Braiding Gender

His hair is soft, smooth against my fingers as I sooth it down from the brush’s static. He brought me the brush, and a hair tie, presumptive in his certainty I would do this for him, brushing-braiding-primate bonding. As he should be; as he has no reason not to be.

“Do you want a braid or a ponytail?” I ask.

“Ponytail. No, braid! Braids are prettier.”

“Alright.”

I change the brush’s angle now, gather the gold in my hand, divide it by three with these two practiced fingers. His voice pipes up while I plait:

“Some people might laugh at me, because they don’t think boys should wear braids.”

My hands don’t stop, even as my heart does.

“That’s true. Some people might.”

Braiding, simple braiding like I am doing, is a series of trades; left for middle, right for middle, twist twist twist, trading turns each time.

I twist.

“What would you do if someone did laugh at you?”

“I’d run away.”

Twist.

“Or I’d find someone who wasn’t laughing, and I’d tell them.”

Twist.

“Or I’d use my words, and tell them to stop.”

Trade.

“Those all sound like good plans.”

Twist, twist.

“Do you think anyone at your school will laugh at you?”

“No.”

His answer is swift, certain, a full stop.

“Good.” I bind the braid, prevent its unraveling with a simple strand of elastic.

“There you are!” I pull him close. “My pretty boy.” I let him go.

***

What does it mean to be gender non-conforming? Can a child raised in gender diversity, without expectation of conformity, be gender non-conforming? My firstborn rejects nothing; we give him nothing to rebel against. He embraces all: pinks and browns, blues and purples, and everything, everything red.

I could describe him one way — how he bounces around the room, turns sticks into light-sabers, plays ceaselessly with his private pretend army — and garner proclamations that “he’s all boy!” Or another — his love of long hair, his doting on his baby sister, how he hugs everyone who stands still long enough — and get a much different reaction. Both are true; both are incomplete.

***

Contrary to the warnings long-given by naysayers of low-gendering parenting, the Boychick is no ignorant innocent: show him any stereotyped advertisement (or book, or film), and he will tell you exactly which is supposed to be the girl, which the boy. Despite my secret subversive desires, there is no idealistic confusion here. But nor, though on anyone else he would proclaim them to be so, does he seem to have any concept of his own clothes as “boy” or “girl” garments; they are only the red-with-heart, or red-with-dragon, or the brown dress-shirt, or the blue with the beautiful bird. They are only clothes, loved on their merits. They are only his.

***

Is this gender non-conformity, this lack of rejection of that we deem feminine? How can it be; how can we stand the double standards, when his sister inheriting the same mixed wardrobe would be seen as fully “normal”, not even so much as a tomboy, but nor an especially girly-girl? How can I allow a pathological interpretation of one child for an equal love of hair braiding and hare-brained ideas that would be deemed fully healthy if found in my other?

And yet.

“Some people might laugh at me.”

Indeed.

***

He’s not wrong.

It is, in fact, something of an understatement. According to TransActive, “Gender non-conformity is the third leading cause of school bullying” (and “#2 is actual or perceived sexual orientation”). And from a newly published study from Harvard School of Public Health, “Rates of PTSD were almost twice as high among young adults who were gender nonconforming in childhood than among those who were not.”

Sometimes gender nonconformity is conformity to an unacknowledged gender. Sometimes it’s not.

Sometimes gender nonconformity is because society doesn’t give kids any model for their gender. How can they conform to the expectations of their gender, when according to their family and their schools and their culture, their gender — not fitting neatly into the two accepted and exclusive slots of “male” or “female” — doesn’t exist at all?

Perhaps that is my child’s purview, a both or a neither or a something else altogether. He’s not entirely unfamiliar with the concept, though it’s not like ze or the singular they roll off our tongues as easily as I could wish. But so far, he says not: playing she or both at his fully accepting, gender-full school is well and good, but at the end of the day it is, he says, but a role, and he becomes he once more.

***

I want to have a neat wrap-up, a ten-point list, a how-to guide. I want to twist a tie at the end and be done, left with simple beauty, woven into being. But like his braid, the question of my child’s gender — of any child’s gender — frays and gathers gunks and fly-aways, and will need to be taken out, smoothed and soothed and brushed back, to be put together again, and again, and again, as often as he asks it of me.

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11 Responses to Braiding Gender

  1. Yes. This. All of it. My toddler bringing me a hair band and a brush, and asking for a ponytail. People commenting on how cute she is in the grocery store and then asking her age, apologizing when I say, “He’s 2.” The person who told me I needed to cut his hair so that people would know he was a boy. My mother-in-law who insists that same think; that he MUST know he’s a boy.

    I don’t stop him from knowing he’s a boy, I just want all the things that he wants and likes to be open to him. And not closed to him because of his genitalia.

  2. Thank you for this. It’s an interesting read, a thoughtful take on gender (non)comformity. I keep turning the phrase “low-gendering parenting” over and over in my head, because I know that, with the way we parent, it’s impossible for them not to pick up on gender cues. We can stock their closets with whatever clothing we want, and Libra can still use “he” and “she” correctly, for the most part, because gender is evident in everything around them, and because all of his parenting figures use gendered pronouns. I try to use neutral words, where possible – instead of “that little boy” I will say “that little kid,” instead of “the man” I say “the person” – and they use those words, too, the neutral ones.

