My 6 year old son is a bit of a gender bender. Last year he went through a period when he wanted to be referred to as Molly and wanted to wear a dress, but only at home. He was very clear he did not want to wear a dress to school because he knew he would be teased, yet he trusted one of the boys in class enough to tell him he wanted to be referred to as Molly. When the boy snapped back “That’s a girl’s name!” my son didn’t push the issue any more. After he told me this story, I felt it was important to let his teacher know what was going on, so she could pay extra attention and make sure she dealt with any teasing right away just in case “Molly” decided to come out at school. I felt a bit nervous talking to her about it, because I didn’t know where she stood on the issue of boys wearing dresses and wanting to be girls, but I was hopeful because she really liked my son and was such a caring and nurturing teacher. And it no longer felt like a choice; I needed her to know what was going on.
She reacted very well, but not surprisingly, made the leap from what I considered to be a gender bending issue to an issue of sexual orientation. She reassured me by telling me that she has a gay brother and she understands. This is how our society sees the issue. If a boy is too feminine he must be gay and vice versa—if a boy is gay, he must be super femmy. Yet, not all gay boys are femme and not all femme boys are gay.
She let me know she would keep an eye out for any issues with the other kids. I was relieved at her positive response and rather than use the opportunity to give her a talk on the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation (which was my first instinct), I thanked her for her understanding. I certainly didn’t care if she thought my son was gay (he may be, although sometimes the way he gets crushes on girls he seems downright hetero). Yet, if that worked for her to ensure that she would protect him I was okay with that for now.
But what really stuck with me from our conversation was what she went on to say about how this was not the first time a parent had come to her with this issue, but this was the first time the parent was supportive of their child’s desire to be the other gender. She said she’d had parents in the past come to her worried that their boys were gay and ask her to please not let them use pink when doing their art projects. These parents were asking the kindergarten teacher to help “fix” their children. I immediately got an image in my mind of those boys and their parents and the unnecessary anguish that a child and a parent might go through when the child does not fit gender norms, particularly for boys.
Jack Morin, PhD, sex therapist and author of Anal Pleasure and Health, coined the term “femiphobia.” It goes beyond homophobia to describe the fear of all things feminine. Femiphobia is a manifestation of the sexism that continues to pervade our society and it is the reason why it is not considered okay for boys to aspire to be more like girls.
My son is in first grade now and although he spends most of the time as his boy self, he is still in touch with his girl self. The other day he was wearing a girl outfit and getting his nails painted when his friend, a boy from across the street, came over to play. His friend gave him a funny look and looked a bit uncomfortable and mumbled something about going back home. My mama bear instinct was activated and I thought I was going to have to jump in and say something to defend my boy, but before I could even decide on the best tactic to handle the situation, my son spoke up. “Some boys feel like girls!” he said emphatically. His friend shrugged and made no comment. I could tell he was struggling to take in the whole situation. After a few minutes (when my son’s toenails were dry), they both went in the house to play video games.
I felt so proud that my child felt secure enough to stand up for himself. Because I don’t think this is the last time this is going to be an issue for him and I, his Mama Bear, won’t always be there to fight for him nor will all of the other adults in his life be as nurturing as his kindergarten teacher. He is going to have to continue to find the strength and self-confidence to do that on his own.
I know that the fact that he’s been raised in a household where we support his fluid gender identity has made a huge difference. I only wish the same for all those other boys out there who feel like girls. I only wish a parent, a teacher, a counselor—some adult will validate their feelings and help them believe in themselves enough to weather the challenges they will continually face as their very existence questions society’s fundamental beliefs about gender.
Note: I use male pronouns to refer to my son because he is quite comfortable with and spends most of his time as his boy self. He knows that I am happy to refer to “him”as “her” if he/she so chooses. If you have a problem with that, talk to the paw.