Pink Boys: Another Way

I am, quite honestly, beside-myself-excited about this essay, up today on Bioethics Forum and Psychology Today.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a letter to bioethicist Alice Dreger about an essay she posted on her blog at Bioethics Forum. Alice, Professor of Clinical Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Northwestern University, is well-known for her frank, thoughtful, and sometimes unconventional views on how the medical community approaches intersex people, conjoined twins, dwarves, and other people born with bodies that challenge cultural norms. I was quite curious to hear what this prominent bioethicist had to say about gender-nonconforming kids.

While Alice spoke eloquently in that essay about what can only be called the “warring” factions in the medical community—should we force pink boys to conform, or launch them on the transgender path?—I told Alice that there was a third, quieter point of view. What if, I suggested, instead of concluding that all gender-nonconforming kids need medical treatment (though acknowledging that some in fact do), we instead work to change how society views them? What if we shift our efforts from “fixing” these children to fixing a world that allows girls in soccer uniforms but not boys in tutus?

Alice was kind enough to listen, and we entered into a dialog which became the basis for this follow-up essay. I discovered that Alice is not only an engaging, provocative conversationalist and critical thinker, but she is open-minded, deeply curious, and, I gratefully discovered, willing to have an ongoing dialog with me—a layperson who appeared out of the blue to challenge her assertions.

The conversation—both the one between me and Alice, and the broader cultural one—is by no means over, and we invite you to chime in both on Alice’s blogs and mine.

And Alice is now my most-favorite-ever bioethicist. It’s worth delving into her website and checking out the other things that she is curious and passionate about. Let’s all give her a big hand…and I’m giving her my humblest, warmest thanks for working to forward the dialogue about how to best care for our kids.

Please read the essay and share your thoughts in the comment section below.



  1. Pharlain Ross says

    One of the most profound problems (in my view) with the very idea of gender dysphoria is the idea that it is a problem that can be diagnosed and ‘treated.’ Or that it is necessarily some indication of transgendered leanings.

    What’s interesting, and often overlooked in the more traditional psychological disciplines is that in fact the ability and desire to play with gender stereotypes, and in fact any disregard or rebellion against gender norms, is considered a sign of a gifted student in educational psychology. From that perspective it is looked at as a sign that this child has a high IQ, an inquisitive mind, and in fact might benefit from gifted programs in school, not as a sign that family counseling is in order.

    In fact from a certain educational viewpoint if the student is having trouble in school because of this trait it is a failure of the educational system to recognize and support the gifted student rather than behavior that needs to be tempered at all.

  2. says

    Sarah, thanks so much for the link. I’m thrilled that Ms. Dreger was willing to listen and rethink her position but it saddens me that folks at her level are still stuck in either-or mode. I was really struck by your final quote and hope that your “third route” will become the norm sooner rather than later.

    Here’s Sarah’s quote for those of you who haven’t yet read the full essay:

    “I want to be clear that I believe that people who are truly transgender should have societal support and access to whatever therapeutic care they need. If my own son were transgender, I would love and accept him as I do my gender-normative daughter, just as I will love them whether they are straight, gay, or bisexual. My position does not come out of lack of trans acceptance, it comes from wanting to see broader social acceptance for the entire spectrum of gender expression so that kids can really figure out who they are and not be pushed into a box that doesn’t fit.”

  3. mom_to_one_of_these_kids says

    I so appreciate all the work you are doing. I get so angry with the “transition your young child!!” advocates. They refuse to even mention the word gay, discuss gay as an outcome, or discuss any of the research – all of which points to gay as the most probable outcome. I also would like to hear from gay men as a group – how are they not even getting involved in this discussion at all, I don’t understand that.
    Again, thank you for all the work you are doing.

    • Cassandra says

      Hi there mom_to_one_of_these_kids.

      I think probably the main reason GLBT folks are “not even getting involved in this discussion [of gender variant-children] at all” is because of social homophobia and/or transphobia. Lots of parents just don’t want queer adults around their kids–scared they’re pedophiles, or will somhow “turn” their kids “gay.” And a lot more parents are suspicious of people (even straight people) who don’t have children but who still want to work with or volunteer with children.

      I know that I’d like to volunteer with the Girl Scouts, for instance–since I was a Girl Scout myself and loved it, and found it made me feel more independent and tomboyish when I was a kid. But now I’m 28. I’m genderqueer, and don’t hide it, and don’t have a kid and don’t want one. A lot of parents, school administrators, and counselors are going to be freaked out by that.

