“You must be a girl.”
Second grade starts next week. We’re off to buy school supplies, and I ask Sam what color folders he wants this year.
“Pink,” he says.
“What if they don’t have pink?” I ask. Last year there were no pink ones when we went shopping.
“Then purple. Or red.”
Sam is seven. He’s wanted pink things (or purple, or red, or gold, or sparkly) for five years, nearly three-quarters of his life. He has understood the social unacceptability of a boy liking pink since he was three; the social stigma, and his awareness of it, grow as he gets older. “You can’t like pink,” he hears at school, “you’re a boy.” But his desire for the feminine is stronger than his desire to fit in (and our desire to let him be who he is is stronger than our desire to change him). So pink folders it is.
We go to the drugstore, and there are plenty of pink folders this year. He chooses one in hot pink, and one in pale pink with sparkly stars. I smile: show Sam it’s OK to like what he likes. Inside I cringe: this is not going to go over well with the kids at school. No matter how much work his teachers have done, no matter how sweet and accepting the parents at our open-minded school, the kids are less willing to let a boy be pink.
We talk about what he can say if the kids in his class comment about his folders. He comes up with the first idea: “Didn’t you know that boys can like pink?”
“Great!” I enthuse.
“But mom…what if they’re being mean when they say it?”
Sam has come to realize that sometimes kids are curious about his long hair, his fondness for pink and sparkles. And sometimes they are trying to enforce social order, not infrequently in ways that are scary to a young boy.
“Well, if they’re being mean, you can roll your eyes as you say it,” I suggest. “Like, ‘Isn’t it obvious, that boys can like pink?!’
Sam is learning to have an especially acute social sense, to understand if an interaction is a threat or not. I do not remember having to hone that skill at his age. It means he is on unusually high alert.
I think about all the kids who have told Sam that he’s not a boy, because he likes girly things. They say in their snottiest voices, “You must be a girl,” they persist in their questions far beyond the point of curiosity-sating. Sam wants to talk about the kids who use that tone, who don’t stop probing and commenting, who insist that he must be a girl, “What should I say to them?”
I say, “You can say, ‘Tell that to the rabbi at my bar mitzvah!'” We laugh.
Sam won’t remember this line. He gets like a deer in the headlights with kids who tease him. He’s not one of those kids with a sassy response for everything.
I’m confused on how to coach him, because the point isn’t to convince the teasing kid that he’s a boy—not really. There is some truth in kids’ assertion that Sam is a girl–he seems to float somewhere in the middle of the gender spectrum. Biologically—at least in the ways we can see—he is male. But his interests, his preferences for soft things and pink things and quiet play, are more similar to the girls in his class than the boys.
The point is to counter the tone, the accusation that he is a girl, not the fact that they find him feminine. To take a word that they’ve made into an epithet and make it, once again, just a word. What if a child in Sam’s class said to him, with awe and respect, “You’re just like a girl!” It is hard to fathom taking the accusation out of the observation.
The principal at Sam’s school once told me and my husband Ian that every year, in third grade, the kids start calling each other “gay.” With that tone. And no matter how much anti-homophobia education the administration does, no matter how much the teachers confront the slurs directly, no matter how many kids have gay and lesbian parents in the class, the kids still call each other “gay” when what they mean to call each other is “stupid,” “dorky,” “naive,” or, of course, “feminine.”
This wonderful, progressive, caring school has been unable to counter what happens in third grade year after year. How can our family take on that tone, whether kids are calling Sam a girl, gay (third grade is only a year away), or both? How can we convey the message that the way Sam is is fundamentally OK? This seems like an infinitely harder task than arming Sam with witty rejoinders.
Each choice we make with Sam–from what clothes he wears to who he plays with to what bathroom he uses at school to whether or not to allow him to have that pink beaded canopy to hang over his bed for his birthday–is fraught with questions like these. We plod through them, do our best with each choice, and find, most often, that there are few right answers.
Sometimes, I just want to buy a folder.