Saturday, June 4, 2011

On Boys Will Be Boys and So On

Jonathan Kay/National Post/Jun 1, 2011

Earlier this month, the Toronto Star published a
story called “Footloose and gender-free,” which sympathetically profiled a young couple trying to raise a child in a completely gender-neutral environment — so gender-neutral that the mother and father won’t even tell people outside the family whether Storm, their four-month-old child, is a boy or girl. “If you really want to get to know someone, you don’t ask what’s between their legs,” says David Stocker, the child’s father.

I wish this well-meaning fellow could have attended my 7-year-old daughter’s birthday party at a pottery and painting studio last week. There, he would have seen 10 little girls, all of them sitting quietly at a table, studiously creating beautiful little masterpieces. The boys, meanwhile, took about 30 seconds to slop some paint onto a ceramic dinosaur or car — and then spent the next hour chasing each other around the facility, occasionally hauling one another to the ground so they could act out professional wrestling moves they’d seen on Youtube.

Not that the boys weren’t “creative.” One of them had been given a cheap video camera from his parents, and spent 10 minutes taking footage of the (unoccupied) toilet in the studio bathroom. This pint-sized Truffaut had a cheering section: The boys assembled around him found the documentary project to be the most hilarious thing in the world, and some became literally incontinent with laughter (ironic, no?) as they took turns passing the camcorder from hand to hand watching and re-watching the footage. Occasionally, the girls would look over at the boys — much as well-dressed diners in a fancy restaurant might gaze out a window to watch hobos fighting over a liquor bottle in an alley — and then sighed and returned to their artistic labours.

As any (normal) parent can attest, such vignettes are entirely typical of parties featuring young boys and girls — who generally are so different in their behavior as almost to compose different species. Stocker is entirely wrong: There is no other single datum of information about a young child that will tell you more about his or her temperament, interests, energy level and maturity level than his or her sex.

Nor does it hold water to say that such differences are “socially constructed.” In my own way, I was even more socially progressive than the Footloose Family — dragging my two daughters out on to tennis and squash courts when they were just three years old, and aggressively discouraging them from “princess parties” and the like. My motives were purely selfish: I wanted my daughters to become racquet addicts, like me, so I could combine my sporting and family loves in the same weekend activities. The project was a total failure: On court, Alexa and Daniela would discard their racquets, and squat down over the balls, pretending they were “mama chickens, laying eggs.” Soccer was also a disaster: Alexa, in particular, just wandered around the field, picking clover and occasionally talking to other girls, most of whom looked equally bored. The prospect of actually touching the ball terrified her.

Are all boys the same? Are all girls? No. But the vast majority of each have enough in common — love of sports, roughhousing, cars, planes and (apparently) toilets, in the case of boys; a fixation on grooming, babies, and the rites and rankings of friendship, in the case of girls — that each sex becomes a very real club drawing in its membership at the age of toddlerdom, by sheer force of commonality. Gender is the second club we join in life (the first being our family). And once joined, membership shapes us in powerful ways. Parents have no control over this process, unless they treat their children like hermits — and even then, their influence will be marginal.

The most reasonable gloss I can put on the Star’s “Footloose Family” is that they recognize that some boys and girls are destined never to feel accepted in those clubs — because they are gay or transsexual. Perhaps Stocker and his wife see this in the future of their eldest boy, five-year-old Jazz, a long-haired “gender explorer” who wears dresses and pink feather boas with his parents’ encouragement. And so the family wants to strike a pre-emptive blow against the very idea of gender categories. In an email the couple sent out to friends and family, they declared: “We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place?).”

Beautiful words, I guess. But to my mind, this is like dealing with an overweight kid by telling everyone that we live in a world without gravity. Or telling a very tall child that we live in a world without doorways. Or telling an albino child we live in a world without sun.

It is correct and admirable to grant a child unconditional love even if he or she has trouble fitting into the two clubs — straight boys and straight girls — that arithmetically dominate all societies. But it is a species of lie — and a damaging one, at that — to pretend that those clubs are illusory. They do exist, as surely as I threw two very different parties for my daughter’s classmates last week; and thanks to biology, they begin forming before children can even process full sentences — let alone understand indoctrination about “gender exploration.”

Indeed, the very fact that “gender” is a word that falls so easily from the lips of the Footloose parents tells us a lot about their worldview. Sex is a biological reality and every human being is born with one. “Gender” is a recent theory-based locution and always has to do with a person’s Sexuality. Children know their sex but cannot possibly consider their gender because they are too young to appreciate what their sexuality is. The only way to explain gender to a child is to explain sexual desire, which no child wishes to know about. So the fact that Jazz writes a little family newspaper called The Gender Report tells you that he hears that word a lot, and that he is being fed a daily dose of theory he is too young to appreciate and that is clearly confusing him.

If I could recommend a book to Stocker and his “Footloose” wife, it would be David Sedaris’
Me Talk Pretty One Day, in which there appears a wonderful story about what it was like for Sedaris to be a gay fifth-grade student at a North Carolina school.

Describing his efforts to hammer out his lisp in the speech therapy lab, Sedaris remembers life thusly: “None of the therapy students were girls. They were all boys like me who kept movie star scrapbooks and made their own curtains. ‘You don’t want to be doing that,’ the men in our families would say. ‘That’s a girl thing.’ Baking scones and cupcakes for the school janitors, watching Guiding Light with our mothers, collecting rose petals for use in a fragrant potpourri: anything worth doing turned out to be a girl thing. In order to enjoy ourselves, we learned to be duplicitous.

