When I was about 10 years-old, a friend of mine with achondroplasia was being teased at her school for being so short. After being shunned at lunchtime repeatedly—“No freaks at this table!”—her mother finally called her local chapter of Little People of America, which sent a spokesman into the school to give a presentation. After he read Thinking Big to the class, explaining thoroughly in an age-appropriate manner why my friend looked the way she did, one of the biggest bullies raised his hand. “So, you mean, she’s little because she’s a dwarf?” he asked.
The spokesman offered to let my friend answer the question herself and she replied, “Yes.”
The boy who had teased her so much suddenly had tears in his eyes. It later came out that his new baby brother had just been diagnosed with dwarfism. He had had no idea until that moment that his brother was going to grow up to look just like the girl he’d targeted.
To anyone who insists, “He couldn’t have known,” he could have. We could have let him know. What is school for, if not the pursuit of knowledge? With the exception of women, all minorities risk marginalization not only by others’ lack of empathy but by the lack of visibility automatically brought on by their lower numbers. Any place that prides itself on learning should pride itself on learning about other perspectives, other identities, other behaviors, no matter how rare.
So “What’s Wrong With A Boy Who Wears A Dress?” asks The New York Times magazine on its cover this week. Despite that the flippant headline sacrifices sensitivity for saleability, at least it’s shedding light on the subject. I know so many men and boys and trans individuals who wear dresses for so many different reasons, and they do it a lot more than mainstream movies, TV, and advertising suggest:
When asked why he likes regularly wearing his wife’s nightgowns, one man shrugged, “It’s comfy.”
The Times article has its flaws. When discussing how boys who wear dresses turn out later in life, the article stuffs them into three overly simplistic boxes: a) gay, b) heterosexual, and c) transsexual. Such labels do not encompass all the ways and reasons people of various gender identities and sexualities wear dresses into adulthood. As one friend observed, “The path of least resistance for so many is to wear dresses in secret. By using these limiting categories, the article implies that and also does nothing to change that.” The use of the categories also implies that these individuals owe us a clear-cut, sex-based explanation for their behavior, which is itself a symptom of narrow mindedness. No one demands a woman explain why she likes wearing jeans.
And yet the article also keeps its subjects silent. While documenting the struggles of both conservative and liberal parents, the author would have been wise to include the perspective of adults who wore or wear dresses. In the absence of their agency, their nervous parents are essentially speaking for them. (Rule Number One in Battling Intolerance: Never, ever let a minority’s agency be ignored.)
But for all these errors, the article concludes with those who ultimately support their sons as best they can. One dad heard that his five year-old was being taunted in kindergarten for wearing pink socks, so he bought himself a pair of pink Converse sneakers to wear in solidarity. The kindergarten teacher jumped in, too, opening up a class discussion about the history of gender rules and shocking the kids with the information that girls were once not allowed to wear pants.
Whenever reports on “different” children list the anxieties parents have about their kids not being accepted, the message often starts to get muddled. Sometimes the article is clear that we as members of society need to get over our hysterical hang-ups and start accepting these children as they are so that they and their parents no longer have to worry what we and our own children will say. Too often, however, the article spends so much time quoting the parents’ fears that the source of the problem starts to sound more and more like the child’s disruptive identity, not others’ clumsy reactions to his identity. And that’s wrong.
Whenever a child is made fun of for being himself, it’s our problem, not his. Biologists can say what they want about a fear of difference being an evolutionary adaptation, but our culture values differences two ways, either as “abnormal” (i.e., strange and pitiful) or “super-normal” (strange and admirable). The Beatles’ mop-tops were abnormal to parents of the time (“They look like girls!”), and super-normal to their teenage children. In the nature vs. nurture debate, we need to stop saying “nurture” and start saying “culture,” because changing the environment a child grows up in means changing the behaviors of more than just one set of parents. Mine never once told my younger brother, “Only sissies cry,” but his little league coach told the team just that.
This is our culture and we are the ones shaping it as the creators and consumers. By making and watching films and TV shows that state what’s “gay,” “wimpy,” “ugly,” “freaky,” or “gross.” By stating, “Guys just don’t do that,” or letting such remarks go unchallenged. By repeating traditional views of minorities—e.g. the dwarfs of Snow White and Lord of the Rings—and failing to provide more realistic portrayals with greater frequency. As adults, we bear so much responsibility for shaping the world the younger generation is trying to navigate. (As this German Dad proved so well.)
Since the Sixties, many parents and teachers and educational programs have embraced books that promote understanding of ethnic diversity such as People and of disability such as I Have A Sister: My Sister Is Deaf to broaden our children’s perspective and nurture empathy toward people they do not encounter every day. Yet books like My Princess Boy or The Boy In The Dress have yet to break into the standard curriculum. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that such books are primarily for the boys they’re about. (Buy them only after your son starts actively asking for a tiara.) But everyone should be reading them, for the same reason everyone should be reading Thinking Big. By waiting to address the idea of free gender expression until a little boy gets bullied, we are cultivating the assumption that the problem never existed until that little boy came along. The problem was always there.
Critics have argued The Boy In the Dress is unsuitable for any boy in real life who feels the like the protagonist because any school he attends in real life is far less likely to rally around him so enthusiastically. But that’s exactly why this book needs to be read and discussed and picked apart by school classes around the world, not just by boys alone in their bedrooms.
As a teacher, babysitter and relative, I encourage the little boys in my life to play dress-up, house or princess with their female playmates because I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument as to why it’s any different from encouraging the girls to get down and dirty in the mud with their brothers. Sure it’s radical—just as my mother’s wearing jeans to school 42 years ago was radical—and the last thing I want to do is turn a child into something he’s not. But as with a girl, I want him to feel that every option is open to him, despite any hang-ups tradition has about it. And if it becomes evident that he truly has no interest in anything soft or sparkly, I at least want to do my best to ensure that he never, ever makes fun of any boys who feel otherwise.