Republished at The Huffington Post
They’re everywhere. Gender non-conforming, gender diverse, gender variant people. From cisgender men wearing “man buns” to cisgender women dressing “dapper,” gender ambiguity seems to be the hipster thing now – especially among the Hollywood elite. Hipster culture via gender expression may have been living outwardly on the fringe for quite some time, but it wasn’t until about 2013 or so when gorgeous cis, hetero men my age like Jared Leto and Joaquin Phoenix became one with the love-it-or-hate-it “man bun” hairdo.
In 2015 Will Smith’s son Jaden first stepped out publicly in a dress. Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt’s daughter Shiloh prefers a more masculine look, and has been rumored to question her gender identity. And that’s totally cool, but these kids are in a pretty safe liberal environment, living within a bubble of protection. Their parents can defend their choices and the accepting echo chamber of fandom devotees will be heard around the world. These people are mega stars. While that does open the flood gates for criticism of all sorts, it also gives them the pretty sure confidence in knowing that however they defend against the criticism, it will at least be heard – and maybe even tolerated – by the masses.
But what about gender creative people not living within that safe bubble? Like, for instance, my son and all the gender creative kids he has met through a playgroup that we founded and run. Like, for instance, those of us living in North Carolina right now – you know, the state that is notorious for its controversial “Bathroom Bill,” a.k.a. HB2, the most sweeping, anti-LGBTQ+ law in recent U.S. History; the law that says transgender people are only allowed to legally use the public bathroom/locker room/shower/changing facility that matches the biological sex they were assigned at birth. This bill also had the audacity to define biological sex as “the physical condition of being male or female, which is stated on a person’s birth certificate.” (Oops, too bad if you were born intersex. You aren’t even included because our former governor didn’t know you exist. I mean, there’s .7% of you out there. If we base that on the 2014 census numbers, that means we have roughly 27,904 people that are born intersex per year. But hey, who’s counting?)
I’m talking about trying to live an authentic life amidst the social climate in North Carolina, the state that was recently touted as not being a democracy anymore. In fact, in an article that has since gone viral, one writer pointed out that based on an electoral integrity report, our democracy was ranked on par with Cuba. But beyond the gerrymandering and the oppressive super majority Republican-led house, we have recently had discrimination legalized in our state.
To our good fortune and the diligent hard work of the people, we recently gained a new Governor in Roy Cooper, former state attorney general and democrat who opposed HB2 from day one. With Cooper’s win, McCrory’s loss marked the first lost bid for reelection of any sitting North Carolina Governor since Charles Manly in 1850 when the Whig party began dissolving. But before we were allowed to rejoice in Cooper’s election, the NCGOP called special sessions at a cost of $42,000 per day to enact every possible mandate and bill they could push through that would strip Roy Cooper of his ability to effectively govern the state.
So, with this precarious social and political climate, one could easily argue that it’s pretty difficult to find the more avant-garde appreciation of atypical gender expression in somewhere like Charlotte, North Carolina, than somewhere that’s laced with Hollywood royalty like Beverly Hills, California.
At a party over the holidays, I met up with a friend from the west coast. He was praising mine and my husband’s efforts in raising a gender creative boy here in the south – particularly, that we were “so brave” and “so cool” for allowing our child to live this life, to express his gender without censorship, and how every child should be so “lucky.” He talked about how it was great we gave our child a “choice to live this free lifestyle.” Though it was a misplaced compliment, I appreciated the gesture. But I also realized that my friend thinks my son is somehow lucky (he’s not. He has very few friends because he is so non-typical, and doesn’t really fit in anywhere in a red state, even with politics aside.) When I was making future plans for my unborn children, I never would’ve wished – let alone imagined – that I’d be raising someone on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Secondly, and more troublesome, he called this a “lifestyle.” (It’s not. It’s who my son is through and through, not the way he chooses to live). To be an affirming family to this type of child is a very complex part of parenting, to say the least. No parent would willingly choose this path that is scattered with vines and thorns.
Now, I understand that my friend meant “he’s lucky to have accepting parents.” I get that. And for that, I appreciated the compliment. But believe me when I say no parent wants to have to defend their child’s choice in play toys or clothing year after year. No parent wants to absorb the nasty, disapproving looks you get in public when your male child is wearing his favorite pink leggings. No parent wants to worry that her child will get beaten up in the bathroom because of the clothing he’s wearing.
