Gender Trouble

I don’t want to violate anyone’s privacy so am talking in very general terms, but something that happened at work recently kind of made me go ugh. One of my colleagues is pregnant and, about two weeks ago, a bunch of us were having lunch together and someone asked her the sex of her unborn baby and she said she didn’t yet know but was hoping it would not be a girl. Another co-worker, somewhat shocked, cried out, “why?” Pregnant colleague said she already had a two-year-old girl and she and her sister didn’t get along so well and she didn’t want to repeat that.

Shocked co-worker (whom I’ll call Alison) then said, “ohhhh, I dunno, there are some … uh, issues … with having a younger boy and older girl…”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“Well, because he’ll look up to her and want to be like her and imitate her and everything, and sometimes you just don’t know what to do…”

I must have looked really confused, so she gave an example. The other day, she said, she’d taken her kids (little girl is 7, boy is 5) shopping for beach attire for an upcoming trip to Florida. They were looking at shoes and the boy expressed a strong preference for a pair of turquoise crocs. “Turquoise!!!” she emphasized. She tried to explain to him that no, he just couldn’t have such a color, but he couldn’t understand why. So, she pointed out to him the lovely shit brown and puke green varieties and told him how much she’d LOVE to buy him one of those beauties! His eyes started to well with tears. “He only wants what his sister has,” she said. “What could I say? I mean, he only wants to be like her; it’s just a phase!”

I was wondering why it was such a big deal to just let him wear what he wanted since he was only five, when someone else said her mother-in-law told her she should start dressing her daughter in feminine clothes so the little girl would have more “self-respect.” Fortunately, to this everyone laughed.

“But but but, I can’t buy him the turquiose shoes,” Alison went on, “I mean, I just can’t; he’d be the laughingstock … he’ll start wanting stuff like that all the time and everyone will make fun of him at school.” To this, no one said anything.

So, as I said, that was about two weeks ago. Yesterday, the kids were on spring break so Alison brought them to the office. We have a little work station outside of my office, with a couch and a little lounge area, and she thought it would be a perfect place to park them (her office is just another door down the hall, so she’s close too). She brought them into my office to introduce me, since we’d be next-door neighbors for a couple of hours.

Hehehe. SO CUTE!!! “Say hello to Tonya, you guys,” Alison said. The girl, whom I’ll call Jennifer, walked in and shyly said hi. The boy, whom I’ll call … Marcelo … no, just kidding 🙂 Just kidding! I just imagine that he was a very fun little boy too 🙂 🙂 … — actually the little boy looked more like Angel, who had to be the coolest little kid as well 🙂 … Okay, okay I’ll call this little boy Michael.

So Michael shouts out, “Hi Tonya!!!” with an ear-to-ear grin. Alison and I giggled. “Okay, let’s go out here, guys,” she said taking them to the work station. Jennifer promptly took her pink backpack off, pulled out a Curious George book, sat on the couch, and began reading.

“Hey Tonya! I’m gonna make you some pictures, okay?” Michael yelled out, grabbing a pink highlighter and a packet of post-its.

“Shhhh, honey,” Alison said, “she’s working.”

“Oh, that’s okay, I like pictures,” I said.

A few seconds later, he was in my office posting little yellow squares bearing pink scribbly designs all over the place — on the sides and front of my desk, my computer stand, the bottom shelf of the bookcase — anywhere he could reach. “Oh, pretty,” I said, which made him scribble and post even faster.

“Oh honey!” Alison said entering my office. “No, this is, it’s a mess.”

“No no, it’s okay,” I laughed.

“Sorry,” she mouthed at me and took him back outside.

A few seconds later I heard the copy machine going crazy.

“Mommy!” Jennifer called out. I peeked outside just in time to practically collide with Michael.

“Hey Tonya! Here, I want you to have this,” he said handing me a piece of paper.

“What is that?” Alison said, running up.

“This is my dad’s office people,” he explained to me, pointing at a list of names. “Mom, I made 1,000 copies!”

“Honey, there’s personal information on there, including everyone’s passwords, we can’t just give those out to people,” she said exasperated, trying to figure out how to stop the copy machine.

“Mom, I really think that Tonya needs to have it,” he said. So cute!

I thanked him for thinking of me and walked back into my office to let her get things sorted out in the work station.

“I know, Mom, it’s just that I’m SO excited,” I overheard him say.

Minutes later:
“Hey Tonya!”

I peeked out my office door to see Michael now sitting at the work station computer.

“I’m working on this computer. My mom said I could!”

“Wow, that’s great!” I looked at the screen. He was playing paper dolls. There was a figure of a grown woman, not a little girl, wearing a black bra and underwear. So far, he’d given her a beautiful diaphonous light blue chiffon-looking scarf knotted around her neck. “Wow, that’s a very pretty scarf,” I said approaching him.

