Sometimes Pink Is Just A Color
Alice Dreger, a professor of bioethics, revised her views on gender dysphoria after receiving a letter from a mother of a “pink boy” – one “whose manner of play and dress has often tended toward what’s common in girls”:
The approach I called “therapeutic” seeks to see a child’s gender dysphoria evaporate, if at all possible. This typically involves strictly limiting the child’s access to gender-atypical activities and trying to help the child adjust to fit a social environment that (supposedly) requires gender divisions. It also often involves family therapy. Though it would seem to promise to make a child more comfortable with his body, there’s very little data that the therapeutic approach “works.” Moreover, the proponents of it have tended to be obsessed with measuring outcomes in terms of ultimate gender identity and sexual orientation rather than ultimate well-being, which surely is what should really matter.
By contrast, the approach I called “accommodating” seeks to prepare the gender dysphoric child for a transgendered life—a life that will ultimately involve hormonal and surgical sex change. Though it seems superficially more gender progressive, the problem I have with this approach is that it may end up sending more children down a high-medical-intervention path than is really necessary to maximize well-being in the population of children who go through gender dysphoria.
“You’ve done a good job of outlining the warring factions,” Sarah told me. But, she added, “I think that there is a third, quieter point of view: the perspective that, sure, transgender kids exist, but really, most of these gender-nonconforming kids are just kids who don’t fall to the most-masculine or most-feminine ends of the spectrum, and that’s okay. They don’t need treatment, they don’t need sexual reassignment, they just need a supportive home life, schools with anti-bullying protocols, and therapy for any harassment they face for being different.”
I felt kind of stupid reading Sarah’s message, because I realized that I had, in fact, left out this approach. I had targeted my article to parents who report that their male children are insisting they are girls or that their female children are insisting they are boys. But the truth is, as Sarah was suggesting, that a lot of “gender nonconforming” kids don’t have a simple story of being “trapped in the wrong body.” They are expressing more subtle, more complex, and more varied messages of self. What they need isn’t therapy; what they need is to know that it’s OK to be gender non-conforming. It’s perfectly OK be a male who has feminine-typical interests, behaviors, and desires, or a female who has masculine-typical interests, behaviors, and desires.
(Video: A father tells the story of his “pink boy” wanting a pink bicycle.)
And sometimes blue is too. A female reader quotes Alice Dreger:
But the truth is, as Sarah was suggesting, that a lot of “gender nonconforming” kids don’t have a simple story of being “trapped in the wrong body.” They are expressing more subtle, more complex, and more varied messages of self. What they need isn’t therapy; what they need is to know that it’s OK to be gender non-conforming.
That’s me in a nutshell, and I would imagine there are more of “us” than there are of strictly transgender children/people. The lack of understanding of those kinds of kids was probably the most traumatic part of my little butch childhood and remains a source of some pain and loneliness to this day. I still find myself seeking distance from others when I see their confusion and/or fear about what I look like and how I carry myself.
At nearly 50, I can suss out how desperate people are to have clear guidelines for what defines male and female.
This strict binary understanding provides them with a lot of comfort, though I might add that nearly all of the ideas of male-typical or female-typical interests are cultural understandings and not biological ones. Pink is always just a color, folks. But as a very butchy-looking child, who was better at sports than all of the neighborhood boys save my own brother, who was always competitive, never wanted to wear dresses and wore my hair short since I was little, I was never confused by what I liked and wanted to do.
But everyone else was, and they were extremely angry about the confusion I raised in them – when I was four damn years old. To have strangers, teachers, school peers ask me, angrily, “What’s wrong with you? Do you wish you were a boy?”, “Are you a boy or girl? Answer me!” or “Why are you here at the ball park, this is for boys?” always raised the same thought in my head, “What in the hell are you talking about? Of course I don’t wish I was a boy. I’m just a good athlete and hate dresses.” With those thoughts also came a deep fear for my own safety and utter embarrassment that I was somehow disappointing everyone by simply being who I was naturally. Fortunately, I was big and strong and only got physically threatened a few times as a kid.
