You must be a girl.

“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.



  1. ejayo1963 says

    I’m trying to think what my GV son says to this kind of thing… I know at one point he exploded at someone, “It’s a free country.” I’m unsure if the girl ‘tone’ is a sign of femme phobia or just a kind of generic kid nastiness? I can imagine a masculine female child being called “boy” with a similar tone.

    Or maybe the masculine girl child is called ‘it.’ Yes. That’s it; not a real boy, an ‘it.’

    The femme phobia runs deep, I guess. “Cry like a little girl,” “throw like a girl.” Girl means weak, timid, unathletic.

    Girls who reach for boy things are humored, even embraced, to a certain degree, at least until puberty. Boys who reach for girl things catch hell.

  2. Shauna says

    I only just found your blog and have only read 2 entries. My son is similar. I’ve never considered telling him he shouldn’t like typical “girl” things and I don’t worry about his feminine personality. He DOES act more like a girl most of the time. It’s just a fact. I’ve had people tell me they think he’s gay. Ummm…okay? Maybe he is. Is that a problem? Absolutely not! And of course, how he acts now doesn’t even really determine his sexuality. I’d prefer not to think about it for many more years anyway…he’s only 4 1/2! He dresses like a boy mainly because he wears a lot of boy hand-me-downs, but if he starts putting his sewing skills to use on his wardrobe, I won’t complain. I’m so proud that he’s discovering these talents early! Just today, he designed and helped me sew a purple gingham pillow for his littlest pet shop toys. Gotta love the kid!

  3. Rob says

    It’s wonderful to see someone addressing this difficult topic with such grace and candor. The struggle of identity isn’t limited to gender variant children. Many of us have been challenged as we’ve come to terms with our identities.

    For me, as an accomplished athlete, I struggled with accepting that I can be both an athlete and a gay man. It took me even longer to recognize that pink boys can be star athletes too.

    • shoffman says

      Thank you! Yes, that feeling of being “different” is universal, going far beyond all the individual ways we can each be different from the mainstream. A friend with diabetes really got how hard it can be for Sam to be different than his peers; Sam understands what it means when strangers look a certain way at our friend who lives in a wheelchair…however we find ourselves outside of others’ experience helps connect us to other people who are also on the outside Though it’s immensely challenging–in the way that you struggled to figure out how to be both a star athlete and a gay man–it also deepens our humanity to sort through it all and come out okay.

  4. says

    One of the things I say to adults who apologize after being corrected for mistaking my long-haired son for a boy is, “that’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with being a girl.” To kids, my son first corrects them and then, if they argue or use the snotty mean tone, he gets angry and shouts. Together he and I make sarcastic observations (“I wanted to say, what, do you want to see my penis?”–and no thank god no one had ever actually demanded this of him!!) and laugh at the stupidity of people who *argue* with him about his own gender.

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