Gender – Boy to Man

Last month, I promised you that the next post here would discuss gender, again. Why? An article that appeared in The Atlantic in December, titled The Miseducation of the American Boy, that discusses the problems boys are having with becoming men.

image of brain drawing at top, with finger pointing to it saying gender is here, finger pointing down below it, saying not here

Last month, we covered the issue of sex (the noun, not the verb), making the point that sex is biology, pretty much determined by your genetics. That means that when young couples have “gender reveal” events, they’re missing the point. What they’re actually doing is revealing the sex of their baby, not the gender. Gender cannot be determined by one’s chromosomes or by one’s external genitalia. So, what is gender?

According to A Guide to Gender by Sam Killermann, there are two parts to gender. One is your gender identity – who you think you are; and the other is your gender expression – how you show the rest of the world who you think you are. I cannot recommend Sam’s book highly enough. The best part is the Genderbread person who, in one icon, helps you understand the difference between gender and sex.

We don’t actually know how gender identity is formed. It probably has something to do with sex, given that most people are cisgender, which means that their sex and their gender identity match. It is possible, of course, that a boy thinks he’s a boy because he’s been told he is a boy, and treated like a boy, but what about people who’ve been told they are boys, yet feel and think that they are girls? That can frighten parents who think that they did something wrong, but that’s unlikely to be the case. Research doesn’t support the notion that individuals who are not cisgender got to be that way because someone in their environment told them that they were other-gendered.

Don’t forget, gender is only part of what makes someone homosexual. Male homosexuals are genetic males who feel and present as males. They’re just attracted to other males, rather than to females. You probably don’t learn that either. After all, the children of homosexual couples are no more likely to be homosexual than are children of heterosexual couples.

On the other hand, gender expression is plainly learned. Our behavior, our dress, our manners are all based on what our culture and the people around us have shown us is appropriate for how we feel about ourselves. In some cultures, boys dress in blue jeans and tee shirts, wear their hair short, and walk with a long stride. A boy in that culture who wears dresses, has long hair, and carries himself in a more subdued manner may get a lot of grief about what gender he is portraying, and yet still believe he is a boy.  

The article in The Atlantic says that boys in the United States have a particularly hard time knowing how to express themselves because society has placed a great many limits on what is appropriate for “normal” males. Boys are not allowed to express their emotions because big boys don’t cry. So, they find themselves limited to using anger and violence to show how masculine they are when actually they’re hurting inside. This stereotypical expression of masculine gender seems to be forcing boys to behave in ways that get them into trouble, especially in the ways that they interact with girls. Boys are not allowed to share their emotions with anyone else, they are expected to be able to manage their problems on their own. If they can’t, then they’re not a real man.

The way that you feel about yourself isn’t something that we can do much about. For example, I’ve said before that parents can’t change a child’s self-esteem by making sure that they’re always successful in what they do. Children develop a sense of self over time by learning what they are good at and what they find more difficult. Little children understand that failure is part of growing up, it is only if parents try to make sure that their children always succeed that children begin to have trouble with self-esteem. The same thing is true about gender. Most children understand their gender from a very young age and it is only when parents and those around them tell them they are wrong that they develop problems.

But, I hear you say, how can a 3- or 4-year-old boy possibly understand what he is saying when he says he is a girl. You wouldn’t have any trouble believing that the boy knew what he was saying if he said he was a boy, so why is the reverse so hard to grasp? At least part of the parents’ difficulty is that they have tried to be consistent in the gender message that they send – clothes, toys, expectations are all aimed at giving their child a clear picture of what it means to be a boy. So, if a boy says he is not a boy, the parents are convinced they must have done something wrong.

So, if your boy starts showing signs that he is not cisgender, take a deep breath. First of all, it is not your fault. Second, help him figure out how to be comfortable with who he is. When my six-year-old said that he wanted to take tap dancing instead of joining a soccer team, we let him. He danced happily for six years and got to be pretty good. When he was little, he knew that if he got into a competitive situation, he lost his temper and that dancing allowed him to get a lot of exercise (actually more than the kids playing soccer) and enjoy the music. Yes, eventually his friends gave him grief, until they saw him on stage with their sisters. He wasn’t doing what the girls were doing, he was the center of attention as a male dancer. They actually got a little jealous of how he was treated by the girls.  He is pretty comfortable with his masculinity and his friends find him someone with whom they can share their innermost thoughts and feelings.

Let your boy be the kind of male he wants to be. Give him opportunities to interact with a wide variety of men so he can figure out where he fits in the world. Point out when men behave badly and let him know that behavior is not how you hope he grows up. Most of all, just love him for who he is.