Friday, September 28, 2007

Boys and girls come out to play…

I’m still feeling very weak and shaky after the vomiting bug, which is probably partly to blame for my general gloomy feeling. But I have been harbouring a gloom for a while. It is something to do with gender – gender and identity and belonging and homophobia and a load of other stuff.

I don’t think this gloom has been prompted by any single event IRL, more a build up over time. I'm not having a go at anyone, except perhaps myself. A while ago I wrote about how we came to leave the lgb parents’ group – didn’t feel at home there any more really. But, for a while now, I’ve been feeling less and less at home in a lot of the circles in which we are currently moving. Just feel like I’m moving in a different orbit, which is no new feeling, and not always a bad one. But at the moment I feel like I’m often calling across a chasm when trying to communicate with people – and am often being misunderstood (and no doubt misunderstanding others) because of it.

Gender is a big part of it. I was very much a young, and ardent, feminist in my late teens and early twenties. For those who care about the distinctions I identified mainly as a socialist feminist, but felt that I learned a lot from the radical feminist writings of the 70s and early 80s too. Feminist is not a label I’ve ever really abandoned but a lot of things happened to me over the years that made my views more sketchy and harder to define. I was knocked sideways by separatists (some of whom I encountered in Leeds as a student) and the SM and Porn wars too. I even met a political lesbian along the way (these were pretty rare by the end of the 80s!) who informed me I was a ‘below the waist lesbian’ – which had me bursting into spontaneous giggles for weeks. It all seemed less important once I graduated with my first degree and D and I had kids – and everything changed, or so I thought.

But some things didn’t change. Some things that I hold very dear inside me did not change. I do still believe in the patriarchy (how could I doubt it) and I do still hold that gender is largely a straight jacket in which we all exist. I feel that I have spent a decade biting my tongue over every gender based generalisation I’ve heard around children. From the moment P was born it started – and suddenly I’m all out of patience and my bitten tongue is biting back. I think that part of it is just sadness, real sadness that the same gender based bullying and control exists in all the kids around me – the same stuff I knew as a child and the jolly spin-off homophobia among the teenagers. I’m damned if I’ll just sit back any more when my boy is scoffed at for his ‘girly’ taste in something – and steadily pushed into a box where he thinks that to be a boy is to hit people hard and glory in it. Damned if my daughter has to come to me full of concern about why her peers are trading homophobic insults.

When I was at HESFES I was sitting in a tent full of home ed folk. Two men hugged on the stage and the teenagers beside me exploded into the kind of homophobic banter that I knew so well from school. The ‘urrrgh! homo bum fun going on…’ kind of comments that I have not been around since. I said nothing – why the hell I said nothing I do not know. But, then, maybe I do. I didn’t want my kids to notice. I wanted a fun evening when they just didn’t hear it, and I didn’t hear it, and I didn’t respond. I wanted to feel like we belonged.

But, I’ve been lying to myself. My children are old enough to hear it all. They hear every little gender based generalisation too. I have to keep up the opposite view – I have to keep saying, explicitly, that a shell covered box is not a ‘girly’ choice, that two boys touching each other are not ‘perverts’, that the crap on the TV is crap. Because the armoury is still there, *everywhere* we go. The assumptions that cast some people into a world of ‘freaky’ are still well at work. The kids who merrily call each other ‘gay’ in my hearing are not getting the message from anyone else, so maybe I’ll just start pointing out that I find it offensive. What the hell, I couldn’t be feeling much crummier than I do today.


Em said...

I find it harder and harder to not respond to that kind of ingrained behaviour. You reminded me of a recent event I posted about on a board I go on, sorry rather than edit I've just copied and pasted it...

"When on the second trip to Pizza Hut yesterday there was a noisy family behind us. The son (about 3) was punching his dad in the arm. His dad was laughing and egging him on saying "Go on! Don't punch me like a girl!"

So I quietly leant back towards him (he was sat directly behind me) and said fairly quietly into his ear "you do know girls can punch pretty hard don't you".

It was very funny though, he didn't really know what to say, and I think that I had said it so intimately into his ear that his poor wife didn't know what to say either..."