      Kids are curious, and intelligent. When kids ask me, “so, are you a boy or a girl?” and I say “mostly a girl, but sometimes I like to be neither,” or ask me, “why do you sometimes dress like a boy,” and I say “because sometimes I feel more like a boy,” or ask me, “do you like boys or girls,” and I say, “I like both, and I like people who are both or neither,” the parents get nervous! I’m talking about sexuality! I’m talking about sex! I’m corrupting their children, who have never had a sexual or gendered thought in their lives!

      So, I volunteer elsewhere, even though I know I could provide an awesome and needed role model for those kids, because when I have an hour to volunteer I’d rather spend it volunteering than having my volunteering time become a game of “20 gender questions.”

      I think some of these questions are better articulated in the book “Harmful to Minors,” by Judith Levine. It’s pretty fantastic and does a great job of talking about historical and current perceptions of gender and sexuality in children, adolescents, and adults.

  4. Diana says

    I am so grateful to you, Sarah. As the parent of a pink boy, I feel such a sense of….relief, at seeing this in print. You articulated it the way I so often wish I could. I have been confounded and conflicted by all of the “this camp or that camp” talk for so long now, wondering where we fit in. To have the ear of Alice Dreger is just terrific as I’ve been engrossed in her web site more than once and find her fascinating. I will be sharing this with everyone who is involved in my son’s life and I am sure it will go a long way in facilitating more understanding of this ledge of non-clarity that we parents of pink boys teeter on daily.

    • shoffman says

      Thanks, Diana! I, too, would like to see us get away from the political argument and just support our kids to be who–whoever–they are.

  5. Melissa says

    What a great article!! It was so wonderful to read about the middle ground. I can’t to share the link to this article.

    • moriko nishiura says

      What I find interesting is that this “third” approach, which is one that I follow, starts with the assertion that humans are essentially perfect in design, with all of natures anomally’s and mutations, it is perfect, it is just the way it’s supposed to be.
      As far as the dualing approaches go, I think that we all need to feel good about our choices, and the defence of them often comes with vililance. There is not one answer that fits all our boys in pink!

  6. tomboy_mom says

    Sarah, Thanks SO much for your contribution to that essay. I feel like the huge challenge is to break down the rigid gender role expectations for boys – and stop assuming that boys who don’t fit the traditional expectations must be girls. That’s just ridiculous when I was able to wear jeans and combat boots growing up in not-very-progressive Texas and no one bat an eyelid. I completely agree with you that truly trans kids should get appropriate support and care, but I’ve been alarmed to see that a lot of people recently seem to assume that a boy (or sometimes even girl) who is gender nonconforming must be trans. The previous poster is correct that the research suggests many gender nonconforming boys end up gay. But regardless, can’t we just let our children BE who they are now and develop into whoever they will be in the future without us defining the endpoint?

      • shoffman says

        I do get, though, how hard it is to do that. When our children are heading into unfamiliar territory, we want to KNOW. I get it. It’s just one of the painful realities of being a parent…that the gift is in being willing to exist in the not-knowing about the future.

  7. says

    This is an exciting article that really speaks to me as a member of a parent support group for GV kids. In our last session we were just discussing how research doesn’t fit so many people’s experiences. On the one hand, I have a boy who identifies as a boy and who loves to wear clothes styled for girls. Pushing him towards gender change would be as destructive as not allowing him to choose his pink clothes.

    On the other hand, there are children in the group who are very clear that their bodies do not match their gender identity. It is hard to believe that these kids are going to do anything but transition. Nevertheless, only time will tell.

    What is so important is that we can come together and share common experiences, especially with how to support our GV kids and create safe public environments where they can express themselves fully and honestly.

    • shoffman says

      And the more support we have as parents, and the more we talk about these issues out in the open, the more support our kids will have to be themselves.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Tim.

  8. WA says

    I continue to watch with admiration and gratitude as you carry your message to more arenas, this time to the medical establishment. Every new audience increases the chances for our children to grow up to be the individuals they want to be, transcending the expectations of others.

  9. Melissa T says

    What I find interesting is that when a male child expresses himself in a feminine manner automatically his long term gender identity is in question. He has a ” disorder ” or needs ” professional help “. Yet a girl may express a masculine side and little attention is paid to it. She is a Tom Boy and well she will just ” grow out of it one day ” and many times she indeed does.

    What would happen if boys were looked at no different than girls when they chose to exhibit feminine behavior or appearance. Oh he is just a pink boy he will grow out of it. And maybe like the girls one day he did. And if not such is life. No panic, no diagnosis, no trips for “evaluation ” no just a kid expressing himself.

