growing up between the gender binary

On Thursday we posted a guest blog by Sara Whitman titled, “what it
means to be a man.” Admittedly, the title alone made most of our
office cringe; we’re all very sensitive about gender roles and
stereotyping. Title aside, the message of the post was about the
journey of a child – any child – growing into adulthood. It was a
message we knew our readers would appreciate. That’s not to say
that the piece, which was cross-posted at The Huffington Post,
didn’t stir up some controversy.

But first, let’s travel back a few decades to the late 80s.

I was growing up in suburban Rhode Island – and while I *should*
have been expressing interest in G.I. Joes and race cars, I was
transfixed by the spell of Polly Pocket and My Little Ponies. And
Barbie held a particular draw with her endless line of pink and
fuchsia accessories. While soccer and basketball seemed dull and
pointless, hopscotch and jump rope consumed my time at recess.

My die-hard Portuguese grandfather had visions of being a star
quarterback. Instead, later in life, I would become a cheerleader –
a reality which he died before grasping. Each and every time that
I’d skip across the yard or dance down the hallway, he’d cringe and
call me a sissy in his native tongue. I knew what the word meant,
and I knew that it wasn’t good.

Being made fun of for being “girly” was part of my daily life. My
relatives, family friends, schoolmates and teachers all made it
clear that there were boy sports, interests and hobbies on one
hand, and girl sports, interests and hobbies on the other. To
deviate was wrong. I was made to feel less than, simply because I
was doing what I enjoyed.

For years, I tried to cultivate my masculine side. I joined the Boy
Scouts – but ultimately left and spent a summer in a special group
of counselor’s children at the Girl Scout Camp instead. It was no
use. I couldn’t change who I was.

Looking back to my youth, it’s painful to see how society punishes
children (and adults) for deviating from the stereotypes that it
holds so dear. It’s also painful to see that very little has
changed over the years. The incessant bullying, name calling and
the lack of acceptance of gender-queer youth are all real problems.
And although anti-bullying policies and education are a start,
there’s no simple answer to these complex societal issues.

As adults, most of us have learned the hard way not to measure our
self-worth by societal standards. But it’s a lot harder for kids.
In the meantime, we can press for the protections that our youth so
desperately need and start by examining ourselves, our families and
the messages we are sending out to our children.