“She’s going to the store! She needs to put on her shoes!” he said using the cursor to drag a pair of black pumps over to her feet.

“She needs to put on more than that,” Alison said, flatly, now standing behind us. “It’s just a phase,” she whispered to me while gathering his things. “Come on, honey, let’s go back to Daddy’s office. He has a full-time secretary…”

And then he was off 🙁 My little buddy! True, I would not have got a single thing done yesterday, but oh he was just so cute. I want one!!! Where do I get one!!!

Today, Alison again made a point of telling me he was just going through a phase and that he was just into whatever his sister was, she’d found the paper dolls on the internet and dressed them all the time and he was just imitating her, etc. etc. When pregnant co-worker popped into my office to chat, Alison told her the whole story of yesterday, and they both said, almost in unison, “oh it’s just a phase.”

But why does this have to be a ‘phase’? Is Jennifer just going through a ‘phase’ too? Is Jennifer’s example forcing a false construct on him and is that construct somehow more true for her? I personally would much rather my son be into wearing turquoise shoes to the beach and decorating the room with pink and yellow designs and dressing paper women in chiffon scarves than pretending to blow off his friends’ heads with toy guns. But then he might be taunted by his lovely peers… which obviously no one wants. I don’t have any kids yet, but if and when I do, I’d like to think that I can teach them to think independently, experiment with identities, and stand up to peer pressure… but maybe it’s a lot harder than I think…


  1. Gracia Michelle

    “Where can I get one!!!”…??? Hm, Tonya, I rather thought you’d know by now! 😛
    (You better get a bunch of them I guess, so you can name them after all your admired dancers! 🙂 )

    Anyway, I didn’t even know turqoise was supposed to be such a gender specific colour! :S
    But I know my cousin’s husband was making fun about their son’s friend who always wanted pink shoes and also got them from his parents.

    Personally I think all this stuff about different rules for girls and for boys is retarded and sexist.
    (But I may be biased because I am the kind of girl who studies physics, loves martial arts as much as she loves ballet, and only has 2 pairs of shoes! 😉 )

    On the other hand: if I’d live somewhere where boys actually get *beaten up* just for (the suspicion of) being gay, I wouldn’t want my little boy to be at risk because *I* have certain ideas about individuality.
    Of course I will (try to) raise my children to be strong, confident, and well-loved for who they are, but no matter what you teach them, I imagine that there is only so much one can do against a whole group of bullies and kids bullying along trying to fit in.

    But it sounds like ‘Alison’ just has very rigid ideas herself about what is proper ‘boy’s behaviour’ and what is proper ‘girl’s behaviour’. Sad, but not un-common I guess… 🙁

  2. As a child I was always the kid playing with the toys that boys weren’t “supposed” to have. I loved barbies, i played dress up and I much rather would have been in choreographing than out kicking some stupid ball around. The key to all of this was that my parents let me lead the way. They never once told me I couldn’t have any certain thing because they worried people would make fun of me. It is much more appaling to tell your child to form himself to some “ideal” than to have him wearing turquoise shoes. Believe me, mine were ruby slippers and I wore them proudly. In this country, we are so quick to assign specific items to specific genders that it sends parents into a state of shock the minute they are desired. I have had plenty of parents ask me if I thought their children were gay. The only answer was to laugh because at 9 years old, NOTHING is sexual so how are you to know? Plenty of my friends that played these games with me have grown up to be heterosexual men. Even if they hadn’t, so what?!

    Of course I understand the fear of keeping your children safe; I grew up in Montana which is in no way “gay” friendly. Kids are just plain mean and quite often you’ll find that if its not the fact they are playing with barbies, they can’t be a sports superstar either so will get bullied no matter what. Why are kids so cruel to each other!? Sorry for the rant! It doesn’t make much sense either! 🙂

  3. Hi Gracia!

    Yeah, I agree. I certainly wouldn’t ever want my kids to get hurt, and what happened to Matthew Shepard has absolutely got to be every mother’s worst nightmare (he was a young gay man beaten to death in Wyoming — for being gay — it made a lot of headlines here, but I don’t know if is common knowledge outside of the U.S.), and it would be so horrible to see your kids go through anything, even on a lesser level … I can’t imagine… These people live in Long Island though, which is just outside of NYC and parts I know are conservative, but not that conservative!
    Hehehe, aren’t the names Marcelo and Angel just perfect 🙂 🙂 🙂 But people have told me they think such names may be okay for foreign kids, but they’re just not good choices for American-born males … People!

