On the Minor Perils of Not Hiding

A while back, I was facebook-friended by someone with whom I’d gone to elementary school, a woman I hadn’t seen in 15 years. In that same week, I was friended by another schoolmate, a man I hadn’t seen in 25 years. I’ll call these two people, who are not facebook friends with each other, Leia and Mork.

I was happy to be back in touch with Leia and Mork. Leia and I, and Mork and I, in separate sets of messages, chatted in the way that long-lost friends do, telling each other where we live, how many kids we have, what we do for work. We exchanged several messages, and, a few messages in, both Mork and Leia asked me what sort of writing I did. And so I told them, as simply as I could: I write, under a pen name, about my son, who likes to wear a dress.

And you know what? Both Leia and Mork never wrote back.

Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe the conversations just dropped off, in the way conversations eventually do, and it just happened to be after I dropped the pink-bomb on each of them. Maybe they both got busy, or sick, or their computers went on the fritz.

Or maybe they got freaked out.

Because people sometimes do. I notice that the tomboy in Sam’s grade who plays on the boys’ soccer team is cool and socially in demand, while Sam doesn’t get invited to many birthday parties. Sometimes people look at us strangely when we disclose that Sam, the long-haired kid they’ve taken for a girl, is a boy. Sam’s school administration can talk eloquently about diversity and acceptance up and down, except when it comes to gender, when they get all panicky and quiet.

I make it my business to talk to as many people as I can about Sam (while being careful of his privacy and his safety), to make gender nonconformity something that gets talked about, not something swept under the rug. Because when we hide something, we make it shameful. So I open my mouth, maybe even more than I should, and occasionally I lose an audience member or two, like Leia and Mork. But maybe the next time they hear about someone’s son who wears a dress, they’ll remember that the woman they kind of liked back in elementary school mentioned something about her son wearing a dress, and maybe that will make it a little bit more OK.



  1. Eliz. says

    It’s amazing what drives people away. You’ll probably never know if it was the “pink-bomb.” It’s just another manifestation of the bubble we live in, where it’s kinda normal to discuss gender nonconformity. It’s hard to remember that outside the bubble, things are slower to change.

  2. Melissa says

    Wow, you just described my disappearing friends. I just recently received an e mail from an old friend. After we had chatted a couple times I sent her a picture of me and Chris. Her reply was ” Who is the girl with you? I thought you had a son ? ” and my reply was that is Chris.

    Poof…..never heard from her again. But maybe she is busy…yeah…

    What is it about gender variance that totally freaks people out. To me it is such a harmless thing.

  3. Dawn says

    I love you. Seriously. I love your stuff. I just wandered over hear from Slog.com. (They linked to you.)

    I have a 5 year old boy who is mildly non-gender conforming. His best friends are girls. He loves fairies. He was a fairy for Halloween last year. He had a pink birthday cake. He plays dress-up with dresses with his girl best friends. He’s also way into Samurai Jack and Buzz Lightyer. He’s sort of gender flexible.

    I’m working to protect his right to be gender-flexible, but people don’t always get it.

    • shoffman says

      Dawn, thanks for wandering over. I hope you’ll stay!

      Protecting pink boys’ right to be who they are is what I’m all about (in case I hadn’t made that clear :-) ). Can you imagine if we had as much variety of boyhood as we do of girlhood? So we could have boys who have pink cakes and fairy costumes but also love male characters (my son Sam is like that too), just like we have soccer-playing, jeans-wearing girls who wear pink and have tea parties. Not to mention boys who are all-boy and girls who are all-girl–and boys who are all-girl and girls who are all-boy. There are so many variations of children’s play and interests and hearts–what a world it would be if we just let them express who they are.

      Glad to hear that you do let your son be himself!

  4. Ray says

    Context is part of the problem, I think. We can drop the pink-bomb but we rarely get the opportunity to fill in the blanks; to tell what it means. I certainly can’t think of a strategy that works any better but I do know how people react. I was, I say, “moderately” pink as a child and I grew up to be a gay man. I’m the family genealogist and that’s a hobby in which it’s virtually impossible to NOT be asked about your relationship situation by others who are your blood (but distant) kin. So I’ve found myself dropping the “gay-bomb” many, many times. My strategy has been to first dump a GREAT deal of information on my co-researchers; information about my family that they’ve been seeking and failing to find for *years*. The good will that come from that gift to them helps a lot in bringing hearts together. So, once they have that information and the get around to asking me about my relationship status, while the “gay-bomb” has about the same impact as the “pink-bomb”, I have a little good will established takes us forward. Once it’s out, it’s out. THEY have to then consider that they are blood kin to someone who is gay. THEY have to begin THEIR struggle with the idea.