There’s nothing inherently “lucky” about this situation at all. We’re parents, we love our children, we’ve done the research on best practices, and we know from hard, non-disputed evidence that attempts to “stifle” a child who expresses opposite or different gender will only result in long term catastrophe. Because we actually do care about safety, we figured it was safest to let our child just be who he is, and deal with the unfair but common harassment, rather than deal with the utter tragedy of a child who commits suicide because he’s sent the message that he is not loved unconditionally by his family.
The suicide statistics in the LGBTQ+ community do not lie – they speak for themselves. For anyone who has doubts, they can freely check out The Trevor Project, The CDC, PFLAG, The Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, The Family Equality Council, GLAAD, GLSEN, and The National Center for LGBT Health, just to name a few.
The bigger misunderstanding of my friend, and of society as a whole, is that this is a lifestyle or a choice, much like the soup du jour in a trendy restaurant. Like raising this type of child is on par with baking your own granola, shopping exclusively at Trader Joe’s, or smoking Parliament cigarettes. It’s the implication that my husband and I had any say in putting together all the pieces of our child’s brain – all the pieces that form connections and predispose one to be “feminine” or “masculine,” some combination of both, or neither. Just as a parent does not choose to have a child born with a handicap, or disease, a parent cannot choose their child’s gender expression or later in life, sexual orientation. A parent can verbally forbid these things, but we all know how that goes.
After having two cisgender children, one male and one female, of course we wondered why our third child, born male, at age three was making intricate bird houses and fancy glass slippers out of the Legos, instead of building cars and robots. Of course we did our due diligence for years in buying him firetrucks and matchbox cars and action figures – all of which barely made it out of the box, let alone, ever got played with. The only things in this child’s room that stayed out the corner collecting dust were the battered Barbie dolls and the tattered tutus his older sister graciously handed down.
This is just who our son is. It took us a while to all get on the same page and embrace it, and further, advocate for him. But the point is, we have fought many, many battles just to get where we are, and he hasn’t even started middle school yet. That my friend was talking so casually and upbeat about how “cool” he thought our life was in raising this type of child showed the complete absence of understanding that this is not some passing hipster phase. We are not living in a commune, growing an organic vegetable garden. This is who my son is. He is effeminate expressing from the inside-out. There is no confusion. He’s very clear in stating he does not want to change his anatomy or live as a girl – he just prefers all the things stereo-typically marketed to girls, and prefers the company of girls over boys any day. That’s the definition of gender creative. He is a textbook case, and has been ever since age two when he was able to communicate his wants and needs.
While self-professed hipsters get to embrace the atypical look and attitude for a while as they see fit, they can also shed that image like a snake should they choose to do so. I mean just the word “hipster” implies more of a lifestyle, attitude, or clothing choice than how someone was born and continues to develop for the rest of their life.
People like the Hollywood elite get to play with gender while the world watches and continues looking up to them. Some of them were already born into a fortune so they’ll never have to worry about needing government assistance for unemployment. But people like the gender creative and transgender people living in predominantly conservative states have to worry about things like legalized workplace discrimination. They have to worry about the very real possibility of not getting hired in the first place simply because of who they are.
Don’t get me wrong. It is a wonderful thing to see people from all over the country embracing some gender-bending tendencies and styles. It is awesomely freeing to see more gender blurring, and less gender stereotyping. It’s especially nice when it comes from celebrities who help set trends and fashion. But is it because they’re testing the boundaries? Is it their little way of rebelling? Sticking it to the man? Or are they pushing a more liberal feminist agenda? Fighting for equal rights? Pushing back against stereotypical gender norms that are in dire need of a makeover? Who knows. The trend may die out in the next week. Unlike some effeminate boys who can’t overcome their lifelong lisps no matter how much vocal therapy they endure, hipsters have the option to abandon ship and cast aside when the cultural winds shift.
One thing seems for sure, though: whether Jared Leto and the hipsters are sporting the man bun or not, they are still most likely either cisgender or heterosexual, or both. Not all of them, of course. But no doubt plenty of them. Enough of them who, when the choice comes around to adopt a different brand, will do it. And that’s the difference between gender creative people and hipsters. It is indeed a luxury and a privilege to have that choice.