And the thing is, the people who most adhere to this idea of protecting children from even knowing that non-cisgender or non-heterosexual people exist all do a really poor job of that. Because I guarantee you that the children of those parents are the ones at school bullying any classmate who seems gender-nonconforming by calling them homo or sissies or some other slur. Kids may or may not understand the intricacies of adult relationships, but they glean and infer a whole lot about same aspects of sex and romance and related topics from the adults around them.
Some adults seem to completely forget what it was like when they were children. And that manifests in a couple of different ways. To illustrate, I’ll tell the story of two playdates.
Now, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “playdate” meaning “a play session for small children arranged in advance by their parents” didn’t come into the language until 1975, and these two stories from my childhood predate that (one happened in 1969, and other in 1971). And I’m not sure that 9-year-olds or 10-year-olds fall into the definition of small children, but the idea was mostly the same.
The first one happened early in the third grade. It was the first time I recall that my Mom took me to the home of one of my friends from school or church for the explicit purpose of letting us kids hang out. Mom also visited with my friend’s mother for a bit before taking my little sister to some other event, but I and my friend hanging out was the purpose of the trip. It was a fun evening, we spent most of the time in his room talking about comic books, as I recall. No big deal. Eventually Mom came back to pick me up. We went home. We had a few more similar get-togethers like that, usually with me being dropped off at his place, but it least one time his parents dropped him off at ours.
The second one happened in the middle of fourth grade. Because of my dad’s work in the petroleum industry, we had moved three times between these two playdates. Two of the moves involved crossing a state boundary. All three moves involved me being enrolled in a new school. At some of those intervening schools, we hadn’t remained in the area long enough for me to make much in the way for friends. At the third place, though, I quickly became very good friends with a classmate. Both of us were in orchestra (it was the first year I could join), and our mothers had met when they came to pick us up after practice.
So eventually, a plan was made when my classmate would be dropped off at our place for an evening. But the plan quickly became weird. Dad and a few other people made strange comments. I was getting teased about this friend.
Why? Because she wasn’t a boy.
When she was dropped off, her dad made some comments that made both Dad and Mom laugh, but just confused me. Most of the fathers of kids I’d known most of my life had owned guns. So why did her dad tell me about his gun and how handy it was to get to?
We spent most of the time sitting at the dining room table talking about our favorite books (she and I shared an adoration for The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew). At the end of the evening, Mom drove my friend home and I rode along so we could keep talking. When we pulled up in front of her house, Mom told me that I was supposed to walk my friend to the door. I said, “Sure.” We both got out of the car and walked up to the front door. I remember that her family’s dog was barking really loud in the house, and she made a comment about how we needed to make sure the gate was latched, in case the dog got out of the house.
We walked up to the porch. She said, “Good night.” I said, “See you at school!” She opened the door and went inside. I walked back to the car. I spent at least half a minute making certain I had latched the gate correctly, then I got into the car.
And Mom was very angry at me. “When you walk a girl to the door, you don’t just leave her there and walk away! You’re supposed to go inside and thank her parents for letting her go out with you!”
“I didn’t know that.” All of those times the year before when the other friend and I had gotten together, neither of us had been sent in to thank the others’ parents for letting us hang out. Why was this different?
There was some additional fallout, including a lot of teasing at school the following week. The upshot was that my friend didn’t want me to talk to her any more in class or at orchestra rehearsal. I was very confused about the whole thing. Not because I didn’t know why the other kids were teasing us. I knew what “girlfriend” and “boyfriend” meant. But I also knew that those words didn’t describe our relationship—we really were just two orchestra nerds who liked reading! Once that teasing started, I at least had a slightly better idea of what some of the weird comments from adults beforehand had been about.I have no idea if the boy I was friends with during the first part of third grade was also queer. At the time I didn’t know that I was, for goodness sake! It is true that one of the reasons we got along so well is because we both tended to be frequent victims of the same playground bullies, so maybe he was. Or maybe we were both just 9-year-old comics nerds who happened to hit it off. But none of the adults around us ever worried about us both being in either his or my bedroom with the door closed for several hours. No one’s dad made shotgun jokes when we got together. At the time, I had no interest in kissing other boys (that would come up a couple years later, when puberty hit like a freight train), and certainly had never thought of kissing him. We were just two guys who thought Spiderman was cool.
