Monday, November 8, 2010

Tutus in a twist over nothing

By now, unless you exist in a news blackout, you've heard the brouhaha over the five-year-old in Kansas City who went to school dressed as a female cartoon character for Halloween. Countless adults jumped all over the mom. Some nut jobs actually accused her of turning her son gay (as if such a thing is possible). Cooler heads questioned why she'd risk opening her child to ridicule. Psychologists on morning shows speculated on the challenges faced by parents raising transgender children.

All over a Halloween costume that a five year old selected. I don't know the child in question, but I'd bet anything he doesn't understand why the adults have their knickers in such a tight twist over his outfit. This is a one-time event. The child in question reportedly wears boy clothes most of the time. He just likes playing dress up, and for some reason he likes this retro cartoon detective. Maybe it's the bright red wig.

At age five, he gets the difference between real and pretend.

Sadly, legions of adults evidently don't.

Somewhere in the fifty states, several little girls probably elected to dress in "male" costumes. Before you condemn the Kansas City mom, do you think you'd react the same way if a little girl went to school dressed as Superman? Or as Dracula? Or as a football player? Would the news media descend like vultures, would the blogosphere hurl homophobic epithets, if a kindergarden aged girl went out dressed as a famous quarterback?

Very young children, as anyone who's been around them knows, often have somewhat fluid notions of gender. My niece, a true girly girl who loves pink and teddy bear tea parties, periodically decides that she's going to play at being a boy. She's two and a half years old and naturally attracted to feminine things. She knows there's some difference between male and female but she hasn't totally processed it. I offer this exchange from last summer, when she noticed the Grape had different parts from her own:

"Where's his vagina?"

"He doesn't have one."

"Oh." (thoughtful pause) "Will he get a vagina when he gets bigger?"

Truly transgender people, children included, identify so strongly with the other gender that they want to be dressed and treated as that gender all the time. They feel trapped in the wrong body. It's not a game to them. Clothes help them express their identity, not escape into a pretend persona for a Halloween event.

A four year old boy I know went through a princess phase last year. This year he was all about dressing as a very masculine super hero. I suspect lots of boy tots go through girlie phases. After all, princesses are sparkly and they garner way more than their fair share of adult attention.

When my younger brother and I were in that age group, we played with dress up clothes. We consequently have many photos of him decked out in mom's cast off finery. It was a game. Nobody thought anything of it. I think we would have been confused if the adults had objected.

A little girl of similar age went through what I like to call an early feminist phase last year, when she realized that boys got to do some things girls didn't, such as play in a certain soccer club and appear on money. I'm pleased to report that a quick trip to the bank to buy some British pounds restored her faith in her sex. And this year, she wanted - more than anything - an ultra girly costume for trick or treating.

Kansas city kindergardener might be gay. He might be straight. You'd really have to know him personally to speculate fairly. For now, he's just playing the dress up game. His mother decided to let him have that. She knows if the other kids tease him, she'll need to have a teaching moment. It seems to me she's doing the best she can, and nobody should have an issue with that.

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