    I’ve been doing genealogy research for 37 years and have quite a large group who corresponds with me regularly.

    They sometimes greet me with, “How’s your guy doing?”

    And, they send electronic birthday cards.

    That means I’ve reached them to some small extent.

    • shoffman says

      Ray, this makes a lot of sense. Sometimes people think that they have a bias about a particular group of people, like gay people, but don’t know anyone personally who is gay (or don’t realize they do). If you get to know them first, they already like and appreciate you, so it’s harder to fall back on bias. Of course, that won’t work on everyone–I tried that with Mork and Leia, and pink-bomb-adios.

  5. Russophile says

    I followed the link on Slog today and found your blog. It reinforces a notion that has been bugging me for sometime — the unfair contradiction that it’s okay and even commendable if girls try to be more boyish, but not okay if boys show an interest in girl things. I have a kid of each gender and my boy, for the most part, is pretty much all boy. The other day I had an errand to run to Goodwill and I let them each pick out a cheap toy as sort of a reward for their patience with mommy’s errand. My son fixed on a Barbie cash register and I found myself steering him towards the more gender neutrally colored one that was on the next shelf over. Part of the reason was that it was substantially smaller and would be easier to store on his shelves, but the other part was the pink. I’m pretty sure that he wasn’t drawn to the pink color per se (he just doesn’t care much about colors) but rather to the buttons and other doodads that it sported. But he did let me talk him into the more neutral one (I talked about size and price rather than color). The other part of my motivation (I’m a bit ashamed to admit) was that there are two boys 5 & 7 who come over semi-regularly to play and my boy is only 4. I was worried that they might interpret the color and Barbie aspect negatively and give my son hassle. And that it wasn’t worth it to expose him to potential hassle given that the color was of minimal importance. What he wanted was a cash register to use in his pretend toy shop. But I fear that my motivations were at bottom wrong, and that kids should just learn to get over it. However, it didn’t seem important enough to make a radical “boy has pink” statement over it. But it bugs me that my experience with society make me think that it would be perceived as unseemly for him to have pink toys.

    On another and yet similar note I find it hard to make my peace with what stores offer for girls’ clothes these days. My daughter is only two and I really can’t stand the idea of turning her into either a fluffy cream cake or a go-g0 dancer, and so I frequently dip into the more gender neutral items left over from my son’s wardrobe. She hasn’t yet shown much of a sense of style YET (okay, she loves her froggy boots), so I get to choose her clothes according to my tastes without consulting hers (not likely to last much longer).

    So why this conflict that goes on in my mind? Is it worth getting worked up over? And why is it so hard to find toys that are just toys or clothes that are just clothes without declaring gender identity loudly and in bright neon colors from day one? Sorry for so long of a comment, but as you can see, it’s been on my mind.

    • shoffman says

      Russophile, you bring up some interesting topics. To the first, that you are worried you censored your son’s choice: what stands out to me is that you protected your son. You were worried that the older boys would hassle him, and you made a choice based on that. My two main goals in raising my gender-nonconforming son are to accept him and keep him safe. I would never compromise his safety to make a statement. Since your describe your son as “all boy,” it doesn’t sound like you were quashing his spirit by not letting him have the pink cash register. Don’t overthink it. The point is to let kids express their gender identity, and it sounds to me as though you are an open-minded, loving parent who is listening for whatever your children have to say on the matter.

      Re gendered toys and clothes, you’ve brought up a common problem. We all have to work hard not to dress our feminine kids like Bratz dolls and our masculine kids like construction workers/paleontologists. But when your kids are as little as yours, my advice is to just dress them to best you can and wait for them to express preferences. I put my son in blue or brown overalls until he was three and started asking for dresses. I don’t think he’s scarred. Not by that, anyway.

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