I think any behaviour that we find offensive needs to be consistently challenged, especially when the biggest culprit of bad gender messages in our lives seems to come from the TV. Another ridiculous example that has just come to mind was when I tried to book my girls and my partners son onto a craft activity at a local park. It was making cinderella tiaras and slippers, and when I was giving Ds name, they questioned me three times about him being a boy. Then even phoned me back all relieved saying "it's ok we've spoken to the ranger and they're happy for him to make a crown" to which I was horrified and told them as much, and that he will be far happier making a tiara just like everyone else! Then when we arrived, actually without D, the ranger was telling someone next to me (obviously not realising who I was) that she wasn't sure what she was going to do with the boy on the list!! If my two weren't looking forward to it so much we'd have left. It makes me soooo cross. And already with D, probably because he is at school, he is loosing his ability to outwardly really show what he likes, and will only admit to loving my little pony, and all things pink and sparkly (which he does) when in the most relaxed of settings. He is 5, and should be able to like whatever it is he likes. Actually what pisses me off the most is the double standards, not one person questioned me when booking my girls into the pirates event there.

OK, gonna hold it there before I go into a massive rant on your blog, I could go on and on as to how I think living up to being a boy has affected him.

Hope the lurgy has dissapeared.

Nic said...

A throwaway comment (to which you were party actually, but not sure if you noticed it) has had me on a ranting spree about this for the last couple of weeks. It's ingrained, from the pages in the Argos catalogue headed 'boys toys' and 'girls toys' to the identical versions of toys in pink and blue in ELC but with passive names like 'Fairy castle for girls' and 'adventure castle for boys'.

I do have children who in some ways conform to gender stereotypes and in many others are very non-conformist and it feels like I find something to correct on a daily basis in someone's attitude.

I'm reading lots about feminism at the moment and feeling angry, frustrated, sad and all the more determined to not let my children believe all the gender stuff without me railing against it wherever I can.

Allie said...

Em, that is a hideous 'tiara' story!

Ah, Nic, you see, I've been blocking and blocking and blocking it out. I think that part of it has been because I'm often in situations where I'm bumping up against another world view these days (thinking homeopathy here...) and so I've got used to biting my tongue - no offence, no offence. I think I've also been cautious - not wanting to come across as a loony lesbian mum - and suddenly I just feel too loony to stand it any more...

Claire said...

I bite my tongue a lot as well so as not to been seen as looney lesbian mum!! Charlie is very *girly* if you want to call it that, he despises action heros and all the other boy-orientated toys. He loves glitter, crafty stuff, playing mummies and daddies and talks a *lot* about when he is older and is a daddy and how many children he will have etc etc.

At school he and his best friend were the only two boys who played with the dressing up clothes during free time in year 2 - so aged 6 and they always played with the girls over the boys. Because he doesn't like rough and tumble he always prefers girls over boys and will actually avoid other boys in playgrounds.

I get so annoyed at "he's such a wuss" comments that I want to scream. But don't because I know the next thing will be that it's all my fault for being a lesbian.

Nic said...

Do you know what Allie, rail and rant away! It's the worst possible shame that these attitudes are still being 'taught' by parents, by school and by society but maybe it's only by individuals shaking other individuals by the throat (not literally you understand!) that attitudes will change. or maybe it's not, but that stirkes me as too hopeless a future to consider somehow...

Wobblymoo said...

All these messages are passed on from parent to child who then in turn passes it on to their child unless their parent breaks from the mould and is strong enough to tackle the stereotypes. I'm very ashamed of 'conforming' when my oldest son wanted a fairy dress but I couldn't bear him having his soul ripped out by the inevitable judging that would have followed. You have to pick your battles I think, it's no good correcting someone that is going to hurl insults and get all defensive, but if you can find the strength to talk to the youngsters things will change albeit still so very slowly. It's the same with disabilities, 30 years ago my youngest son would have possibly been in an institution, so in reality we have come so far in a very short space of time.
Thanks for this post, has certainly reminded me of a few things I need to change

dawniy said...

hiya , I've not popped in for a while and just happened to pop in on this post, can I just say I have only ever find your blog and life to be inspiring !
dawniy xx

Lucy said...

