual. This seems a bit of a paradox, does it not? But there's an easy way out. The solution, as with most things involving young kids, isn't to solely attempt to insulate or protect them from potentially confusing experiences (a futile act, if you think about it), but to guide them through by providing simple and practical tools they can use to explore and understand the situation.

Standing out is never easy, but the most interesting people I know are the ones who were "dorks" and "freaks" and "weirdos" as kids, and had help figuring out that this was endemic to who they were. And OK, they also got help by placing the onus on others to reconcile their eccentricities, rather than tamping them down themselves in the idle pursuit of an affirmation that never came.

Avoidance breeds shame. Acceptance breeds strength. Which is the lesson you prefer to teach your kids?


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21 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous August 27, 2010, 11:44 AM

thank you so much for this post! my own son, who is almost 6 and is home-schooled in the caribbean, is always mistaken for a girl. upon realizing their error, most people very loudly proclaim their disbelief and proceed to enumerate all of the aspects of his appearance that are deemed too feminine and why it is so important that i “nip it in the bud”. it drives me crazy! i have become short on patience and courtesy for the tactless ways of total strangers. he doesn’t often comment when these things happen (all the time), but afterward, he always gives me the WTF look. i am so proud of him that he still dresses however he wants. he recently asked me to make him a t-shirt with his chromosomes on it so “everyone will know that i am an XY”.

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Had a neighbor kid that played Wizard of Oz with his friends. He played Dorothy. He probably grew up gay.

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Sorry, I couldn’t concentrate after I read ‘professional gay’, I was too busy wondering what the hell that meant. You get paid to be gay but you’re straight when you go home? You’re only gay when other people pay you to be gay? Don’t have a go at me, please, I’m serious about this. I’d have the exact same questions if somebody wrote about themselves ‘professional straight’. It would make them sound like a prostitute.

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