Our stacks of Cosmopolitan were topped with an unread issue of Boy’s Life or Sports Illustrated, and our decoupage projects were concealed beneath the sporting equipment.”

Sedaris has some painful memories of his childhood — alongside many funny ones. But his is not the usual cri de coeur from someone who considers himself to have been a victim of torment and discrimination. He is an extraordinarily self-aware writer who recognizes that there are very real and permanent differences between the school’s lispers (the “future homosexuals of America,” he calls them — a line no straight man would ever be allowed to write) and the majority of the school’s males, who worship fast cars and professional football; and that these differences cannot be erased or bridged merely with good intentions.

In short, he recognizes that there is a boy’s club, and that he isn’t in it — not in its majority caucus anyway. Better to seize on that sobering realization than wallow in the myth that the world can be brought into one giant gender-free mélange if we all send our children out in feather boas.

In fact, if Storm’s parents are looking for a true “gender explorer,” they might find an archetype in Sedaris. His insights about men and women, gay and straight, come not from making a Lady Gaga-esque spectacle of his own sexuality, but by studying other people carefully, and writing down the very different things (Cosmo versus Sports Illustrated) that make them tick. The straight men in his stories — including men in his own family — are sketched in the same wry, affectionate way as the gay characters: as prisoners, not creators, of their own sexual identities.

I met Sedaris once, and was impressed by how humble and understated he is. In his world, as in my own, there is plenty of room for feather boas and gender-bending. But the proper place for them is the cabaret, the night club, and the larger world of adults; not a home full of young, confused children.


Kay, I've come to be persuaded, confuses the idea of gender by defining it as sexual orientation-"Sexuality."

...Children know their sex but cannot possibly consider their gender because they are too young to appreciate what their sexuality is. The only way to explain gender to a child is to explain sexual desire, which no child wishes to know about...

Gender, in contradiction of Kay, is the appreciation of what one is as between conventional categories of male and female, regardless of biology. Therefore, one can be a masculine homosexual, a masculine lesbian, an effeminate heterosexual man, a masculine heterosexual woman. "Trans- gendered" in these terms means one's attitude and conduct concerning one's own masculinity or femininity in contrast to those conventional categories.

If we revisit Kay's piece in light of this better understanding of gender, then we see that a lot of analysis is flawed, falling apart and at places in tension with itself.

For example, Kay is right--though I reject the trope--that there is a straight boys’ club and a straight girls’ club, "straight" importing his notion of gender as sexual orientation, when clearly gender does not mean that. But then he says that what sets kids in those clubs occurs at a very young age is sex, gender coming along later as the "Second Club." But what is really happening, on a proper understanding of gender is that it is formatively taking shape from the youngest of ages as the complicated result of biology, one's nature and conventionality affecting each other.

That so understood, Kay is confused to say:

...and thanks to biology, they begin forming before children can even process full sentences — let alone understand indoctrination about “gender exploration.”

Rather, thanks to biology, gender and gender exploration, properly understood, are forming at a very young age, quite distinct from sexual orientation, right along with self consciousness.

Kay terribly, therefore, misconceives what the Footlose parents are doing in characterizing it as "indoctrination about gender exploration." I do not know them but I construe what they are doing as exactly allowing gender exploration in a way that is antithetical to indoctrination. For example, they let their eldest child's gender form such that it moves to his own inclinations.

The issue is not boas or the precise working out of how they encourage their child to let his inclinations come to the fore. The issue is that they are open and supporting in letting that happen. Hence, indoctrination--to inculcate with a specific partisan or biased belief or point--is the last thing these parents are doing.

Kay wrongly surmises--starting from his misconceived premise of the meaning of gender-- what they are doing:

...The most reasonable gloss I can put on the Star’s “Footloose Family” is that they recognize that some boys and girls are destined never to feel accepted in those clubs — because they are gay or transsexual...
.... And so the family wants to strike a pre-emptive blow against the very idea of gender categories...

These parents are not trying to wipe out the idea of gender categories; they, rather, are letting gender work itself out in their children free from the "straight"-jacketing Kay prefers and implicitly argues for.

For the logic of his position leads to me to the inference that Kay thinks parents, if they had, say, a boy who by his nature and inclinations reacted against his biology, should tend to suppress that in him. The inference is that they would blanche against their kid's desire at a young age to live out his evolving gender and express his inclinations.

The inference is that they should "straight"-jacket him.

1 comment:

  1. By the way, I agree that Kay errs about gender and sexuality. While they do serve each other, they are different attributes, and while they overlap, they are never congruent.

    That said, I think his basic thesis is right and that "gender-free" parenting is as asinine and pernicious as value-free parenting. Inculcating your values in your children, including gender identity proper to their biological gender, is one of the basic rights and obligations of parenting.

    Childhood itself is defined by its androgyny and sexual ambivalence, and it isn't in just the human but in all species that part of nurturing is nudging them in the direction of behavior appropriate to their gender. Calling it straight-jacketing reminds me of feminists claiming that gender roles are a political conspiracy by male chauvinists: a precious conceit.