Don’t teach your kids to ‘explore gender’ — refuse to teach them ‘gender’ at all

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Today, my son came inside to show me a caterpillar he had discovered in the yard. He was dressed in his typical fashion, which, today, meant a pink apron dress with butterflies over a teal shirt with a sparkly swan, topped with a spiked bicycle helmet with Tyrannosaurus Rexes.

His mother and I have given our kids some range to explore their own interests and tastes. We welcome our son to enjoy wearing “pretty” clothes, like dresses or flower print pants, and we encourage our daughter’s sense of justice and fascination with marginalized heroes throughout history, from Ida B. Wells to Malala Yousafzai. We don’t do this because we want our kids to “explore gender,” but because we know that gender is a fiction and an imposition put upon girls and boys. We refuse to teach our children that some likes, dislikes, behaviours, colours, and pastimes are reserved for one sex or the other — we want them to transcend those barriers and find their own selves.

By allowing free exploration, our kids are less, rather than more, likely to have an interest in “transitioning” to the social roles of the opposite sex. Why would they bother, when they are free to combine their interests in dresses and superheroes, dolls and dinosaurs, pink and blue? There is no impetus to “change gender” if one is allowed access to the full range of human interests and behaviour.

These attitudes are clearly illustrated in the stories of transitioned children like Jazz Jennings, who authored a children’s picture book, I Am Jazz, expressing anger at not being allowed to wear dresses in public. In the book, Jennings defends transition as the solution to mismatched “gender” preferences, writing that, like other girls, “We like high heels and princess gowns,” adding, “I hardly ever played with trucks or tools or superheroes, only princesses and mermaid costumes.” In a 2015 interview for ABC News, Jazz’s mother explains, “She liked anything sparkly, sparkly and pink. And she’s so feminine.” She adds that her child had always “acted like a girl.”

But there is more to the story.

If a young boy is interested in flowers and skirts but told those things are “for girls” — prevented from wearing dresses and playing with girls — that provides a strong incentive to say he is perhaps not a boy at all. If offered the idea of “transgender,” which would allow him to pursue his preferred hobbies and dress as he likes, why wouldn’t he choose that? A child knows nothing of the broader consequences of this adult ideology. Likewise, if a girl is told baseball and jeans are for boys, maybe she would then insist she is in fact a boy. Children say what they need to say to get what they want.

Unfortunately, for many of these children, their parents believe they must take these claims seriously. Transgenderism is everywhere in the media, and parents are told that if they deny their children’s claims to be the “opposite gender,” they are “transphobic,” abusive, and even endangering their children’s lives. But while these children gain access to the things they desire — toys, clothing, hobbies — they are still restricted. A transitioning boy might gain access to dolls and dresses, but only by renouncing all male-typed interests. A girl must embrace masculinity entirely to reject some aspects of femininity. Not only that, but these children may be put on a path to medical interventions, including puberty-blocking hormones and surgical “transition”, putting them at risk of infertility and preventing them from developing properly.

Of course, parents are hardly the only force pushing children into transgenderism. Some children will be quick to castigate their peers for falling outside the social boundaries imposed on the sexes. While, today, many kids are individually tolerant, it just takes one or two boys to rally others into condemning aberrant behaviour. Girls are still mocked as “lesbians” if they explore interests deeper than boys and refuse to partake in the beauty rituals of femininity. Boys are still expected to choose to play with other boys over girls — to be tough and reject “girly” things.

I witnessed this firsthand while I was volunteering in a preschool back in 2008. Halfway through the year, a new boy entered the classroom. He was kind and considerate, and preferred to play with the girls, who were often much gentler. It didn’t take long before he began to receive scorn from a couple boys for doing so, and by the end of the year he was “one of the boys.” He learned to act aggressively towards girls and put them down to affirm his place, but he also seemed perpetually sad and it was clear he received no real pleasure from it.

In this case, a sensitive boy responded to peer bullying by joining them. Now, 12 years later, another possibility may have presented itself: transition. Today, this boy could have continued living as he liked if only he said he was “a girl.” When children rigidly police one another on the basis of their sex and the stereotypes attached to that sex, a boy who prefers the company of girls might well see being a girl as a route toward social acceptance.

Growing up I was sometimes mistaken for gay, and although I did not experience much direct bullying, I was sensitive and lived in fear of it. When a classmate made fun of a bright turtleneck I was wearing, I reacted by toning down everything I wore. For a period of early adulthood I only wore identical grey t-shirts. Only now, in my late 30s, have I gotten comfortable wearing my favorite colours: indigo, lavender, and violet.  Since I was little, I have preferred the presence of girls and, later, women — not least because they are less likely to police me for failing to adhere to masculinity in this way. I have at times wished I was female to escape these pressures and be part of a community where I could feel safe from them. Thankfully, I grew up during a time when this fantasy was not yet treated as a legitimate possibility.

We need children to know they have more options than accepting the box they are placed in or finding their way into the one they weren’t. And we need to back kids up on their expressions of nonconformity without making it conditional upon “transition.” If we really want kids to feel free to be themselves, we should do that, and not offer them only rigid, stereotyped categories or potentially dangerous “transitions” as a solution.

My daughter found one such option for herself. She reported to me that her kindergarten class had become divided along sex lines. Some of the girls rejected her because she had short hair, saying they didn’t understand it, and the boys rejected her because she wore a dress. Her novel solution was to establish a group of five called the “Weird Weirders,” for nonconforming kids who accepted each other for who they were. They worked to convince other kids to have positive feelings about difference, and some then joined the group. I am very grateful to my friend Lierre Keith who offered further encouragement by providing members with custom T-shirts.

As my son prepares for kindergarten in the fall, I hope that we have provided what he needs to make it through okay. He is used to being mistaken for a girl, and has a prepared stock answer: “I’m a boy, I just like pink.” We’ve given him the confidence to combine his interests in being both “cool” and “pretty.” I can only hope that kids are still allowed to think flexibly enough to accept him for the sensitive and funny little boy that he is. “Inclusivity” and “acceptance” must exist outside the transgender narrative.

Owen Lloyd is a writer and parent living in Myrtle Creek, OR. He can be reached at [email protected]

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