Back Off, Masculinity Patrol

This Olympics, we witnessed the results of an American gender revolution. Did you notice all those American women athletes who excelled on the field? As Amanda Marcotte noted here with pride and praise, our gals have clearly shaken off the pressure to overcompensate for their athleticism by playing sweetly feminine off the field. Once upon a time, you had to be seriously gender-nonconforming—i.e., a lesbian—to risk your feminine credentials by playing sports. (Based on an entirely unscientific but extremely appreciative view of some of the other women's soccer teams, I would guess that dykes are still the ones venturing onto the field in some countries like, cough, Japan.) American women clearly know they can be strong, powerful, and kick some ass on the field. 

American girls can, from a very early age, play with trucks, wear pants, and run, kick, and throw without sanctions. As I've written about here several times, however, boys have no such freedom. Their behavior is overseen by a masculinity patrol. Veer even slightly into the feminine—pink socks! Barbie dolls!—and boys are punished with ridicule. They may be called gay or queer, but they're not being mocked for imagined sexual behavior; they're mocked for acting like girls. 

But is the gender revolution beginning for boys? Over the weekend, the New York Times Magazine ran a wonderful cover story, "What's Wrong With A Boy Who Wears A Dress?" In it, Ruth Padawer chronicles a tiny, impossible-to-quantify shift in the culture of parenting. She examines a small group of parents who, faced with boys who want to go sparkly and girly, faced their anxieties and allowed their boys to choose their own gender presentation. The Times, both at the magazine and in the daily, has been looking at this for a couple of years. The focus for awhile was on transgender children—children who are actually going to transition and reshape their bodies into a different sex. But this one looks squarely at the issue of letting "pink boys" experiment without knowing how they're going to turn out. As she writes: 

Relatively little research on gender-nonconforming children has been conducted, making it impossible to know how many children step outside gender bounds — or even where those bounds begin. Studies estimate that 2 percent to 7 percent of boys under age 12 regularly display “cross-gender” behaviors, though very few wish to actually be a girl. What this foretells about their future is hard to know. By age 10, most pink boys drop much of their unconventional appearance and activities, either because they outgrow the desire or subsume it. The studies on what happens in adulthood to boys who strayed from gender norms all have methodological limitations, but they suggest that although plenty of gay men don’t start out as pink boys, 60 to 80 percent of pink boys do eventually become gay men. The rest grow up to either become heterosexual men or become women by taking hormones and maybe having surgery. Gender-nonconforming behavior of girls, however, is rarely studied, in part because departures from traditional femininity are so pervasive and accepted. The studies that do exist indicate that tomboys are somewhat more likely than gender-typical girls to become bisexual, lesbian or male-identified, but most become heterosexual women.

Unlike previous generations of parents, these parents are trying to find room for their boys to feel comfortable and withstand ridicule when they sparkle up in public. Padawer (and her predecessor Jan Hoffman, who covered similar territory for the Times in April 2011) find it impossible to give numbers on how common this has become. And yet both cite impressions by psychologists and gender clinics, and by the rise of books like My Princess Boy and blogs like Pink is for Boys, as evidence that—despite the fact that it makes many parents sweat with anxiety—this new, accepting approach to gender variation among boys is spreading.

I find this incredibly hopeful—and see connections to some other shifts among American men. Researchers of workplace policies are finding that more and more young men want to take time during their children's early years so that they can be part of those children's lives—whether it's parental leave when the child first arrives after birth or adoption, or the ability to be home for dinner during the week without stepping off the career track. The LGBT movement's success in reframing being gay as simply a variation on the spectrum of human behavior rather than a moral failing is helping as well. If you think there's nothing wrong with the possibility that your boy might be gay, if you believe that being a man includes being an involved father and an active partner in taking care of the house and family, why worry about whether a boy is a little feminine? 

If boys are allowed to have a little more variation in their behavior, might we end up with less bullying, fewer gay teen suicides, or even a drop in male violence at large? About twenty years ago, I had friends who every year took their eight-year-old son to Provincetown, an LGBT haven on Cape Cod, so that he could see other men who were interested in fabric and color. If he turned out to be gay, they were fine; they just wanted him to feel good about his interests. I thought they were awesome to be so accepting. (I lost touch with them over the years, so I don't know his sexual orientation today.) I love the idea that there are more and more families like them, and that we're expanding ways to be a man.

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