But everyone, including apparently our own parents, assumed I and the second friend were romantically interested. I can’t speak for her, of course, but since I’m not merely gay, I’m really most sincerely gay, that was the furthest thing from my mind. And 10-year-old me was just happy to have found someone who liked reading some of the same books as I did.
To circle back to the opening topic: People who assume that grade school children are too young to know about romance and such are the same people who call small boys “lady killers” and cute baby girls “future heartbreakers.” They are the same people who assume any time a young boy is friendly with a girl that it’s a crush. They are the same people who make those stupid shotgun jokes.
If the kids are old enough to hear bullies calling other children “fags” or “homos” or “sissies”, they are old enough to know that actual LGBTQ+ people exist, that they are members of their community, and that they are humans who deserve respect and love just as much as anyone else. If kids are old enough for adults to tease them about their supposed girlfriends/boyfriends, they’re old enough to know that sometimes a guy can have a boyfriend or even a husband, that sometimes a gal can have a girlfriend or even a wife.
There were many reasons why I didn’t behave like a “normal” boy. And usually when I have written about this topic before I have focused on how as a queer kid I was gender non-conforming. But that wasn’t the only problem. There are queer kids who did a better job than I ever did of blending in. And there are lots of not-queer kids who were bullied for being different in other ways. I had other strikes against me.
One of my relatives, for instance, described me as “a lost adult trapped in a child’s body” when referring to my childhood. One reason several people perceived me in that way as a child is because my intelligence was several standard deviations above average. That had two very distinct effects on my behavior. One was that I often understood and knew things people didn’t expect a child to know, but the other was that there were very few of the kids my age that I got along with, so I kept forming close relationships with adults. And that increased the gap between myself and most of the kids my age.
Now, the word “normal” derives from the Latin normalis, which means made according to a right-angle or square. But ask most people what normal means and you’ll probably get something close to what Oxford calls sense 3: “Constituting or conforming to a type or standard; regular, usual, typical; ordinary, conventional. Also, physically or mentally sound, healthy.” Interestingly, that usage of the word in English only came about in the early 1800s. When in first came into the language, in the late 1400s, it referred exclusively to a regular verb. Then in the mid 1600s its meaning expanded to refer “Right-angled, standing at right angles; perpendicular.” Which is how it entered the lexicography of mathematics.
I was interested in science for as long as I can remember. We can blame my mom the science fiction fan for that. When I was a baby, she literally read aloud whichever Robert Heinlein or Ray Bradbury or similar book she had checked out from the library. And mathematics is something I fell in love with early in school. We moved around a lot because of my dad’s job in the petroleum industry, but as luck would have it, the school district where I attended first grade and a portion of second was one that won awards for excellence year after year. They gave me a great start.
For instance, the explanation my second grade teacher in Fort Collins had given me of the Distributive Property, was how I got labeled a freak on the first day (three schools later) that I attended school in Cheyenne Wells. It was late spring in Third Grade when we moved to Cheyenne Wells, and they were just getting to things like the Distributive Property of Multiplication. The teacher tried to explain it to class, but her explanation wasn’t very good. And during the period when we were supposed to be going through a worksheet and helping each other with the problems, the teacher overheard me explaining the the kid next to me how it works, so she brought me to the front of the room and made me explain it to the whole class. And then they all knew I was a Math Freak, a Brain, and the Teachers new Pet.
It wasn’t just the first school, of course, it was also the fact that I loved to read so much, that whenever I was given a new set of books at school, I would read them all the way to the end on my own as soon as I could. And half the time that I spent in the library I was tracking down non-fiction books about topics that came up in the science fiction, mystery, and adventure books that I loved. And most of the time throughout grade school and middle school, I would rather sit in a corner and read than run around the playground or do other things the rest of the kids were doing any time we were turned loose.
That always failed to endear me to the other kids.
Despite the fact that at heart I was an introvert, I also loved explaining things to people. Which often came across as me being a show off or know it all.
As an adult, I work in a technology field writing and designing documentation and help systems explaining how systems work. So all of those characteristics eventually became useful, eventually.
But there was no amount of counseling from that therapist—or mentoring from my middle school wrestling coach (and pre-algebra teacher!), or the other attempts by specific teachers who tried to take me under their wing to steer me through the shoals of bullying—that would make a smart, queer, introverted, book- and science-loving, know-it-all pass for normal in a typical primary or secondary school.
