Handling a Son's Femininity


Handling a Son's Femininity

by Julie Tarney

My fifteen-year-old son is only friends with girls. I’m worried he’ll be stigmatized by boys the older he gets. How do I handle his femininity?
— Anonymous

Julie Says:

Of course you’re worried. You're a mom. We moms want our kids to be happy, confident, and secure, and when we think their self-esteem might be threatened, we default to “worry mode.” Our inner Mama Bear surfaces, and we stand ready to protect our cub from danger. So I understand the desire to safeguard your high-school-aged son from being labeled by other boys. But let me remind you of something: you’re worried about something that so far hasn’t happened, and there’s no reason to believe that it will happen.

Let‘s break down the situation and look at a few facts that I think may help you see your son’s friendship with only girls differently. Looking at these facts may make some of your own beliefs about so-called feminine or masculine characteristics shift as a result, too.

First of all, older boys nowadays grow up understanding the importance of treating their peers with respect. Thanks to in-school educational programs like PFLAG’s “Safe Schools” and GLSEN’s wealth of resources for K-12 educators, children are learning at young ages that every student has value regardless of their gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation. A friend who retired last year as a school social worker told me it was the second-graders at her school that had started an anti-bullying club. And if they don’t already have them, most intermediate and high schools are starting GSAs, or Gay-Straight Alliances, on campus.

When my son Harry was in fifth grade 14 years ago, most of his friends were girls. He wore his hair long and preferred to play with his female friends at recess. Sadly, he did get bullied by some of the troubled boys in his class. But his school had a no-tolerance policy for bullying, and the principal dealt swift suspensions for the perpetrators. The following year, many of the boys befriended my son, so I asked him what had happened to cause such a turnaround. He informed me that the boys were now interested in girls and had figured out that Harry was their direct link for information about which girl liked which boy. He gained a lot of respect for having an “in” with the girls. So I think it’s a fallacy to say that an older boy with a lot of female friends will be stigmatized.

I also want to share some facts that I think will interest you from an April 2014 YPulse survey of 1,000 Millennials, aged 14-32. The respondents, of whom 85% identified as heterosexual, were asked their viewpoints on a range of sexual identity and LGBT issues. Eighty-seven percent of all surveyed agreed that LGBT individuals should be able to live without discrimination and judgment, and eight in ten thought that same-sex couples in high school should be allowed to go to prom together. I think these stats demonstrate the progress of this generation to accept each other as individuals without judgment.

And that word “individual” is truly the touchstone here. It’s important for us parents to remember we are all individuals first, and gender comes second. And guess what?  We’ll be individuals our entire lives. As Jane Roberts points out in her book The Nature of the Psyche, there couldn’t even be “male” or “female” labels if we didn’t first have individuals.

Our society has spent centuries defining human traits and abilities as either masculine or feminine, so much so that strong stereotypes often have trumped the development of people in our culture to be whole, well-rounded individuals. And it’s so obvious that, regardless of gender, we all need the human qualities of love, empathy, imagination and resilience.

At a recent “Safe Schools” presentation at an intermediate school in lower Manhattan, PFLAG mom Susan told the story of her son wanting a baby doll at two years old. She asked the sixth graders to tell her how kids play with a baby doll. She heard a variety of answers, like “take care of it,” “feed it,” and “change its diaper.”  And she pointed out to the kids that nurturing is a quality that everyone needs to be good parents. Children and many parents (often from their children) are learning that the best human traits do not belong to just one sex.

Expecting young people to act according to the labels society has deemed appropriately masculine or feminine not only limits their individuality and creative expression, but also has the potential to damage their self-esteem if others view them as “not normal.”

It sounds to me like you’re raising a 21st-century individual – a son who wears the confidence of his friendships like a suit of armor to shield him from being vulnerable to outside detractors. So please, celebrate him and the strength he has to form solid friendships. And if you do find yourself worrying – because sometimes innermost habits of thought are not so easy to break – try shifting your focus to see your son as safe, strong, and living a wonderful life. And most of all, be proud of the person you are helping him become.

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Julie Tarney is an advocate for LGBTQIA youth, speaker and author. Her award-winning memoir, My Son Wears Heels: One Mom’s Journey from Clueless to Kickass (University of Wisconsin Press 2016) and blog of the same name are about her experiences raising a gender nonconforming child in the Midwest in the 1990s and what she learned from him along the way about gender identity, gender expression and self-acceptance. Julie is a board member for the It Gets Better Project, blogs for HuffPost Queer Voices and is an active member of PFLAG NYC’s Safe Schools program. Her book won Bronze in the 2016 INDIES Book of the Year Awards. A longtime resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Julie now lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she can often be found cheering in the audience at her creative director and sometimes-drag-artist son Harry’s performances.