    If you ever ask a cross dresser when he found an interest in feminine clothing often they will tell you it was when they were young say 5 or 6. And more often than not their discovery was met with disapproval by parents or other family. At what age to many girls discover their tom boy side? About the same time. And when discovered? Awww thats so cute ” she will grow out of it one day “. It is not forbidden it is not ” taboo ” no she experiences ” masculine ” behavior and either loses interest over time or sometimes not.

    A boy does not usually have that option. No hi curiousity or desire to express femininity is suppressed. It is indeed ” taboo ” which simply adds to the mystery. And so over time where a girl simply explores the mascuilne a boy sees the feminine as mysterious, forbidden even exciting.

    So is it any wonder so many men end up with fetishes about womens clothing? Not that all cross dresses have a fetish but many do. And how many women have a fetish for male clothing?

    Could it be that allowing boys to be pink boys now might just lower the urge to be cross dressers later? Wouldnt that be funny. Stoppong little Johhny from wearing a dress or long hair actually was the cause of his future crossdressing where allowing little Johnny to have long hair and wear dresses allowed him to explore that side of him until he did ” grow out of it “.

    Sorry for the rant Sarah! :)

    • shoffman says

      Melissa, I’m glad you shared your thoughts. Actually researchers are finding that gender expression starts even earlier, age 2 or 3. It’s just that we tend not to notice gender-normative behavior, like when little Johnny picks up a truck or little Jenny plays with a doll.

      I’m waiting for the day when Johnny can play with that doll with as little hoopla as Jenny can play with that truck!

  10. Rei says

    Hi Sarah,

    I love the perspective you present in your blog, and I thank you for the opportunity to learn from you and your Sam’s experience. I agree that society puts more pressure on boys to conform to gender norms, but as someone who grew up as a gender non-conforming (straight) girl, I received my share of bullying for it… and even now acquaintances assume I’m gay. As a child, things as simple as entering the girls’ bathroom elicited taunting and teasing.

    I was lucky to have parents who supported me, though in some ways pressured me to be ‘boyish’, but it wasn’t easy. I was often more comfortable going ‘incognito’ as a boy than being a tomboy. Yes, soccer has become acceptable for girls, but the experience of a non-conforming child is nothing to dismiss, no matter the gender. Sam’s comment that “there are lots of ways to be a kid, and people shouldn’t worry about if you’re a boy or a girl” was excellent.

    Thanks again.

    • shoffman says

      Rei, I’m glad you commented. I do tend, in my writing, to focus more on the experiences of feminine boys, because they have much less leeway to be themselves than girls (and because I have a pink boy myself). But what I hear from tomboys, and what I see at my children’s school, is that there is a limit to the amount of leeway our society gives to girls, too. For those who are more masculine tomboys, there is–as your life illustrates–bullying and a general lack of acceptance. In my work I seek to build acceptance for ALL gender-nonconforming kids. Although I illustrate my message through the lens of pink boys, my goal is more universal.

      Thanks for reading–please keep commenting!

  11. Melissa says

    Hey Sarah,
    I posted a link to the article on my FB page and a friend of mine made some really great comments that I’m sharing with her permission.

    From my friend:
    [The article] is good, but despite the author’s suggestion that she has realized the error of her original article (that there is a very wide, very gray area between forcing our boys to be masculine and assuming they must be transgender), I still don’t think she totally gets it. At one point in the article she suggests that so-called “pink boys” would benefit from meeting flamboyantly gay men who would show them that it’s possible to wear pink sparkles and be happy. I agree with that (after all, who wouldn’t benefit from being friends with a pink sparkly gay man?) But it would be just as beneficial to meet a pink sparkly straight man. By suggesting that the pink boy should meet a gay man she continues to associate one’s choice of attire with sexual orientation. As a society we seem unable to distinguish between gender identity, sexual orientation, and simple taste in clothes.

    • shoffman says

      Melissa, thanks for sharing your friend’s comments! Absolutely, agreed. I think Alice was responding to studies that show that the majority of pink boys end up gay, not trans. But I maintain that it doesn’t help a child to make assumptions about who they are or are going to be, and that the best we can do for our kids is to allow them to blossom into whoever they will become. I talked about this a big in this post:

      A wonderful way to help them on their paths to becoming their adult selves is to show them examples of all the types of people there are in the world, so that they can see themselves reflected and know that they are not alone. And if they are such a unique being that they can’t even see themselves reflected, then at least they will know that there is great diversity in the world, and that they, too, belong here.