    Oh, I was just about to post this when M’s comment came in. Oh, I keep forgetting you’re from Montana; I keep thinking it’s Minnesota for some reason. I love the ruby slippers and the barbie dolls! That’s hilarious that people actually ask you whether you think their little kids are gay! I can’t believe they do that! Well, I definitely think the people who end up being most successful adults are those whose parents let them explore and be creative with toys and freely express themselves when they were little. And those who end up the most screwed up are those whose parents forced onto them their own preconceived notions of what is proper, not to mention their hangups about sexuality… It just bothers me so much that people who are as young as their thirties and early forties and who live in NY are capable of doing that…

  4. M, I am not sure I agree that ‘nothing is sexual at age 9’…

    I experimented in sexual ‘comparisons’ with a girl neighbor when I was seven. I was infatuated with a man who was remodeling my parent’s house when I was nine; he worked with his shirt off and I experienced these strange ‘feelings’; I used to spy on him. I was fully aware by age ten that I was attracted to other boys, and I was madly in love with my father (!). I reached puberty very early, way ahead of my classmates.

    Maybe my experiences were unusual, but I do think sexual awareness and curiosity starts earlier than most people might feel comfortable admitting, even to themselves. I can tell you for sure that, despite what society says about the sexual abuse of teenagers, when I was thirteen or fourteen I would have done anything that any man asked me to do. But no one asked! And I realized I needed to play it safe in that tiny town so I found a girlfriend when I was 15 and played it straight for the next ten years.

    It’s funny, but my sister said to me last year that she thinks her grand-daughter is going to be a lesbian. The girl is 4 years old. I said, ‘What makes you think so?’ Well, she likes to wear her brother’s clothes and she is a complete tomboy. So, at age 4, does this mean anything? Maybe.

    I’m also totally convinced that homosexuality runs in the family. I feel almost certain that my father was deeply closeted; I had a cousin who died in mysterious circumstances while in the armed forces in Florida. I’ve always thought he was gay-bashed though it was never discussed. A second cousin was a life-long bachelor, a very refined gentleman who spent his vacations in Puerto Rico. He would come back with snapshots of himself with handsome Spanish boys on the beach.

  5. True, phillip. As soon as I posted that I realized that perhaps nine was stretching it a little bit. Sexuality creeps in at a younger age than we realize. I too have many stories from around that time (although I decline to share ;-)) It also wouldn’t surprise me if homosexuality runs in the family. There are MANY gay murphys! One of my great uncles has 3 gay sons and that’s just the beginning.

  6. Thanks for sharing this post. It is thought provoking.

  7. I love this entry! “Hey Tonya!” Heh. He sounds spunky!

    I say, let the boy wear his turquoise crocs, fer cryin’ out loud!!

  8. Gracia Michelle

    Philip, that’s really interesting…
    I do wonder if not every family would have at least four gay men in two generations (especially if it’s ‘family’ including second cousins and such)? After all estimates range from one out of three to one out of ten men being homosexual, so depending on how large your family is, it might just be average I guess. But I don’t mean to make you feel un-special, I am sure that your family is amazing! 😉

    Anyway, there is something I disagree with. Or at least I think I do, but it depends on what you are really trying to say, which I am not entirely sure of. So please forgive me if I misinterpret your words, but I was slightly taken aback when you said:
    “despite what society says about the sexual abuse of teenagers, when I was thirteen or fourteen I would have done anything that any man asked me to do”

    Now, I think actually this IS what current society says about it: that sexual abuse isn’t always forceful but oftenly involves seduction and attraction just like sex between equal partners. However, the problem with young people is that as well as their bodies, they are still *developing* their brains, their sense of identity, and their LIMITS!
    Like you said, you ‘would have done anything’.
    Perhaps in that was a deliberate choice for you, then always after fully supported by how you feel, who you are and what you think regardless of the stage of life you were in (after all like you said, you were quite mature for your age!), but while growing up most people figure out that there are things that they really DON’T want to do. This may be because they imagine it to be physically unpleasant, but it may also be because they just really dislike the idea. For all of them it would not be a healthy, self-respectful attitude towards sexual relationships to submit so completely to whatever someone asks of them!
    Therefore, I strongly feel that people should not take advantage of the fact that teenagers can be so easily persuaded to do things which they would NOT do (and might deeply regret if they already have!) once they have matured into self-aware, independent adults!
    Instead I think the older people should be the wiser ones, and allow teenagers some time to figure things out for themselves.

    Tonya, I think Angel and Marcelo are wonderful names for any child, and I don’t think that when you send out the cards, any of the recipients will think “Oh how nice, she had a baby… But oh! That name is realy a bad choice for an American-born child!”. Even if they *don’t* know about your devotion to ABT! 😛

  9. Well, I don’t think dirty lecherous old men should go around forcing themselves on teen-aged boys (or girls, for that matter) but I am not sure that the idea that a certain chronological age should be the deciding (or legal) factor in who can do what sexually and with whom. Some people are ready for experiences early, and others ‘mature’ much later.

