We need to make sure other parents have the same options.
When my daughter was born people sent me huge boxes filled with sweet girly clothes in every size between birth and preschool. She had so many adorable little outfits, I could have gone three or four weeks without doing her laundry.
Most of those darling outfits were doomed to go unworn, because starting around the time my daughter turned 18-months old, she began rejecting feminine clothes. She would cross her chubby little arms and scold me in perfectly inflected pre-verbal gibberish any time that I came near her with a dress or, God forbid, a hair bow.
In the years that have followed, the only thing that has changed is the way that she expresses her disdain for feminine garb. Now she uses a pair of tongs to remove the offending object to the nearest waste receptacle while swearing allegiance to her uniform of t-shirts, jeans, a leather jacket, and “kick-ass boots.”
My daughter is what some people describe as a “guy’s girl.” And no, that is not another way of saying that she is so desperate for a man’s attention she forfeits own identity. At every age, she has had more in common with boys and enjoyed their company more than girls. But she is also not gay or transgender. Her gender identity is just not that strongly feminine.
I am not sure if this is a consequence of how we raised them or if this is just who they are, but both of my children are fairly fluid in their gender identification. And I failed them both by insisting that they follow the gendered dress codes of their schools and the gender segregation of our community.
I can console myself by telling myself that at least I was not sexist in my enforcement of gender-norms. I wouldn’t let my daughter have a sleep-over with her best friends because they were boys. I wouldn’t allow my son to try out for the only volleyball team at his school because it was for girls. And I wouldn’t allow either child to cross-dress at the prom or at family weddings.
The ways that my children wanted to violate gender norms were relatively insignificant. Neither expressed a need or desire to be a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. And that is a mercy, because I was spectacularly ill-equipped to deal with gender identity issues.
I am ashamed to admit this, but I am certain that in a similar situation, I would not act with the good sense and aplomb that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are demonstrating in dealing with their middle child who has asked to be called John.
For those of you who are not up on all the gossip about Hollywood children, here is a bit of background. When Jolie and Pitt’s first biological child was born in 2008, the baby was named Shiloh and assigned female. But by the age of 3, the child was expressing a very clear desire to be identified as a boy and insisted on being called John. And to their credit, Jolie and Pitt seem to have honored their child’s wishes, allowing John to identify however he wants and to dress and sport haircuts that are traditionally associated with boys. John’s recent sartorial choices have caused a great deal of media speculation and commentary about possible “gender issues.”
While it is true that we do not have the right to speculate on a child’s gender choices, I think that Jolie and Pitt have behaved quite remarkably and bravely. And we have a responsibility, now that the issue has been raised, to talk about parenting children who do not conform to gender norms.
I am writing this piece in part to make amends for my own failures as a parent. To this day, I am not sure that I have the moxie to do as Jolie and Pitt did and allow my grade school child to appear in public dressed in what some people would call “drag.”
I failed to support many of my children’s forays into gender non-conformity for the same reasons that I believe many other parents stumble in this area. We mess up not because we are bigoted or because we do not love and support our children unconditionally. We fail because we are ill-equipped with information and resources and because the cost of gender non-conformity is prohibitively high for most children.
Currently, the information for parents with gender-divergent children is, at best, confusing. For example, if you Google “how to deal with a child who wants to dress like the opposite sex” the third article to appear is from a website called Child Healing. Drawing on the authority of the DSM and quoting academic literature, the website labels children like John as “deeply troubled” and at a high risk for suicide. The site strongly recommends that parents seek whatever help and support is needed so that their child feels safe, comfortable, and happy in the gender they were assigned at birth.
As you delve into the information on the site, it becomes apparent that the authors are transphobic. But for lay people like myself, the information presented also seems like it could represent the best information that the medical and psychiatric community has to offer. After all, the DSM, which many consider the bible of mental health, states: “people whose gender at birth is contrary to the one they identify with will be diagnosed with gender dysphoria.” The wording implies strongly that gender non-conformity is a serious problem, not just another way of being in the world.
Some of the “good advice” seems to be equally troubling. For example, the Telegraph recently used the Jolie-Pitt story as a jumping off point from which to offer advice for parents whose children are behaving in non-gender-normative ways. Their expert, Dr. Linda Blair, asserted that Jolie-Pitt’s child was likely going through a phase or just trying to get the attention that middle-children so often crave. She suggested that parents allow children to “explore” their gender identity until just before puberty. At that point, she recommends seeking help for what might be a “serious gender identity issue” requiring hormonal management or eventual reassignment surgery.
As much as many parents would love to follow Dr. Blair’s advice and allow their children to sort out their own gender identity without undue influence, our society does not allow children that freedom.
Gender conformity is still very strongly enforced in our society. Who can forget the uproar caused by a boy wearing pink toenail polish in a J. Crew catalog?
A family gambles its social capital if it allows a child, especially one assigned male at birth, to openly flout gender norms. They risk more than just being social outcasts; they are often seen as openly courting trouble by everyone from school authorities to law-enforcement. The fear of having my children labeled as “deviant” is the chief reason why I did not allow my children to push gender norms beyond a certain point.
There is very little hope that a child’s wishes regarding gender will be respected by anyone or anywhere outside of the immediate family. Schools are especially rigid in enforcing rules about gender norms. My friend’s son was recently suspended for three days for wearing a skirt over his jeans. If you want your child to be able to do something as basic as use the restroom of their identified gender at school, you will need to sue.
No matter how your child identifies, unless you live in a very progressive area, the only thing that matters when you go to sign them up for sports, Sunday School, camp, or even for a driver’s license is what gender they were assigned at birth.
It is not enough to applaud the way that Jolie and Pitt are parenting. We need to make sure other parents have the same options. That means making sexism truly a thing of the past; making information about gender and identity widely available, and making sure that parents have practical and legal support if needed. In the long run, our society has to make major changes if every child is to have the freedom to explore gender and to choose for themselves how they wish to identify and express it.
Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.