Their dad is a rock-and-roll guy with earrings and eyeliner. We live in Austin. Their mom is the daughter of hippies who bakes her own bread. Of course they wear fingernail polish.
Although no longer married, Ian and I have worked tirelessly to raise the kids in what Sandra Lipsitz Bem would call “an unconventional family.”
In her 2001 book, “An Unconventional Family,” Bem wrote about the decades she spent raising her son and daughter in a sex-positive, gender-inclusive environment. This was the 1970s and ’80s, when women were breaking glass ceilings but also cleaning up the glass and making dinner, too.
Bem and her husband wanted to create a non-cisgendered world, where not all the children’s book characters were told from a little boy’s perspective and no one assumed the princess was going to be saved by a prince. Their son could wear barrettes, and their daughter could talk about her cycle.
The patriarchal, heteronormative world outside the home would be dismantled one teaching moment at a time. Menstruation, masturbation and sex were not taboo. A storybook princess could actually be a boy and have two moms. Dads cleaned the house and moms fixed stuff. There wasn’t anything dirty or shameful about reproductive organs, homosexuality or the way someone wanted to express individuality.
My little family isn’t all that unconventional by South Austin standards, but if we’ve come so far in the 30 years since, why is it so radical for my boys to wear fingernail polish?
Since they were toddlers, my kids have loved picking through my ever-growing stash of colors. Their dad has always painted his nails, so we always encouraged them to do so if they wanted to, even though we knew that it made outsiders uncomfortable and would draw comments. Even well-meaning family members would say it looked “girlie.”
“There’s no such thing as girls things and boys things,” they learned to respond from about the age of 3.
At first, it was specifically about the fingernail polish that they so loved, but that sentence soon became the mantra they used anytime anyone tried to claim a color, toy, activity, job, TV show, book or a type of clothing for one gender or another. They’ve never doubted that sewing is for them in the same way that soccer is for them, too.
Saying there’s no such thing as girl things and boy things isn’t to say that there aren’t gender differences, but the rigid boxes we build around those biological variations are some of the clearest examples of the patriarchy’s grasp on society and how reluctant we are to release it.
Boys reading “American Girl” books makes people feel uncomfortable. Girls wearing short hair and playing sports still makes people feel uncomfortable, but having clear distinctions between “what girls do” and “what boys do” is how you can maintain control over each side. Ultimately, you create adults who follow the same rules of “what women do” and “what men do.”
In my experience, this makes people miserable.
As Glennon Doyle says, women are denied permission to love their bodies and men are denied permission to love their feelings. Gender policing is the root of so much adult anxiety around what we look like, how we can (or can’t) express our feelings, what jobs/careers/hobbies we decide to pursue.
When I was pregnant, I knew I wanted to raise my kids, no matter their gender, in an environment not where we were blind to gender, but one where we acknowledge that these societal handcuffs exist and that we refuse to wear them.
We talk about how boys and girls are treated differently and how crazy that seems to us. I point out instances of sexism (and racism and classism and gentrification) when I see them.
Most radically, perhaps, we talk about periods.
There are many talks to come, but I’ve tried to cover a lot of territory, little by little. Because we started so early, this unconventional thinking is now ingrained in them, and they are teaching me.
Just last year, Julian thought that Bill and Hillary Clinton were siblings. Why else would they share a name?
Ian and I have given them the gift of a radically open mind, but it takes a village to support a boy who wants to wear his hair in a “chongo,” I’m grateful to live in that village, including a community of teachers who work in a school district that publicly supports Pride.
Thanks, Sandra Bem, for writing a guidebook on how to do this. We’re still unlearning one lesson at a time.