I think a lot of comments and stuff are as a result of ignorance rather than a true desire to offend. Educate where you can.

I can empathise with the feeling different thing, not sure there is a real answer other than spending more time with like minded people.

A while ago an older boy started mocking dd on her speach pronounciations and it brought back those uncomfortable feelings from my childhood along with a load of rage. I didn't say anything but afterwards wished I had.

Elizabeth said...

Rant away Allie! We have always tried to raise the kids in a fairly non-gender way so that they can choose what they like for themselves. We find it appaling, not so much that the toys are either pink or blue (unlike when we were kids many a year ago), but that every 'boy' toy in Argos has a weapon attached to it. Why in this age do they still have to be so violent? All moms are considered 'loony' for speaking out against something they don't want inflicted upon their children--so let out the rants--it's about time these 'ideals' of what we are taught are the 'norms' are finally stamped out.

Sally said...

My youngest brother had a complete mental breakdown and has been recovering for 4 years. Mostly this was to do with him trying so hard not to be the sensitive person he is. He couldn't accept help for post traumatic stress after he was ambushed in the street and hospitalized (by people he knew who were just bored), because it was 'unmanly'. He has taken years to be able to respect his father because he was not 'strong' (and has emotions and will not be a meat head). He couldn't get away from the drug culture in his peer group (which I think is particularly hard on boys) because it questioned his masculinity, and also left him no friends. He lived in perpetual fear and couldn't live up to the stereotype that abounds around him.

I studied my first degree as a sociologist (in discrimination theories, principally)... and would call myself a feminist. I'm quite convinced the whole system stinks for both sexes and all genders. I'm really unsure who is supposed to benefit from it!

I've parented three girls so far, and have a baby due right now. People continually say they think my husband must feel out numbered and would love a boy. We are both entirely perplexed by this attitude because it has never occurred to us. I have yet to try to mediate the pitfalls of parenting a boy. My fear of the predominance of violence in male culture (youth culture particularly) is one of the things that really concern me. The isolation my brother has experienced as a result of opting out of it is really sad to watch.

I would not EVER consider school educating if I had a son. But my brother went to a Steiner school and his problems largely happened outside of school.

We cannot hope to insulate them entirely from the negatives of the culture we live in. All we can do is educate them and help them to be strong enough to protect themselves ... sometimes that must take the form of speaking out about what we believe as well as living it.

People are far more flippant about homophobic comments than they are about racist ones. Perhaps they need to be challenged more often?

Gill said...

(((Allie))) Sorry you were feeling down - er... 4 days ago! Hope it was a passing slump.

I know I'm guilty of making some gender-based generalisations, though am never homophobic. Gender is a fascinating issue and one that I'd love to study more, because I suspect there are some gender issues and that we lose something, perhaps, by seeking to completely deny this?

I dunno. I think that sometimes and then other times I think I'm completely wrong, that people are just people and that gender makes very little difference at all, from a nature POV. Nurture, OTOH, being a whole other thing.

I don't like the idea of reinforcing gender stereotypes as a parent. But I wonder how much of it I do, without thinking about it. Hmmm. Well, I should probably think about it more.

My personal beef ATM is the relentless march towards totalitarianism, evidence of which I've had shoved in my face today. Might blog about that, if I get chance.

Sharon said...

I too hope you are feeling better.

Thanks for another great post. All this is so irritating. I want my children to wear what they want and play whatever game they choose. The casual sexism, homophobia and disabilism that you encounter can really get you down. The use of 'gay' or 'retarded' or 'such a girl' as insults, seems to be widely accepted. Oddly (thankfully) my husband hasn't encountered any racism since we moved to Ireland. He reckons the 2 main tribes here are so busy hating each other they don't care about him. My daughter did have a few comments about her hair being too curly to be pretty when she was at school (in England), and she did wish she was fair with straight hair then. Now she is proud of what she looks like as it's all part of her mixed ancestry.

If we all try to speak up when we deal with this shit, then perhaps we can make a bit of a difference. Well, let's hope so.