On the front lines of gender norm resistance

A couple of days ago, my eight year-old son, Thomas went to school in a dress. Excited to subvert school (and societal) rules in celebration of “Crazy Clothes Day”, he welcomed the opportunity to play. On the way to school that morning, he proudly declared, “I’m going as a boy and a girl and a champion!” (Champion due to the many medals he wore around his neck). A proud moment for me as I basked in the glow of his self-confidence. This, in our car ride to school.

Outside our car is another story. Every single day, Thomas is bombarded with messages about how to be a “real man”. Just last night, at his basketball game, his third grade coach led his team in a collective oath to not cry during games and if they did, they could not play. There are certain rules–both on and off the court–that are strictly enforced when it comes to the performance of gender.

I recall the first moment I was faced with how I would respond to Thomas’ negotiation of gender policing. Would I position Thomas on the front lines of my own resistance to dominant ideology, of gender norming? Or, would I succumb to the pressure, reinforcing gender stereotypes? He was three years old and we were on our way to childcare. Thomas was donning his regular accessory of glittery, pink nail polish. Suddenly, he snapped. Tears began flowing. He cried that he couldn’t wear the nail polish, that his friends would make fun of him. “I’m not supposed to wear nail polish.” I heard these cries of my sweet boy and my heart just broke for him. For me. What was the right thing for me to do?

I pulled over, went into the nearby CVS, purchased nail polish remover and we sat together and rubbed it off, while talking about how unfair it was to feel like he couldn’t (or shouldn’t) wear his pink polish. This was a wake-up call for me. I had been terrified to rear a daughter. Would I effectively provide her with the confidence and strength despite the world around her? Would I help her to feel beautiful and valuable and worthy? I honestly never considered how challenging it would be to rear a son.

I’m engaged in the supporting role of deconstructing-to-construct Thomas’ gender identity. My best hope is to trust my sense of Thomas, to know him well enough to provide some boundaries that will support his very own, unique identity development. This is tough. I had to get over my desire for him to be emotionally present and the accompanying fear of undermining this to admit that he can be a super whiny kid. This admission was liberating since I really can’t stand whiny. It is possible to resist both constraints of “masculinity” and whiny, at the same time. He shouldn’t have free rein to lose it just because I want him to feel free to express his emotions.

I do worry about how to help him manage his own emotions rather than solely relying on social norms of what and how he should be emoting. I do not have any of this figured out. I realize and experience my own uncertainties and fears everyday. When I picked up Thomas from school on “Crazy Clothes Day”, I watched him skip to the car, dress flowing behind him. My heartbeat raced when I glimpsed a group of boys watching him, pointing. I cracked my window, scared at comments they might be saying, ashamed by own internalized trans-and homophobia. I overhead them: “Thomas, are you wearing a dress?” “Ah, yeah.”, he said matter-of-factly. He climbed into the car, huge grin spread across his face.

“How’d it go, T?”

“I was the star.”

My heart warmed. You sure are, I thought to myself.

I am humbled at the end of each day by the very clear realization that I am learning much more from Thomas than I pretend to be teaching him. I hope he always feels we’re on the front lines–of gender norm resistance and life, in general–together, arm in arm.

 

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4 thoughts on “On the front lines of gender norm resistance

  1. I love this, Amy! Your voice is such a great contribution to the blogosphere. You are such a role model (and mentor) as I raise a little boy in this crazy world. I love Thomas too.

    • Kim–Thank you. Our conversations have always been a huge help as I navigate these wild adventures of motherhood (and all else!). We’re in this together. So excited to now share in your experiences as Desi’s mama.

  2. Amy, I soaked in your writing here. And related. Especially as I struggle to raise a particularly emotionally-attuned son from a feminist place. This line was particularly liberating in its honesty: “He shouldn’t have free rein to lose it just because I want him to feel free to express his emotions.” Thank you for capturing that tension so perfectly.

    (btw, I tried to leave this comment on FB and it appeared your piece had been removed.)

    • Julie–Thanks so much for your response! It means a lot to hear that you connected to my experience. I would really love to hear more about how you manage these issues. Really.

      And thanks for ps. Not sure what happened…

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