Letter to my fellow parents: Gender Policing contributes to bullying

[Ed. Note: I posted this to my vanilla FB page and wanted to share it with my blog readers as well]

I’m posting this in recognition of Spirit Day:  Spirit Day honors the teenagers who have taken their own lives in recent weeks. But just as importantly, it’s also a way to show the hundreds of thousands of LGBT youth who face the same pressures and bullying that there is a vast community of people who support them. (See http://www.glaad.org/spiritday for more information).

Some of you might be reading this and wondering, why did she tag me?  I’ve tagged a group of you because you are, like me, parents of school aged kids.  Also, like me, I believe you care not only about your kids but all the kids in our community.  I tagged you because I want you to read this and consider becoming part of the larger conversation and movement to make our schools and communities safe for all kids.

So what’s this gender policing thing I’m talking about? When we enforce stereotypical gender roles and appearances, we’re being gender police.  For example, saying, “boys will be boys,” but girls “shouldn’t rough-house because it’s not ladylike.”  It’s questioning someone’s gender on the basis of how they look, the work they do, the activities they enjoy or how they express themselves. It’s punishing people for being gender outlaws and for going outside the norms by shutting them out of society and thereby limiting their ability to work and play and love and flourish.

Why am I bringing this up?  You might have heard about the recent, highly-publicized spate of suicides by boys and girls who had been bullied and harassed because of their perceived sexual orientation or other non-normative behaviors.  This has resulted in a lot of attention being paid to anti-bullying policies for schools, awareness building within communities and outreach for at-risk kids. All of that work is wonderful. I’m happy for it and I’m sure you’d all agree that kids shouldn’t be hated to death because of what people think about their sexual orientation (some of these kids were quite young, so actual sexual orientation may not have been determined yet).  However, in my opinion, that doesn’t go far enough.  I’d like to further propose that a lot of these kids were being targeted because they transgressed gender normative boundaries.  In other words, they weren’t acting the way boys and girls should act.  Most of the recent victims were boys.  I can remember how vicious my classmates were to boys who were even the slightest bit effeminate.  Hardly anyone questioned this harassment, it was assumed that if you went beyond the boundaries of expected gender presentation, you were putting a target on yourself.

I think it’s important to bring gender presentation into this discussion because it’s frequently behavior, and not identity, that’s the focus of the bullying. Boys who are too  feminine, or girls who seem too masculine, are picked on, called names, isolated and bullied.  I know this from my own life.  Until late middle school, most who didn’t know me thought I was a boy.  I didn’t do the girly things other girls my age did, I was different, and they weren’t about to let me forget it.  In eighth grade, solely because of how I looked, some girls started a rumor that I was a lesbian.  (This is before I even considered sex and certainly hadn’t come to grips with my sexual orientation. ) As a result, for most of the school year, no one in my class would talk to me, sit with me at lunch, or interact beyond the very basic requirements.   There was a very vocal and hateful minority who physically and verbally abused me over the course of each day, and the rest of my classmates did nothing to stop it.  No one stepped up to support me, even in private – that’s how afraid they were of the popular minority.  With no one to speak out against them, my harassers were empowered to continue their bullying until they grew bored and moved on to new prey.  It’s clear to me that the silence of the majority who stood by and watched my tormentors attack me was tantamount to encouragement.  Silence really does equal consent.

Unfortunately, kids have died as a result of that kind of hateful shunning and abuse, and not just the ones being talked about recently. It’s important to understand that hate like this can be generated simply because a kid doesn’t look the way people think they should.

As humans, we can’t help but group people into categories, it’s how we organize our world.  If we know what category a person belongs to, we know better how to interact with them, right?  Sometimes we’re presented with someone who is difficult to categorize and that can be challenging, confusing, even threatening.  Is that a man or a woman?  A boy or a girl?  Is she/he straight or gay?  You get the point.  We like to know who and what we’re dealing with but some people are hard to pigeonhole and that leads others to react violently to this lack of clarity. We don’t all react with violence, but we are all guilty of making assumptions based on our perceptions.  What’s important to remember is that these are people and worthy of respect that requires us to get to know each other before we start judging.

For the most part, I’ve felt welcomed by my family and community, including the community around my daughter’s elementary school.  I’m not your standard feminine female. I don’t hide my masculinity and I believe that my presence at school events and activities has helped others become more familiar with and aware of the idea of female masculinity.  However, just because parents and kids are used to seeing me around doesn’t mean they are completely aware of any gender bias they might have.

To illustrate this point, I want to relate a story from this weekend, something that occurred while I was enjoying my daughter’s soccer game with my wife and the other soccer families.  Another soccer mom, someone I consider a friend and assumed was open to diversity, caught me by surprise when she began questioning, quite insistently, the gender of a soccer player on the other team.  The player in question had short hair, wasn’t sporting as many overtly feminine markers as her fellow team mates and was playing very aggressively, though not any more than some of our players.  All that being said, there was nothing about her that was terribly transgressive and nothing that would mark her as “not a girl” but, still, this mom was pretty persistent.  She was sure this player was a boy and kept asking if we thought so, too.

Several things bothered me about this incident.  First, it never occurred to her that complaining to me, a butch mom, about a boyish player might be a bit insensitive.  In being so insistent that this player had no place on the field, she was inadvertently also suggesting that the girl had done something wrong in presenting herself that way.  She was saying it loudly enough to attract the attention of a couple of other parents, and we were standing not far from our team’s bench.  I worried that our players would overhear and continue this insensitive line of questioning on the bench or, worse, on the field.  And it did effect me, more than I could have articulated at the moment.  I ended up walking away rather than continuing to deal with her obsession about this player. It hit too close to the bone, hit me right in my kid-self, right in the soft spot that still hurts.

I’m telling you all this because I think we all are capable of making these kinds of comments, of voicing what comes to mind before we have a chance to think it through. Many gender biases and assumptions are so pervasive and expected, we often don’t even think about what we’re saying and how it serves to box people in.   How many times have you heard someone insult a boy with “you throw like a girl’, or discount someone’s contribution, to the point of not even seeing it, because ‘she’s just a girl’.  I remember my mom insisting that I quit walking ‘like a linebacker’ and ‘act more like a lady’.  Gender expectations are used to bully and control people all the time, sometimes unknowingly.

I know this is pretty long, but if you’re still reading, I appreciate you taking this seriously.  I don’t expect us to solve the problem of bullying, gender policing and bias against non-heterosexual orientations overnight, but I really hope you’ll consider what you can do.  I think real change can start at home, at work, in our daily lives.  If you overhear kids or adults making disparaging comments about someone else, please consider speaking up.  Silence really does equal consent and if you don’t speak up, you’re giving those comments power and legitimacy, especially in the eyes of kids.  It’s hard to take on other adults, so that may take some time, but with our kids, and their friends, and their teammates, I think we stand a chance to raise some awareness.  Wherever you have the power to, please consider making it a no bullying, non-discrimination zone.

My daughter is in her last year of elementary school, like some of your kids.  Next year, she starts middle school with its larger student body and all the challenges of collective puberty.  As I mentioned before, I have some pretty bad memories about middle school and I don’t want any of our kids to go through a hell like that.  I believe we have the power to make a difference.  We can raise our children to stand up for themselves and each other, and help guide them to create a world where no one feels so alone that they would rather die than live another day.  We owe it to them.

I look forward to hearing from you, welcome your feedback, ideas, stories and suggestions.  Thank you.

 

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