Today our school had Joel Baum from Gender Spectrum come to talk to parents about kids and gender. I’ve seen Joel speak many times, and have spoken to audiences with him many times, but I have to say his presentation just keeps getting better and better. I was very inspired—and I learned new ways of thinking about this topic that I think a lot about.
One interesting exercise that Joel did was to ask the audience if we knew any men with earrings when we were growing up. Four people raised their hands (I was one, but I knew only one man). Then he asked if we knew any women with tattoos back then. Not a single person raised their hand. But how many earringed men and tattooed women do we all know today? Both have become almost the norm here in San Francisco and in much of the world.
Joel reminded me of the Ladies Home Journal article from 1918 that said:
The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.
Fashion changes over time. Expectations change over time. While people have always had a range of gender expression, how they are allowed to express it in public has changed with the times. And it’s changing still.
Joel talked about patterns of behaviors and expectations—when we expect girls to wear dresses and boys to wear pants, we’re simply following a cultural pattern we’ve learned. For most of Sam’s life, strangers have assumed he was a girl. But for the first time since he was a toddler, after he cut his hair last week a stranger assumed he was a boy. Joel pointed out that when people make assumptions based on gender norms they are not making a mistake, they are simply sticking with the patterns they have known. It’s only a problem if people respond unkindly after learning that a child’s gender presentation and biological gender are not the same. But responding—with surprise, with curiosity, with a willingness to change perception—out of a pattern is not the problem. When people can identify the pattern and expand their data set—Oh! Boys can wear dresses! Even if it’s not what I expected!—it’s not wrong, it’s right. As Joel said to us today, we are all works in progress.
Today, as a group, we talked about how we can reach a broader audience about gender inclusivity, and how to shift cultural perspectives in a way that opens up options for kids to be whoever they are. And we realized that talking, simply talking, is what makes a difference. That’s why I write. “We need to speak up whenever and wherever we can,” Joel said, “even if our voice shakes a bit.”