Facing Gender Stereotypes With My Son
I was sitting on the sofa next to my 8-year-old son, watching Pokémon, when he let out a long breath and said, “Dad, I like pink.”
He wouldn’t look me in the eye, as though it were a very shameful thing, and as I looked at his short brown-haired little head hanging low, I thought about my own childhood.
I didn’t know my father very well. He left when I was 9, but before he did, when I was around my son’s age, he started to suspect I was gay. This was the early ’90s. I think he saw me as an odd child because I wasn’t particularly masculine. I wasn’t much into sports or trucks or anything like that. I didn’t have an affinity for blue. Perhaps I even told him I enjoyed pink. I don’t know the exact trigger. But what I do know is that for my father—a heating and air-conditioning contractor with his name on the back of his leather belt; thick, calloused working class hands; and a gold chain around his neck—me not being particularly masculine was interpreted as gay, and to man me up, he enrolled me in wrestling at the local community center.
I dressed in a green leotard and was asked to roll around on a gym mat with other boys, and were I gay, I have to assume this would’ve been a little bit of heaven, but for me, it was hell. I didn’t like wrestling, or aggression, and the whole ordeal made me feel like my father was more interested in who he wanted me to become rather than who I was—a good-humored, but passive boy.
I can still remember my father watching me from the sidelines, his elbows on his knees, eyes a misty mix of compassion for my masculinity and fear that I might one day become something he feared, “one of them damn faggots.”
Wrestling was a surefire way to make me “straighter than a coffin nail.”
As a father now, I don’t worry a heck of a lot about my son’s sexual orientation, especially not enough to get concerned over him having an affinity for pink, or his lack of love for blue or dirt or trucks. However, the way he sheepishly told me about his love for pink, made me worry that he saw me like I saw my father.
Did he fear that I was going to think differently of him because he liked pink?
I hoped not.
Obviously, somewhere, perhaps at school, perhaps from me, he learned that liking traditionally girly things was problematic. This would explain why, every time his sister watches Frozen, he gets drawn in, almost hypnotized by the film, but if I ask him if he likes the movie, he immediately denies it, saying that “only girls like Frozen.”
“That doesn’t mean you can’t like it,” I say.
“Yes, it does,” he says.
Going into parenting, I assumed we were past this. I assumed that little boys could like pink, or Frozen, or dolls, openly without feeling like an outcast, but as I sat across from my son, anxiously waiting for me to say something, not sure what my reaction would be, I knew that we weren’t.
Rather then fret over his orientation, like my father would’ve, I fretted over the way I presented myself and wondered if I was somehow reinforcing gender stereotypes.
Suddenly, I was faced with a few choices. I could tell him that liking pink was OK and that he should go to school and announce it. Perhaps he could help create a culture shift at Johnson’s Charter School, one where all the boys liked pink, even if it meant him potentially turning into an outcast. Or, I could confirm an age-old, stupid, and outdated status quo, react with anger, like my father would’ve, and tell him that pink is only for girls and then spend the next few days fretting about my son and trying to find ways to “man him up.”
What I ended up doing was something much more subtle.
My son was still looking down. I hadn’t spoken yet. Then he said, “Rick said he likes pink, too. He’s the only other boy I know who likes pink. Most of my friends say pink’s for girls.”
Then I said something I wish my father would’ve said in a situation like this.
“I like pink. Now you know three boys.”
He leaned into the couch, snuggled up next to me, and we finished watching Pokémon.