Parents Have Tough Choices to Make with Cross-Dressing Kids

Family Matters on 06.13.11
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In the New York Times Fashion and Style section, Jan Hoffman reports on several families in which the children are compelled to act, and especially dress, in ways that defy traditional gender roles

From the parents of a 4-year old girl with a Mohawk who likes to be called "Handsome Prince," to "CJ's Mom," the author of a blog called "Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Slightly Effeminate, Possibly Gay, Totally Fabulous Son," these parents are not discouraging their kids from expressing themselves, despite the raised eyebrows of neighbors and taunts of classmates.

As is the case in any family, these parents face complex issues every day.  It's not as though choosing to not repress any gender-bending urges in their kids suddenly made all their decisions easy.  In each of the profiles in the article, the parents relate stories of weighing the happiness their kid would derive from, say, wearing spangled pumps to school, against the repercussions of the societal censure he would face.

Hoffman cites several different schools of thought from the child development and gender studies communities regarding the implications of allowing kids to follow their gender and fashion impulses.  The results of these studies are mixed and inconclusive, but none of them seem to suggest that it's a great idea to force your girl to wear pink and your boy to wear blue.  In fact, one study, from the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, found "strong correlations between positive family attitudes toward their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children and decreased risks of depression, substance abuse and suicide."

The author concludes with a discussion of the challenges couples face when they don't always agree on how to deal with their child's resistance to gender norms.  As is often the case in parenting, compromises and even subterfuge are the order of the day.  While one 7-year old boy's mom doesn't like him playing with "girl things," his more tolerant dad plans an illicit pedicure for the boy while Mom is away on a business trip.

When I was a kid in the seventies my parents were pretty "Free to Be You and Me" about gender roles, and encouraged many of my unusual passions, such as tarting up my G.I. Joe with a hair weave, sewing him some bell-bottoms, and cobbling tiny platform shoes for him out of wine corks and an old coin purse.  My fashion sense, as reflected in my action figures' wardrobes, wasn't effeminate, per se, but it certainly was flamboyant.  By the time I reached seventh grade, I had shoulder-length hair and owned a fur coat, vinyl pants, and a suede cowboy hat with a peacock feather in it.  I didn't want to be a girl; I wanted to be Steven Tyler.

I continued to dress with varying degrees of outlandishness--mostly of the punk rock variety--throughout high school, and was alternately admired and beaten up for my efforts. 

I understand that how you dress sends strong signals to the people you interact with every day, and that they can react with unwarranted passion.  But my sense is that, as we have more exposure to different styles, more questioning of gender norms, and a blurring of what is considered "mainstream," there will be more tolerance for individual expression through outward appearance.  I hope that in the near future, parents will only have to consider practicality when helping their children choose their outfits for school, and not whether they will get beaten up for what they want to wear. 


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