Lessons from Alex and other nongender-conforming boys

24 Aug

When Alex was 4, he pronounced himself “a boy and a girl,” but in the two years since, he has been fairly clear that he is simply a boy who sometimes likes to dress and play in conventionally feminine ways. Some days at home he wears dresses, paints his fingernails and plays with dolls; other days, he roughhouses, rams his toys together or pretends to be Spider-Man. Even his movements ricochet between parodies of gender: on days he puts on a dress, he is graceful, almost dancerlike, and his sentences rise in pitch at the end…  To Alex’s irritation, [when he wears a dress] people on the street often [mistake] him for a girl.“I just hate being misunderstood,” he told his baby sitter. When his parents asked if he wanted them to refer to him as “she,” he said, “No, I’m still a he” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/12/magazine/whats-so-bad-about-a-boy-who-wants-to-wear-a-dress.html?pagewanted=1&src=recg).

As I read the article “What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?” it occurred to me that Alex is way beyond most adults. He understands the difference between sex (his biological identity, based on the reproductive organs he has) and his gender (his expression of himself across a spectrum of masculinity, androgyny and femininity that doesn’t have to be locked into his sex). And at 4, he has the potential to become someone who understands the difference between these aspects of himself and his sexuality (his emotional and physical attractions to others). Hopefully, he’ll have the adults and peers around him to support not only his journey of self-exploration, but that of everyone else’s, no matter how gender-conforming or nonconforming they seem to be. Because it can also be confusing, empty or devoid of self to fulfill all the traditional expectations of a boy or girl with all the protection and pressure  of staying within the pink or blue lines.

This is not to say that all kids face equal stress and threat around their gender identities. Alex, like other gender-nonconforming boys, is at-risk for particular scrutiny and outright rejection by various US subcultures. As journalist Ruth Padawer notes, “Gender-nonconforming behavior of girls, however, is rarely studied, in part because departures from traditional femininity are so pervasive and accepted.” The sometimes severe intolerance for diversity of boys’ gender expression is a sobering truth that we have a responsibility to factor in as we guide and counsel boys who love “lava and unicorns, dinosaurs and glitter rainbows” (in some cases, as much as they love football, trucks and superheroes).

But let’s not blame the canaries for the toxicity of the coal mine. In addition to shifting our focus from changing nontraditional boys to equipping them with skills to handle prejudice, we can find small but significant ways to encourage others to think and breathe more freely around questions of gender identity. Alex’s father invested in a pair of pink Converse. What could you do?

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