Tag Archives: gender diverse parenting

National Gender Creative Kids Workshop

I just got back from Montreal (try the bagels), where I attended the National Workshop for Gender Creative Kids, hosted by Concordia University. It. Was. Amazing. There’s a lot I’d like to share, a lot I learned, a lot of discussions and debates about which I have Things to Say, but much of that will have to be saved for other times, and possibly other venues.

I was honored to be the first presenter on the opening panel, in which I talked about gender diverse parenting, the what and the why. Fifteen minutes was wholly inadequate for more than a too-brief introduction; when I sat down to write my talk, over 3000 words rolled out of my fingers almost without trying, and I ended up having to remove rather more nuance and complexities than I’d hoped, but for all that, I’m pretty proud of what remained.

I can’t share it in full here — it wouldn’t be anything particularly new to regular readers of this blog anyway — but you can read Dr Elizabeth Meyer’s write up of mine and other parents’ talks: Gender Diverse Parenting: Creating Space for Kids (in which she calls it brilliant).

Because the workshop was hosted by a research project, there is no “next year” currently scheduled, but many of us (which is to say, nearly every one of the 70 or so parents, educators, activists, artists, doctors, therapists, and general rabble-rousers — many trans or former gender creative kids themselves) are hoping and working toward having a similar conference again in the future. I for one already have ideas for my next proposal.

On gender diverse parenting versus parenting a gender creative kid

So, apparently something I wrote on a lark for an online youth magazine in Brazil got picked up by a major print magazine. Because surreal is a far too accurate description of my life.

From this, I’ve been getting requests for interviews. Which, see aforementioned re “surreal”. And one thing I’m noticing is a confusion between “gender diverse parenting” and parenting of a kid who, it turns out, is pretty creative when it comes to his gender expression (also known as “gender nonconforming”, though that implies an expectation TO conform).

Here’s the thing: I didn’t set out to have a kid who sometimes likes dresses and whose favorite colors are pink and “anything bright”, who loves long hair (though he doesn’t love brushing it), is willing to stand in line and follow instructions in order to take pre-ballet, who would rather correct strangers every day with semi-patient iterations of “I’m a boy” than change how he dresses and discard the purple shoes he loves to wear. I love him. I love everything about him, including his love of one of my least favorite colors, including his insistence on having hair we have struggles to take care of every day, including the conversations we have at least weekly about how rude it is when people don’t believe that he’s a boy. But I don’t love him any more this way than if he were any other sort of boy. And, contrary to the implications of the questions I’ve been getting, I didn’t set out to make him this way.

We don’t parent gender diversely in order to have kids like the Boychick — we tried that in the 70s and early 80s, and, to many straight white feminists’ chagrin, it didn’t work. No, we parent with gender diversity because children like the Boychick exist. Because they exist, with their love of unexpected colors and uninhibited hair and boundary-breaking affinities, whether or not we expect them. Whether or not we “allow” them, welcome them, make space for them, honor them.

Maybe the Boychick would have been more gender typical in his clothing and hair and preferences in a more gender strict household. And maybe, maybe, that would have even been authentic, and not a survival strategy in an unfriendly environment. Even if that were so, something would have been lost, some spark that makes him him. He would be some other him, with some other spark, and while he would be just as beautiful, the world would be a slightly less colorful place. But more likely, he would be exactly who he is, but would have a much harder life.

Every day, in homes all over the world, children who are told “no, you can’t have that, no, that’s for boys, no, that’s only for girls, no, you can’t be yourself, no, you aren’t okay” still sneak silky shirts to wear as wigs, still run to the “wrong” side of the store, still stuff self-made penises into their pants, still do the work of playing with gender, of figuring out who they are, of forcing us to confront the failure of forced gender conformity. Every day, streets all over the world are filled with the teens old enough to run away from their hostile families, toward their real selves.  Gender diverse parenting doesn’t create gender creative kids: it creates a world that tells them “yes”.

Late notice for WAM!It Yourself: Is It a Boy or a Girl? Improving Media Coverage Beyond the Binary

Join us tomorrow for a radio-style program on non-binary and non-conforming gender and the media, as part of Women, Action and the Media’s WAM! It Yourself decentralized conference. Hosted by Avory Faucette and featuring an exciting array of guests — including1 yours truly — you can tune in via Blog Host Radio, or call in to join the conversation.

It starts at 10am EDT (I’ll be talking with Avory for the first half hour of the program) — which, for those keeping track, is indeed 7am here in cloudy Portland. Never say I don’t do anything for you people.

Sorry for the late notice, but I do hope you can join us. Unless you’re sleeping. In which case, enjoy it. For me.

Also check out the rest of WAM! It Yourself’s schedule. It runs through the end of March, featuring sessions in cities across the USA2 and online.

  1. Inexplicably.
  2. And Canada, eh.

Review of Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America

Disclosure: I solicited a copy of Pink and Blue from the author, Jo B Paoletti, for review and for my own research purposes, and was sent one complimentary by the publisher.

Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America

Over two years ago, a new Twitter-friend of mine told me of her mother’s research, into the history of American children’s clothing generally and of pink and blue as gendered signifiers specifically, and of a forthcoming book on the topic. I have been bouncing in my seat — my capacity for patience, never very high, at its lowest — ever since, nagging my friend (or Twitter-stalking her mom) every few months: “Any word on the book? When’s it coming out? What can I do to help??” (My eagerness matched only by my hubris.) Finally — finally! — I have it sitting next to me, notes scribbled on nearly every page, showing wear from two children, two pets, a pencil wedged beneath its cover, and a week of being carted around stuffed in a diaper bag, and I can say: read this book.

A Costume History (it Doesn’t Mean What You Think)

Paoletti, an Associate Professor in American Studies at the University of Maryland, is first and foremost a textiles, costume, and consumer economics scholar. As she points out, “costume” does not mean Halloween dress-up, but rather simply the collective clothing and accouterments that humans use to protect and adorn ourselves. Thus, Pink and Blue is primarily a costume historiography, with primary sources of baby and advice books, paper dolls, and advertisements. It focuses on children’s clothing from birth through age seven or so, from the mid-1800s (though she does stretch back a bit farther for reference) through 2011, particularly the ways in which their dress did — and didn’t — signify gender.

Critiques: I have them

Before I tell you why you should buy and read and share the book anyway, let me tell you of its shortfalls.

First of which is: as a book, Pink and Blue is not that great. Which is not to say the writing is bad: it’s at worst fine, and often ascends to quite engaging or enjoyable. But it lacks the cohesion and polish of a really excellent, thoroughly readable popular text; though it approaches this in many places (especially toward the end), it is uneven. The first chapter, for example, appears to have at one point been written as the introduction (p 8: “In this introduction, I will focus… but in each chapter, where appropriate, I have incorporated…”), and certainly it reads like a book with two (each well-written) intros.

Pink and Blue is, as she says, “several overlapping and interconnected narratives” (p XVI), so there is a significant amount of repetition of information: because of this, and because there are only so many times I can read 1865-this and 1868-that before my eyes cross, I found myself wishing again and again for an overarching time-line, perhaps in appendix or introduction, that covered all the key dates mentioned throughout: the introduction and cessation of “the white dress”, the start of bifurcation in toddler wear, the Little Lord Fauntleroy fad, the Time Without Pink in department store catalogs. Though these things are all rather fuzzy, Paoletti does successfully attach dates to many of them: to lay them out chronologically, and then explain their research and ramifications in the text, would be so helpful in the reading and absorbing of her ideas.

Finally, on the topic of trans and gender non-conforming children, I found earnestness and good intentions but a few cringe-causing comments nonetheless, including cissexist pronoun use and centering of assigned-gender as “real” (as in “a boy who insisted that he was a girl” p 13) and conflation of gender nonconformity and transgender experience1. This is not the main focus of the book, however, and so the few failures are irritating imperfections, not prohibitive problems.

Read It Anyway

If you’re interested in gender, parenting, and the societal forces influencing these — that is, if you’re a regular reader of this blog — odds are excellent you’ll enjoy Pink and Blue. I certainly did, frequently exclaiming over a new thought, a clarifying detail, or a novel approach to historical analysis. It’s not that often that I read a book on gender in which I learn something new to me (rather than learning more about something I already knew): Pink and Blue is a refreshing exception. Even in the places where I disagreed with her analysis, I felt engaged rather than put off.

One of the most intriguing (and novel) ideas in the book is Paoletti’s theory of the generational, developmental evolution of children’s clothing. That is, “[t]he fashionable infant of 1900 was the fashionable schoolgirl of 1908 and the fashionable young miss of 1914, and the fashionable woman of 1920 might become the grandmother in a polyester pantsuit in 1973.” Paoletti asks, and to some extent answers, “what connections might there be between children’s clothing of one era and the adult clothing of the next?” (p 15)

It is this question that most fires my imagination, as I clothe my children; it is this especially that compelled my fascinated flip from page to page until the last; it is this that will guide me as I seek, in whatever small way my writing and activism allow me, to affect the next generation’s gender health; and it is wondering what answers their historians will find in my work that fuels me.

Thanks to the groundbreaking scholarship of Pink and Blue, I have no doubt there will be historians working in this rich and fascinating field for years to come.

***

If you can’t find it at or don’t want to trek to an independent bookstore, support your local blogger and buy Pink and Blue from Powell’s or Amazon.

  1. Although I will admit that especially in children there is a significant amount of blurring between gender nonconformity and transgender experience — and that the two are not mutually exclusive, as in the trans boy who likes flowers as dolls — there are of course many trans girls, just as there are many cis girls, who want nothing more than the mainstream binarist offerings of pink, pink, and more pink. The point being not that they are two distinct categories, but that neither are they interchangeable: transgender does not mean binary-defying any more than cisgender or gender typical means binary-loving.

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.