  12. shoffman says

    Here’s a comment from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous:

    We are so used to putting things into definable boxes that we too easily lose sight of the great variation of human experience. For example, there are many transgender
    identified adults who don’t have surgery to alter their bodies and there is a movement among many trans or gender queer teens who refer to themselves as “no hos” who reject the need for hormones as the only way to identify as trans. I
    think many trans kids, mine included, think that they do want to change their bodies to match how they see themselves, but that may also be because they have no exposure to other choices. If we really made room for all expression of gender, I wonder how that would change the need to alter the body? If we, as a society included girls
    with penises, boys with vulvas as part of the normal variation of gender experience, as well as pink boys etc, then people could just be as they are. I think right now, it is impossible to separate body dysphoria from societal narrow
    mindedness and rejection of anyone outside of the binary “norm”.

    Also, let’s start questioning our assumptions that we as parents really have any control over our child’s identity, that we have the power to “grant the identity” to our child. They are who they are, and identity really can’t be granted or taken away from anyone. What we do have in our control is whether we become an obstacle in our child’s path toward self-actualization or whether we help to sweep the obstacles out of their path. We have the power to listen carefully to our children about who they say they are and what they say they
    need. We have the power to let them know that there are many options available to them, and to help them find role models and communities that value and support their choices. We have the power to let them know that we are with them, loving, supporting, embracing them as they discover themselves and their values and needs, and that this is a lifelong process of becoming most fully themselves and not a simple or straight path. We have the power to show our own vulnerabilities, reveal our own journeys of self discovery, so that our children learn that no one escapes the
    hard work of being human. We have the power to follow their lead, and to lead them to places they may never have known were possible, but I don’t believe that we have the power to make them who they are- only to get in the way or support who they are.

    Just a reminder to us all, that we are not omnipotent, but we are influential.

  13. Gabrielle says

    Thank you so much, Sarah! This is so inspiring! I commend you for continuing to speak up and for effectively engaging in dialogue, asking questions, and proposing options and alternatives, and I commend Dr. Dreger for being open to other perspectives, willing to publicly acknowledge her oversight, and recognizing that learning and growing and changing one’s mind are all part of the journey. I love witnessing someone set aside ego in a public venue to affirm what they believe is morally “right.” It gives me hope that change on a much grander scale is indeed possible — in this case, by dialoguing with one person at a time.

  14. says

    Thank you! Really, you’ve got a very simple formula.

    If he says (seriously and consistently) that he’s a girl, listen to him.

    If he doesn’t say that… listen to him! No matter what he wears.

    It’s amazing that you get criticism for such a straightforward point of view. I’ll do my best to amplify your voice.

  15. christina says

    Hey, I found your blog from Alice Dreger’s essay, which I found from the 2011 “Queer” issue of The Stranger.

    I just wanted to say that I think you’re awesome for supporting your son in being a boy that likes what he likes.

    As a kid, I wore my brother’s clothes and ran around with no shirt on and occasionally told people I was a boy, and pestered my mother for what she would have named me if I’d been a boy, and eschewed barbies and baby dolls and any of the gender typical girl toys, and loved trucks and legos, ect ect. To the degree that people thought it was a little weird and my mom wouldn’t let me chop my hair off because even with waist-length hair, people thought I was a boy pretty often.

    But I grew out of telling people I was a boy, around when I realized I liked boys, and however many eyebrows it raised as a child, no one now thinks it’s odd that I’m the girl with the pixie hair cut that builds up bikes from spare parts and is the person in my marriage that consults the car mechanic, ect. (Or if they do, they surely do not say it to my face. It gets better.)

    And I think to myself, why DON’T we give boys the same freedom? I would have had a lot more miserable childhood if I’d been constantly told that I had to wear skirts (my mother and I negotiated an agreement where I had to wear one for Sunday morning church, and if I did that without fighting, I could wear what I wanted the rest of the time.) and put down the pocket knife and go play with the girls. So I think it’s great that a boy like your son has a mom like you to help him carve out some of that freedom.

    • shoffman says

      Christina, thank you so much.

      I love the deal you struck with your mother. Parents across the country are striking such deals (cross-gender dressing/play at home but not outside, or on Sundays only, etc.), either because they support their kids but know their communities won’t, or because they’re uncomfortable and a certain amount of gender nonconformity is all they can afford. And although this approach may not seem ideal to some kids (or adults, looking back), it is not bad in terms of health and mental health outcomes. Caitlin Ryan of the Family Acceptance Project found that SOME acceptance is far better than none in terms of how LGBT kids fare later in life. This approach also makes a great deal of sense in this transitional time when there is growing parental acceptance (your mom was ahead of the times!) but lagging broader social acceptance.

      Thanks for writing and stick around! Please comment any time on the blog, your thoughts are welcome.

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