I’ve never felt what’s described as gender dysphoria. I still don’t want to be a man, even though some still think I look like one. I don’t consider myself transgender, no matter how hard people try to pull this butch woman into that camp. I know I’m not easily definable, that I reside on the outside, but I can’t be anything other than I am now anymore than I could when I was four. I also know that who I am still confuses and angers many people and that I need to be very aware of when that’s happening so that confusion doesn’t turn into violence against me. With all of the progress on LGBT rights and understanding over the years, that part most certainly hasn’t changed.
Thanks for listening. It’s funny how your blog pulls so many of us to tell really deep stories about our lives that we haven’t shared with very many people. Until I wrote this post, I think I’ve only ever told of my childhood experiences to one other person – my partner. So, truly. Thank you for the outlet. It feels strangely safe when so many other places both virtual and real don’t.
A reader writes:
The comment from your reader who was a butch little girl broke my heart a little. I have an8 year old who is a little gender-queer, but not trans, and probably not gay, and he had a terrible time at school this year. My son is an awesome kid – sweet, smart, and funny. He is both one of the butchest boys I know and one of the most gender-queer. He truly has no regard for gendered clothing, shows, or interests. He loves karate and superheroes and video games and Spongebob and Star Wars: Clone Wars. He also loves sparkly, brightly colored clothing and nail polish and hair color and My Little Ponies and Tinker Bell. He has been both Samurai Jack for Halloween and a fairy. He plays with girls and boys.
This year, I allowed him to paint his nails black and orange just before Halloween. I didn’t think anything about it. It was the week before Halloween! His second grade classmates taunted him for it and called him a girl. One of them punched him in the balls. None of the boys would play with him any more. Only one girl would play with him. My son has a rebellious streak and decided to respond by bringing “girl books” to school and wearing pink shirts and more fingernail polish. The bullying continued. Despite an anti-bullying policy, the school’s main intervention was to advise us to get him to tone down the gender non-conformity. We did, but I can’t help but think that the message that my son got was that gender bullying is okay and that it was somehow his fault if someone bullies him for being a nonconformist.
We’re transferring schools this year. I can’t take it and my son shouldn’t have to.
I’m now a 60-year-old gay man, partnered for almost 25 years and living a reasonably happy life. When I was little, I was a mama’s boy and definitely not considered a typical boy. I played with dolls, like to dress up and loved doing whatever Mom was doing. In my baby book, Mom even recorded my atypical personality at the age of three, “Ricke is still a little girl at heart.” I knew that I was different from my other little male friends, but it didn’t seem to make much difference until about 3rd grade. It was then that I began to be bullied at school for being a sissy. Feeling miserable and lonely, I began to pray nightly that God would change me into a girl during the night and that I’d wake up feeling that everything in my life would be OK. That was the only solution that came to my young mind back in the 1950s. I knew nothing about homosexuality and on my own, couldn’t see any other way for me to fit in.
Well, that obviously didn’t happen. In high school I began to understand that I was gay and by college fully accepted it and began to live my life. I grew up to be a man who can take care of himself. Thanks to Mom, I can cook, bake, iron, sew, knit, hang wallpaper, paint a room or an entire house, and in general do what needs to be done. But it does make me wonder about the current trend toward diagnosing transsexualism in young children. I certainly don’t feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body now.
I am really appreciating all of the posts you’ve had in the last year or so on trans experiences. I don’t recall there being so many in the past, and your uptick coincides with my own son’s transition (from Laura to Lucas). I’ve also become acquainted with a young woman at our church who has a young son who is a “princess boy.” She is very supportive, but her ex-husband is So Very Not. I’ve been passing on all of your posts to her and they have been very helpful. So thank you on behalf of both of us, plus the many other family members and friends who have also found various of your posts so enlightening.
