In November 2012, a blogger wrote about her son dressing up as Daphne from Scooby-Doo for Halloween and got more than 4 million views and 47,204 comments. In April 2011, J. Crew ran an ad featuring creative director Jenna Lyons painting her son’s toenails pink and launched what will forever be known as Toemageddon. In December, a photo of a boy wearing pink zebra-print ballet flats to kindergarten drew more than 120,000 likes on Facebook and 19,000 shares before it was removed by the family. In August 2013, a mom wrote that her young son wore a pink headband in Walmart and was called a faggot by a stranger, which got a huge amount of sympathy until it was discovered that the story might be false.
I’ve watched these stories come out of nowhere and cause massive public reactions. People either despise the mothers — and sometimes the kids — or they celebrate them. There’s rarely a middle ground. And then, as quickly as they arrived, they disappear. But they aren’t isolated cultural phenomena, and they shouldn’t be treated that way. They are brief glimpses into the lives of a few boys who are part of a much larger group that faces much bigger problems than the occasional insult during a shopping trip. As the mother of a gender-nonconforming boy, I’m not so sure that turning them into miniature lightning rods is what they really need. Neither one event nor all of them as a whole has had the power to inspire and sustain a lasting conversation that raises awareness, understanding and acceptance of little boys who don’t conform to traditional gender norms.
Gender variance or transgender identity occurs in as many as 1 in 500 births, making it more common than childhood diabetes. Gender-nonconforming boys have the highest rate of suicide attempts and are three to six times more likely to suffer from major depression, addiction and unsafe sexual behaviors. More than 80% report being harassed at school and, even worse, many are harassed at home.
Life can be dangerous for boys like my son. In her book Gender Born, Gender Made, psychologist Diane Ehrensaft wrote, “To be gender nonconforming is to risk being killed, but on a daily basis it more likely means being harassed, confused and misunderstood in the community … There is no doubt that these children are among the ranks of minority individuals in our society who must anticipate bigotry and antipathy from those who either do not understand, are ill-informed, govern their thinking with myth rather than reality or … project hatred onto those who are different from themselves.”
These at-risk children and their families are not getting the help, empathy, acceptance and support they need, because for a lot of people it’s easier to live with phobias than to get educated about sex, gender and sexuality. Often those same people think gender-nonconforming children should change the gender identity they were born with — which is as much a part of them as their eye color and handedness — to avoid the problems they face. I argue that it’s never the job of a child to make an adult feel comfortable and that we as a society should be working to eradicate bullying behaviors, not the behaviors that prompted the bullying.
As they grow, gender-nonconforming children need to feel safe and understood. We help them when we stop seeing femininity in males as weakness and realize that colors, toys and clothes are for everyone regardless of whom they are marketed to. But that’s just a start.
Hopefully soon, stories about gender-nonconforming boys can start a lasting conversation and move the public toward launching all children healthily into adulthood, no matter their sex, gender, sexuality or color, clothing and toy preferences. I don’t want children like my son to be short-term media sensations; I want them to be inspirations for change that is long term and much needed.