Which isn’t a slam on the other kids, but rather the way we herd children together by age and leave them to their own devices to work out social dynamics. The theory is that we learn to get along with diverse people that way, but the system creates an artificial social environment that encourages some of our worst behaviors.
I survived. I not only came out of the system free of bitterness and resentment, I often find myself in the position of defending public schools from the distorted statistics some people wave around trying to prove other options are better (spoiler alert: the statistics are on traditional public school’s favor). And when it comes to bullying, private schools and charter schools don’t handle those situations one iota better. In fact, for marginalized kids, they are much, much worse, statistically.
But I digress.
Learning to get along is a worthwhile goal. Conformity and trying to pretend you’re something you’re not, are toxic and destructive. I wish we were better at teaching the former, rather than enforcing the latter.
When people find a person in their midst who does not conform to their expectations, their reaction is to try to find a behavioral cause of that non-conformity. Because admitting that different kinds of people exist naturally challenges the simplest notion of normality. So when confronted with a smart, slightly gender-non-conforming kid who seems to know about things people don’t expect kids to understand, they go looking for an easy explanation of why I’m different. And it really was both of those differences that confused people. More than one relative on different sides of the family commented that as a young child I seemed like an adult trapped in a kid’s body.
When you are clinging to the notion that there is a limited number of ways to be normal with someone who doesn’t fit any of your notions, the easiest thing is to look at which of the non-conforming person’s interests seem least like theirs. So in the 1960s and ’70s, people focused on my interest in science, science fiction, fantasy and related topics. Because before the era of the personal computer and the cultural behemoth that was the original Star Wars, those things were completely beyond the kin of normal humans. Some of the cover art of magazines and paperback books raised a few eyebrows. At least one relative asserted the belief that reading superhero comics, with all of those skin tight costumes on the male heroes, would turn a boy into a sissy.
In retrospect I find it hilarious, because of all the media/fiction I can recall from my childhood, the only place where gender fluidity and related topics occurred regularly was not in science fiction, fantasy, or science fact books, but in one of the most popular forms of pop culture of many decades: Looney Tunes cartoons, specifically Bugs Bunny cartoons.
Even before Bugs Bunny had the name “Bugs,” he was dressing up as a woman to seduce a male character. Long before he ever dressed as a woman to distract Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam, the character then referred to informally as “Happy Rabbit” disguised himself as a female version of the unnamed hunter’s dog to distract the dog from his trail. So if everyone’s theory that somehow what made me non-conforming was the shows I watched, clearly it should have been Bugs Bunny they focused on, right? Contrariwise, Bugs is a great argument against the whole media-causes-queerness argument: as I pointed out in a post last week, for a number of years the Looney Tunes cartoons weren’t just ubiquitious, they were almost universally adored by a couple of generations of folks. If media exposure causes queerness, then just about every single person aged 40-something through 60-something alive in North America right now should be an out queer, because Bugs taught us all that to be a drag queen was to be triumphant.
This meaning of drag: “Women’s clothes as worn by a man; (less commonly) men’s clothes as worn by a woman; a party at which such clothes are worn” as rendered in the Oxford English Dictionary has been around since the late 19th Century. The first written citation coming in 1870 as a reference to male actors portraying female characters on the stage. At various times in the history of the theatre, it had been common to cast young men in the feminine roles, because it was considered inappropriate for women to perform on stage. So there is a certain tradition in the theatre (which cropped up later in movies, though usually for comedic effect) of men dressing as women on stage. There is also a tradition of characters of either sex on stage and in movies dressing in disguises—sometimes disguises that shouldn’t fool anyone—and carrying on for scene after scene completely pulling the wool of the eyes of other characters.
The disguises that Bugs donned in the various cartoons weren’t always drag. The point of the gag was how gullible Bugs’ adversary could be in light of the disguise, no matter how ridiculous. Which is why I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone back then that how easily the hero of the story could adopt the persona of a woman and seductively entrance the villain might be just a little bit queer. Maybe it was the fact that the audience was in on the joke—Bugs was dressing as a woman to fool his antagonist and make the audience laugh, not because he enjoyed it, and certainly not because he was actually trying to seduce the other character. Maybe it was simply the fact that they understood the jokes in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, but sf/f didn’t appeal to them, and a lot of that cover art looked erotic, demonic, and sometimes both.
