Monday, May 21, 2012

Gender Safe Space

Ying asked:
"I have another son who I seems to break gender rules sometimes. Just little things like choosing flip flops with pastel stripes and glittery straps. Do you have advice on how to make a safe space where a child who might be questioning feels free to explore and be themselves?"

This is a tricky question, but not because of your intentions or efforts, but because of the systematic barriers in society related to gender. Beginning with a lack of gender enforcement is a good way to start, but it will only go so far. For instance, it's really not hard to let a child choose for themselves which toys they want to play with, you simply give them whatever toys you have for them, and let them decide. Don't favor toy trucks or dolls, but maybe include both, see which the child takes a liking to. But it's never that simple.

From the moment of their birth, they're bound to be bombarded with gendered expectations, either of looks "You've got your fathers strong eyes! you're gonna be a football star, aren't ya champ!" or "Oh my, look at her darling hair and how it curls, she's gonna be gorgeous just like her mother!" Even the toys thing might be tricky, considering the second a relative knows the child's gender, the toy and clothes purchases will be gendered. Blue and Pink bibs, pacifiers, teddy bears, blankets, toy trucks or dolls... There's little way to prevent it, even if you start early.

But the above assumes starting from birth, and I'm assuming Ying is more interested in the here and now. It's fairly easy if you avoid a few pitfalls. For instance, parents will nudge their child towards certain, gender appropriate choices. "No, Timmy, you don't want the fairy princess costume. if you go out like THAT, everyone will think you're a little girl! No, come look at the power rangers costumes, yeah! Look, it has a helmet and everything!" I've seen and in some cases been the target of such nudges (when I was younger, of course). So, starting out, you let the child be the boss of what toy they want, what costume they want, etc.

To be honest, the real problem isn't going to be anything you can directly solve. It's not that difficult on an individual level to consciously omit gender 'nudges' and let the child make their own decisions. The problem is not your efforts, but the efforts of society. When your child goes off to schooling, they're bound to be bombarded with gendered expectations. While you've remained 'pure' in your attempts to let your child be themselves, other parents with far more conservative outlooks have raised their kids to be positively unaccepting of gender variance. Where you said "If you like the princess costume, go ahead" to Timmy, the other parents told Billy "No, that's a girls costume. You're not a girl." And left it at that, with a stern NO making it clear that this is NOT ACCEPTABLE, not one bit.

And all thinks considered, there's a lot more parents who think like Billy's parents than not. This means when your kid reaches school, socialization, etc, there's going to be peer pressure and taunting: "You're a boy, why do you play with dolls? Are you a girl? Look at Timmy the girl! Hi, I'm Timmy, I'm a pretty princess!" No matter how hard you try, other parent's socialization of their kids is going to play into your child's expectations. It's the nature of socialization. And that's not counting the many times in school where gender is rigidly split. Restroom trips, at least when I was a child, there was two lines, a boy's line and a girls line. The teacher often split people into class groups based on gender as well.

Here's another exercise. Look at any child's toy commercial, say, hotwheels, or maybe barbie. In the hotwheels commercial, it's always one to three boys, enthusiastically cheering on their little toy cars as they rush around the track. In the barbie commercial, it's one to three girls combing the barbie's hair, maybe walking it around a dollhouse, maybe showing that particular doll's special thing off (be it color changing hair, etc.) In both cases, the toys are gendered ONE WAY and ONE WAY ONLY. Hotwheels are boy toys. Boys play with hotwheels. Barbies are girl toys. Girls play with barbies.

These influences make creating such a safe space impossible. There's a terrible ammount of negative reinforcement here. Even if the boy really wanted the fairy princess wand and wings, give him a few years in school and you'll find him picking up the hotwheels, even if he's the only one there. Because god forbid anyone found out he was into *gasp* girly toys! It would be the end of their social life as they knew it! This danger makes even considering the 'girl' toy risky, because making a move for it betrays your intent, and that intent is, according to all forms of socialization, WRONG. Even if their inner dialog is like "But the wings are so sparkly!" they're gonna bite their tongue and say "I want the hotwheels."

All this socialization creates this atmosphere of taboo around the 'opposite' gender's toys. They're not for you. You don't want anyone to know you play with them. You'd rather play with the 'safe' toys even if you enjoy them less, to save from the potential embarrassment.

Of course, this extends on through middle school and into adulthood, except around middle school people start to call into question sexuality, adding another layer of guilt onto the pile. Now, if you indulge in the pink notebook, people will think you're gay! And, of course, it's absolutely not okay to be gay, either! Everyone else uses it as an insult, everyone says it when they don't like something, it's bad to be gay!

I'm afraid at the end of the day, I can't give you a truly viable 'safe space' for your kid. Society has a really pervasive stranglehold on gendered socialization, and while you can make it clear that your kid should play with what they want, and that you won't judge them, what flies at home with their parents won't fly with the kids at school, or their teachers. And even if you give them a perfectly isolated place to do as they please, they're gonna be bound by social taboos taught by their peers. It's an issue much bigger than any one parent can really tackle for long, short homeschooling their kid and blocking all forms of media, which anyone would agree is... a bit extreme.

So that's my thoughts on making a gender safe space, in a nutshell, it's not really possible. There's too many influences in society that make it a pipe dream. Though if you think there's something I missed that could make it possible, please, add it to the comments section below.

Quote of the day: "Everyone's been tryin' to change me, while I've been closing in on a dream. I tried to rearrange me, and ended farther outside the stream." Downplay, Edge of the Universe


(As I always do, I'm asking for YOUR questions or concerns about issues regarding all things Trans*. I'm almost always hurting for topics, and your questions help me tremendously. Anonymous posting IS enabled, you should not need to register to participate. Ask and there's a very good chance it will be the topic for my next post! Thanks!)


  1. Ok so this has been bugging me for a while. Just from my observations there seems to be a divide between trans men/masculine and trans women/feminine people, why do you think that is?

  2. Hi Lyn,

    I think you really nailed this point. I have an almost 5 year old and
    we have done everything to avoid genderizing him. How well it has
    worked is hard to say to be honest. He has no inhibitions about
    picking girl’s toys and has done so on some occasions. He seems,
    however, to simply vastly prefer the boy oriented toys like cars,
    action figures and of course the highly discouraged toy weaponry they
    continue to manufacture for some reason. The problem, as you clearly
    described, no matter how non gender specific we try to be, he’s in
    pre-school and it’s impossible to know what effect his friends, the
    media, and other influences are having. It was a grand hope, but
    doomed until there is a major paradigm shift in society in general. It
    can happen, but I have no hopes of it being soon.

    Great post!

    Peace and love,