    Stories of boys who had sex with their parish priests or the tabloid-sensation stories of teenagers ‘involved’ with their female teachers don’t shock me; they always seems totally understandable. If the penalties and social ostracism were not so severe as to deter most adults, I’m sure such experiences would be far more widespread. In sixth grade I was fully aware that my (male) teacher was very taken with my (male) classmates, especially the more athletic types (which meant: not me!) If he had ever turned his attentions in my direction, I would have said ‘yes’ to anything he wanted. He later committed suicide, by the way. Obviously the strain of being married, father of 2 boys and a respected teacher (and apple-farmer) while secretly wishing for other things drove him to put a shotgun in his mouth.

    One of my ex-lovers had regular sexual encounters with his 30-year-old upstairs neighbor (who was married – to a woman) from the time he was thirteen. He noticed the guy was checking him out, so he made the first move. He was very upset when the guy moved away a couple years later thus terminating their sessions. Another friend of mine started working as a hooker when he was 15. He knew exactly what he was doing, he had his regular customers, he made a ton of money and he loved every minute of it. He got busted once and wrangled out of it by ‘doing’ the cop. Both these boys grew up to be perfectly well-adjusted; both are in long-term relationships and recall their early sexual adventures with good humor.

    My point is that lots of teenagers are sexually and emotionally ready for things that ‘society’ considers ‘wrong’. And they are pretty sure of their sexual orientation, too, despite society’s constant reinforcement of heterosexuality as being ‘right’.

    Meanwhile, by the way – while I was having these raging fantasies about men – I was doing all sorts of things with my girlfriend that I have later come to realize were pretty wild. But I thought they were ‘normal’.

  10. Gracia Michelle

    First of all, about your second-last paragraph: my point has absolutely nothing to do with sexual orientation: when growing up, people of ALL orientations need to figure out who they are and what they want. My point is that they need the chance to DO that.
    (And come to think about it, luckily where I live we’re not indoctrinated with the suggestion that only heterosexuality is ‘right’. At least not when I grew up, but it might be changing in the current political climate. 🙁 )

    Anyway, my question would be: what do you suggest instead of an age requirement?

    Perhaps people should take an exam before embarking on a sexual relationship, to get a licence proving sexual maturity. Actually I think that would be a great idea, not just for relationships with a large age-difference.
    (And there should also be something like that to determine if people should be parents or not, because just too many of them don’t seem at all qualified… :S)

    But as long as there IS no such exam for sexual maturity, I think the age requirement is the best thing we’ve got to protect vulnarable youth. Yes, this means that a few exceptions who mature early might have to wait a bit longer (or start with other people their own age who are ready) but waiting a few years for them, is significantly less traumatizing than feeling abused is for others.

  11. I think that’s an interesting issue about regulating age of consent. I remember getting into a similar discussion with a book group a few years ago when we read LOLITA.

    The legislature definitely grapples with this issue as well. There was a big debate here in the ’80s and early ’90s about whether gender specific statutory rape laws (ie: specifying that the underage person must be female in order for the criminal law to apply) were discriminatory in assuming that only girls could be sexually victimized by older men. Although the U.S. Supreme Court held that there was enough of a rationale (preventing teenage pregnancy) for states to enact gender specific rape laws so as to not violate the Constitution, most states made their statutory rape laws gender neutral anyway (ie: victim can be either sex). But some states do still have gender specific laws.

    Also, the laws vary on what the age of consent is and what degree of penalty applies depending on the age of the underage person. So, for example in New York, it’s first-degree rape (which is obviously the highest class of felony for sex crimes and carries the highest penalty) when the victim is under the age of 11. Then, second-degree rape is classified as the victim being between age 11 and 14, unless the parties are married; and to be guilty of third-degree rape, the minor has to be between 14 and 17 and the defendant must be over 21. I think that’s the latest anyway … it changes a lot… So, even legislators, while believing there is a need for some kind of regulation to protect young people, can’t figure out how exactly to do so, but try anyway!

  12. I became aware of the pleasure of orgasm at age 6 and was exposed to a lot of heterosexual pornography from age 7-14. I became sexually active at an early age b/c I saw no reason not to. Now in my mid-thirties, it has been suggested that I must have been molested by either my parents or a care-taker b/c 6 was too young. I have no such memories but b/c I was sexualized quite early, the scientific literature seems to point to molestation but that notion just doesn’t sit well with me. Mostly, I just think that when one discovers something pleasurable they may keep at it b/c it makes them feel good. I don’t think it always has to be something sorted, evil or in violation of a child’s rights. On the other hand, one’s parents have to no the difference btw right and wrong themselves before than can teach anyone else. My parents didn’t really know what they were doing, or truly know themselves since they started having kids at age 21.

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