To me, the ease with which Bugs transformed himself in his various disguises is a manifestation of a much, much older narrative tradition: The Trickster God. One of the oldest examples of which is the Old Norse story of the time that Loki is tasked by Odin with getting the gods of Asgard out of a particularly unwise bet. The gods had made a deal with a builder to create a magnificent fortification, but that if the builder couldn’t do it in a ridiculously short time with no help except that of his horse, the gods would never have to pay for the fortress. It quickly becomes clear that that both the builder and his horse are possessed of magical abilities and will succeed at the seemingly impossible task. Loki tries various things, but eventually is only able to succeed by transforming himself into a beautiful mare in heat, and thus lure the magical horse away. In the Norse story, Loki actually mates with the horse and later gives birth to another magical steed, Sleipnir, which becomes Odin’s horse and figures in a lot of other myths.
I’m just glad that I never pointed out that little similarity back then. It was one thing when I was sometimes forbidden to check out certain books from the library, or buy certain paperbacks at the used book store. It would have been infinitely crueler to forbid me from watching Bugs and Daffy!
Many Waters is a sequel to that book, and it is the first one where Sandy and Denys take center stage.
Before I get into my review of Many Waters, I want to share one amusing personal incident: by the time I was in the fourth grade we had moved several times. For example, I had spent part of third grade not only in three different school districts, but each was in a different state. Part way through fourth grade we moved yet again. At the new school, we were assigned to read A Wrinkle in Time, and then give a book report. My report came back with a low grade in part because I had supposedly misspelled Murry, the last name of the family. I had to show the teacher in my own copy of the book (since the school copies had been taken back already and passed on to the other fourth grade classroom) that Murry is how it is spelled in the book. It didn’t occur to me until years later that this meant the teacher probably had never read the book himself. So on what basis was he grading everyone’s book reports?
So, what did I think of this book? … Read More…
I grew up in U.S. public schools (the term “public schools” in the U.S. refers to the taxpayer-funded schools that are administered by the government and are free to attend for all children), and it was confusing to me. I hang out on enough writing forums, follow enough writer blogs, and so forth to also attest that lots of other people who grew up in this system who are now trying to write books that involve characters who are either students or teachers feel compelled to ask questions about the ages of kids in certain grades, or what subjects they should be studying and so forth.
To understand the U.S. school system the very first thing you must understand is: there is NO U.S. school system. Americans, particularly Um-merr-uh-kins, are deeply suspicious of central authority (yes, most especially the ones who wave American flags all the time), and insist that schools must be subject primarily to local control. Even when a good ol’ boy Republican President like George W. Bush proposes something as harmless-sounding as “no child left behind” conservative Americans rise up foaming-at-the-mouth angry about the federal government sticking its nose in and telling us how to educate our children. Read More…
When I came out at the age of 31 (yep, it took a while), more than one relative on that side of the family repeated the theory that the reason I was a homo was because of those G.I. Joe dolls I had as a kid.
People who understand the medical science know that a person’s sexual orientation is determined sometime before the age of two (it is almost certainly earlier, but it’s much more difficult to measure before then), so toys I received as presents at the age of seven didn’t have anything to do with it. But the claim is wrong in another way.
I never owned a G.I. Joe action figure as a child.
The original G.I. Joe was created by toy designer Stan Weston. He licensed the idea of his articulated action figure that could have a infinite number of costumes and accessories to Hasbro. The deal wasn’t an exclusive license, so Weston took Hasbro’s money and formed his own company.
Once he saw that Hasbro was going with only soldier accessories, he secured licensing deals with D.C. Comics, Marvel Comics, and King Feature Syndicate to produce a similar action figure, but one that was a something of a shape-shifter.
Captain Action’s exact shape differed from G.I. Joe in several ways, the most noticeable being that his head seemed a bit small for the body and the facial features are a little weird. The reason was that, thanks to all of those licensing deals, among the accessories you could buy for Captain Action were kits to transform him into characters such as Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Aquaman, Steve Canyon, Buck Rogers, the Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon, and so on. Each of those kits included a “mask” that completely covered Captain Action’s face, giving him the face of the character in question.
The Christmas that I received Captain Action, I also received the Superman kit. Note that there is no action figure in the box. That is a full-head face to go over the Captain Action figure’s head, a costume, and other accessories, but no action figure.
The thing I remember most about the Superman kit is that when I put the Captain Action clothes back on the figure, I often put the red Superman boots on him. I even remember explaining to someone why I thought the red boots looked better with the Captain Action costume. I also remember that another kid swiped my Krypto the Superdog toy. And I never got it back.
