There Is No One Way To Be A Boy

This originally appeared on The Mamafesto. Republished here with permission.

For the last six years or so, there have been many comments about my son’s perceived gender from others—mostly strangers. For the most part, EZ has either been oblivious to these comments, or has ignored them, in that way that little kids can sometimes so effortlessly do. But in the last few months, they seem to be sinking in and sticking.

Perhaps it’s because he is becoming so much more observant of the world around him, as well as trying to figure out what his role is in all of it. But lately, whenever somebody mistakes him for a girl (which happens on a weekly basis, usually), it really seems to bug him.

I continue to march the party line: There is no one way to be a boy (or girl). I remind him that maybe people aren’t used to seeing such awesome, long, blond curls on boys. He repeats the “colors are for everyone” mantra when somebody challenges his favorites of pink and purple. But still, it sinks in.

And it’s wearing on him.

We were away in Canada a couple of weeks ago so I could speak at a conference. At check-in he was mistaken for a girl, and then again, later in our stay an older woman wished us a “good night, ladies” as we got out of the elevator. He’s been bringing that up a lot lately.

And his solution? Maybe he should just be a girl.

And it kills me. This would be a whole different challenge if I thought my son was questioning his own gender identity. For now, he’s not. He loves being a boy and all that it encompasses. I look at him and I just “get” boy radiating off him, whatever that means. However, despite all his “boyness,” EZ still steps outside the narrow construct of what it means to be male in our society. His deviation, whether it’s his preference to keep his blond curls long, or for the color pink, or for things that sparkle, are just a few parts that make up the totality of who he is. But for some people, that’s all they see and they immediately default to girl.

The conversation above took place at bedtime, when we normally have our special heart-to-hearts. I understand his frustration. I can’t imagine hearing people call me one thing when I know I’m something else. I could see it turning into something so annoying that you’d just want to change things, especially at 6. Since then, we’ve had many more talks about what it means to be ourselves, no matter what anyone thinks. He knows that he doesn’t need to change for anyone but himself. We’ve talked about how sometimes people can be thrown off by his beautiful hair or color choices, but that all he has to do is politely correct them and move on. If they seem stuck on it, that’s their problem, not his.

Slowly, he’s starting to get it. I’m sure this isn’t the only time we’ll end up talking about this, and as he gets older he’ll come across many points where he has to work through being true to himself while coming up against societal expectations. My hope is that we’ve created a foundation where he feels confident and comfortable in his changes. Just as I don’t think “becoming a girl” is the solution here, I also hope he doesn’t box away his true joys and preferences because they don’t fit a certain mold. So far, so good on that front. My guess is that his acquiescing to just “be a girl” is his way of working out how to enjoy what he does while still living in a society that has fairly rigid gender boxes.

We live in a rather progressive little bubble, where it’s not unusual to see boys with long hair or girls with buzz cuts (in fact, as I’ve mentioned before, EZ’s fathers hair is quite long…possibly longer than mine at the moment). It’s also not unusual to see folks who identify as genderqueer. This isn’t about who or what my son has been exposed to—he’s aware of differences. However, when it becomes about him and his identity? He’s still trying to figure it all out.

Earlier today, my beloved local radio station played Kingsley Flood’s “Sun Gonna Lemme Shine.” The DJ, Monte, told folks to make sure to check out the video. Not only did I check it out, but I went to learn more and found a great HuffPo piece from Kingsley Flood Naseem Khuri.

It felt like Khuri was speaking to me:

The whole thing is complex. Kids just want to be kids and do what they want, so why do other kids get to determine that they can’t? At the same time, difference—from funny names to boys in dresses—can be unsettling to an unaccustomed kid.

It’s complex for parents, too, who must weigh their desire to nurture a kid’s identity with their desire to protect. I’m not a parent (remember that musician thing—I effectively live in a van), but when I saw that boy wearing “normal” boy clothes, I felt sad. He didn’t feel like he could wear what he wanted and, in a real way, was forced to compromise his own identity.

So for now, here I am, weighing my desire to nurture my son’s identity with my desire to protect.

Photo of the author and her son

Avital Norman Nathman is a play-at-home-mama, feminist, wife, writer, and activist (in no particular order). Her work has been featured in Bitch magazine (and website), Ms. Blog, Bamboo Family Magazine, Gender Across Borders and more. When she’s not hosting dance parties in her kitchen, she’s knee-deep in dirt in her teensy urban garden, nose deep in some young adult lit, or off in search of the perfect cup of Chai. You can follow Avital on Twitter at @TheMamafesto.

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