De-gendering the Rainbow
Another email from one of Sullivan’s readers,
I have an 8 year old who is a little gender-queer, but not trans, and probably not gay, and he had a terrible time at school this year. My son is an awesome kid – sweet, smart, and funny. He is both one of the butchest boys I know and one of the most gender-queer. He truly has no regard for gendered clothing, shows, or interests. He loves karate and superheroes and video games and Spongebob and Star Wars: Clone Wars. He also loves sparkly, brightly colored clothing and nail polish and hair color and My LIttle Ponies and Tinkerbelle. He has been both Samurai Jack for Halloween and a fairy. He plays with girls and boys.
This year, I allowed him to paint his nails black and orange just before Halloween. I didn’t think anything about it. It was the week before Halloween! His second grade classmates taunted him for it and called him a girl. One of them punched him in the balls. None of the boys would play with him any more. Only one girl would play with him. My son has a rebellious streak and decided to respond by bringing “girl books” to school and wearing pink shirts and more fingernail polish. The bullying continued. Despite an anti-bullying policy, the school’s main intervention was to advise us to get him to tone down the gender non-conformity. We did, but I can’t help but think that the message that my son got was that gender bullying is okay and that it was somehow his fault if someone bullies him for being a nonconformist.
We’re transferring schools this year. I can’t take it and my son shouldn’t have to.
Two things to note. First, I’m not well versed in queer studies, but labeling someone who transgresses gender norms as gender-queer seems problematic to me. It just seems like a whole lot of baggage to attach to an act of gender transgression which should be liberated from presumptuous constraints than informed by even more of them. But this is my generally ignorant position on gender–to do away with it rather than fragment but still further reinforce it.
Two, I find the schools behavior, to the extent that the reader accurately portrays it, to be disgusting, but also not surprising. It’s been a while since I was in school, and I’m not sure to what degree policies on bullying have evolved since then, but per my experience they are usually a useless wreck, and no stand-in for a teacher, administrator, or bus driver putting kids in line when they’re abusive.
School can be a terrifying place, especially when those with supposed authority turn a blind eye to the inmates running the show.