The following Christmas, several relatives got me G.I. Joe accessories, because they were easier to find (and probably most of them didn’t realize that Captain Action wasn’t a G.I. Joe). They only kind of worked. Captain Action’s chest was just enough bigger than G.I. Joe’s that I couldn’t fasten the shirts and jackets that came in the G.I. Joe kits. So when my Captain Action was dressed up as a marine or a sailor, he also had his shirt open, showing off his hyper-muscled chest. It made him look like a member of the Village People—except that the band didn’t exist until ten years later.
Now that I think about it, maybe that was part of the reason that one uncle was convinced the action figures were making me gay: my Captain Action was always baring his chest!My uncle wasn’t the only person who had misgivings about boys playing with dolls. When Hasbro introduced the first G.I. Joe, they invented the term “action figure” to label and advertise it precisely because their marketing research indicated that a lot of parents were reluctant to buy a doll for a boy.
While I remember seeing figures for Dr. Evil, Captain Action’s nemesis, I don’t think I ever saw the Action Boy figure in stores. I know, from reading collectors’ web sites, that there were Action Boy figures and there were accessory kits to turn him into Robin (to go with Captain Action in the Batman kit) or Superboy.
It’s probably just as well. As I recall, my Captain Action was laying in my toy box completely naked most of the time. Whenever I wanted to play with him, I had to spend a while tracking down enough clothes and accessories to dress him up as someone. If there had been a naked Captain Action and a naked Action Boy lounging about in my toy box, that uncle would have probably had a stroke!
Lots of people have been talking about a couple of recent op-ed/blog posts about the recent faddish attention in the media and on social networks focused on gender non-conforming kids. Since as a kid one of the nicest words regularly used by my bullies was “sissy” it shouldn’t surprise any one that I have some thoughts on this matter.
The latest commentary asks us not to treat these kids and the parents who are allowing them to be themselves as if they are celebrities. No child is really equipped to be at the center of a media circus, and all the attention, even if all of it were positive (and it isn’t, as internet trolls quickly fill any comments sections or Facebook page with hateful attacks on both the kids and their parents).
However, visibility is a crucial component of any attempt to diffuse hate. We wouldn’t have any schools that allowed these kids to dress as they wish, or policies to allow the transgender kids to express their gender, et cetera, if the existence of kids similar to them were unknown. We certainly wouldn’t have California passing a law to protect transgender kids in public schools.
We want the kids to be safe to be themselves. The act of being themselves means not hiding. So there is going to be attention, no matter what. When people like myself share links to blog posts of, say, a mom explaining why she let her son dress up as Daphne from Scooby Doo, we’re expressing joy that one kid has supportive parents. We’re telling people we know that we think it’s a good idea that this kid has supportive parents. We’re telling people we know that we think everyone should be accepting of kids like that kid, and parents like that mom.
And those are good things.
We need to admit to ourselves that we have other reasons. I know one of the feelings I have whenever I find one of these stories—whether it be the incredibly cool note a father left his teen-age son saying he’s known he was gay since the age of six and he’s loved him since the day he was born, or the mom whose son wanted to be Daphne, or the mom who was okay when her six-year-old developed a crush on a boy on TV—is envy. I wish that my parents had been as accepting of my non-conformities as a child. The subtext of my sharing of those stories is always going to include a bit of that wistful longing.
Similarly when I read the blog post of the dad who is appalled at news of some other father kicking his gay child out of the family home. As I feel the fierce feeling of protectiveness coming through the dad’s words, I can’t help a few tears coming to my eyes as envy (again) mixed with sorrow and more than a bit of anger at my own father well up. My dad didn’t have that overwhelming drive to protect me from the cruelties of the world—for much of my childhood he was one of the worst cruelties I faced.
So my reasons for sharing these stories is not entirely altruistic. I’m not trying to be exploitive of their stories. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for, that most of us aren’t intentionally sharing the tales for selfish reasons.
Not every boy who likes pink is gay. Not every girl who prefers sports over playing pretty princess is lesbian. Not all of the children who vary from society’s strict gender silos is transgender. No matter how much some of us may see ourselves in each of these kids, no matter how many stories we read or pictures we see or videos we watch, we don’t really know these kids. We don’t know their futures.
But to the extent that we empathize with how they feel, we need to put our attention and energy into making the world a more welcoming place for all of them, no matter who they grow up to be.