Sometimes Blue Is Just A Color
The first and third parts of the “pink boys” thread are here and here. The second post featured a straight female reader who grew up butch. Several readers continue that theme:
What about blue girls? I remember wishing I was a boy quite often when I was in elementary and junior high school, mostly because I realized from a very young age that being a boy would afford me more freedom and more access to things I wanted to do, like play baseball instead of softball and real basketball instead of that crappy 6-on-6 version. I dressed like a boy as often as I did like a girl. I played sports like a boy my whole life, lived independently, took care of myself, pursued what/who I wanted and even as late as my early thirties was still “manly” enough that people questioned my sexuality, which I always found odd, but people are nosy that way.
My most frustrating moment was in 5th grade. Boys at that age could be altar servers at my Catholic grade school and I engaged in a three-year battle with the nuns, and our parish priests, because I desperately wanted to serve. I even wanted to be a priest a one point, but when one of the sisters found out, she tried to talk me into the “next best thing” – the sisterhood. Even at eleven, I wasn’t fool enough to equate the power of the priesthood with the submissive servitude of the sisters.
One of most vivid memories as a child is hearing one of my uncles remark to my father about what a great little ballplayer I was but “why would God have wasted talent like that on a girl?” I never wanted to be a boy to “be a boy”, but rather to have what they had – freedom and power. Life is easier for men in so many ways. I knew this when I was six and I still know it.
Another female reader:
I tell people I was a boy growing up. That’s because somewhere between 3 and 5, I began to hate wearing girl things and playing with girls’ toys. Because I was a sickly child, my mother gave into my demands that I wear slacks, a tie and a shirt when I wasn’t in school uniform. I remember steeling myself before walking into ladies’ restrooms just for the inevitable responses of “Aren’t you in the wrong bathroom little boy?” My voice always convinced the women that I was female, but oh my, the looks I got!
Because of how I dressed, and because my childhood illnesses kept me from school, I felt like an “other.” Because both occurred simultaneously, my feelings of being an “other” weren’t restricted to gender issues. As an adult woman, I’ve never felt the compulsion to be a man, though I will cop to still feeling boyish after all these years. And because my mother let me be a “boy” in almost every sense of the word, I don’t feel any unresolved gender issues.
Oh, I also had a boy name: David. A few of my friends knew and some thought it weird. I wonder if some of these “trans” kids are more like me than truly trans.
On the above trailer:
Tomboy is a 2011 French drama film written and directed by Céline Sciamma. The story follows a 10-year-old girl named Laure who, after moving with her family to a new neighborhood, dresses as a boy and introduces herself to her new friends as Mickäel. A neighborhood girl named Lisa instantly assumes that Mickäel/Laure is a boy and falls in love with him. The film is supposed to explore themes of ambiguous sexuality. Writer/director Céline Sciamma said of Tomboy “The movie is ambiguous about Mikael’s feelings for Lisa. It plays with the confusion. I wanted it to be that way.”
I was not quite a tomboy, but I hated dresses and loved trucks and building things and science. To their credit, my parents never tired to encourage me to be more girly (except for forcing me to wear dresses when going somewhere fancy). I’m 24, so you’d think people wouldn’t have been surprised when I said pink wasn’t my favorite color and I didn’t care about growing up to be a “mommy,” but of course I got all sorts of crap. When I was 7, I told my grandmother my favorite sport to play was hockey. She said “You don’t want people to think you’re a dyke, do you? Pick a girl’s sport.”
In school, there was the usual teasing, from being told having hair on my arms made me a boy to rumors that I had a penis. The science teachers informed me that girls didn’t blow things up, so experiments that were interesting were limited to the boys. It culminated in middle school with students asking my (female) best friend if we were a couple and a contest among the boys to see who could “make her straight.” Yup, the students in my middle school had a campaign to rape me until I fit their idea of a girl. Luckily, being un-feminine, I wasn’t afraid to fight back and fight dirty.
Flash forward to today, where I have worked as a reporter covering the military, I still hate pink, and I’m happily straight. We forget just how pervasive our gender roles are assumed to be, and the ways our society has to try to enforce them. My life would have been easier if I’d chosen to live as a man, but I don’t think I ever really needed to; a man can love glitter and still be a man, and a woman can prefer discussing airplanes to soap operas.