    But low-gender parenting, yes, that strikes a chord, that’s something I feel describes how we do what we do.

    I haven’t yet tried to talk to them about gender, explicitly, about the differences between boy and girl, about the places that lay in between. It’s probably time I did. I confess to being a little bit wary of the conversation, although it’s already happening, in little bits and pieces. I like your example of letting your little one lead the way, the way you ask questions instead of issue statements. Maybe that’s all I need to do.

  3. I love it when you have a post like this. I have a mildly gender non-conforming child. At this age, only 3, few people seem all that bothered. The teachers at daycare are supportive and non-judgemental. To me, color is color and clothes are clothes (these are the two currently front and center items of nonconformity).

    However, my ex-husband does not see it this way. When we are in the same room and the issues come up, I try to make light of them and not respond with the frustration I feel because I do not want those feeling to leak over to my child, who is too observant anyway.

    In my house, my child can be however they want to be. When not with me, I have to wonder. I fear that my child will have to be two different people depending on which house is the home for the night. I wonder if it’s harder to be judged by one’s peers or at home?

    I thank you for your experiences and sharing the with us.
    Inmy

  4. I think not conforming to gender is a bit easier with a girl, simply because the world around us is much more accepting of a girl wearing “boy” clothes and doing “boy” things. I also think TMae made an excellent point when ze said “I don’t stop him from knowing he’s a boy, I just want all the things that he wants and likes to be open to him. And not closed to him because of his genitalia.” For a long time, I thought that countering gender stereotypes meant deliberately surrounding our children with those things that would typically be considered the wrong gender, but that isn’t it. It’s exactly what TMae said…letting the child choose and prefer and explore and do whatever ze wants without judgement that it’s wrong because of gender.

  5. He’s a beautiful boy!

    L is starting to play with gender identity. she sometimes says “I’m a boy”, and it’s hard to tell (due to 3yo enunciation) whether she means “boy” or “Boyd”, our surname. Sometimes she means one, sometimes the other; I think she likes playing with the sounds as much as the kinds of identity. so we ask which she means, and if she says “boy”, I say, ok, you can be a boy if you want.. at first her much-more-conservative father was saying, no, you’re a girl, but he’s relaxed on the topic. I’ve started talking about how we call a girl’s outer genitalia a vulva, and a boy’s a penis. I’m quite happy that some days she wears a frilly dress and tights, and others jeans and t-shirts. I honestly don’t know what I’d do if I had a son who wanted to wear a dress. I *want* to be all right with it, but I’m not… I guess I’ll cross that bridge if I come to it.

    I guess I aim for gender-inclusive anymore, and try not to twitch too much on princess-y days.

  6. This is so great! I feel like people need to get past the idea that, if you don’t enforce gender norms, you’re trying to de-gender your kid, when really it’s about letting them choose what they want and be themselves before being their gender.

  7. Love this post so much! I’ve been thinking about gender roles/construction a lot lately as well, since no matter how much I try to find strong female characters for Eryn in books and movies, she focuses only on the boy characters. I’m beginning to worry that she feels only boys get to do fun stuff — or are the only ones worthy of attention. She thankfully doesn’t differentiate clothes or activities as belonging to a specific gender.

    Though “mamas” take care of babies and “babas” go to meetings :P

    If my current bun is a boy, I’ve already imagined keeping his hair long. We have a bit of an advantage in that there’s a religious tradition saying the Prophet used to keep his hair long and in braids — so few in our community would question the length or dare to make fun of a boy in braids.

  8. It seems we’re still waiting for language to shift away from the victim to the perpetrator. “Gender non-conformity is the third leading cause of school bullying.”
    How about…
    “Intolerance of gender identity is the third leading cause of school bullying.”

    I like the sweet moment you’ve captured in this post.

  9. An anecdote to share: Reading about about bugs and things to my 4yo boy, we read that snails are haemaphrodites – I explained that this meant being ‘both a boy and girl’. He looked thoughtful for a few moments then said “I wish I could be a boy AND a girl”, a bit sadly.
    He has only relatively recently become aware of gender norms. His favourite colours used to be pink and purple – now he proclaims with certainty that “pink is for girls”, but he still likes pink – all the colours are his favourite now (he likes rainbows). Likewise, he is certain that he is a boy, and usually acts and dresses ‘boy’, but with numerous exceptions. We recently had a chat about dresses and he decided that ‘boys don’t usually wear dresses, but some do, if their mum lets them.’ (I let him – he rarely does but appreciates that he can).

  10. I’ve been having some interesting conversations with my mildly gender non-conforming son lately too. He identifies himself as “boy” and, as he is only 3 years old, no one seems particularly bothered (except my immediate family – go figure, my sister is as embracing of gender conformity as it is possible to be). Reading stuff like this inspires me to write more about our conversations and experiences with gender non-conformity. One day, when I have the time and brain power to write more than 2 sentences of fluff…

  11. Absolutely beautifully written! It’s great how calm you seem to approach it. so often do I read or hear (mostly) women talk about one or the other. There always has to be a choice in how you raise your children, rarely is it simply about letting the children decide who they want to be, what gender role they want to adapt. Great post!

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