Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Remember That Time We All Blew Up Over a Kid's Costume and Got It All Wrong?

For many children, and some adults, Halloween is a time of fantasy and freedom. It’s the one night of the year when anyone can decide to be anything, even if that means pushing beyond the limits of reality. We frequently see children dressed as witches, fairies, serial killers, action heroes, ninjas and pirates, not to mention a whole host of inanimate objects. One of the things that has seemed so magical about Halloween to me is that it is the one night out of the year when the whole country seems to live by “kid rules”. What I mean by “kid rules” is simply this: when you are a child, you are free to be imaginative and open without the burden of an adult understanding of the world. A 6 year old who dresses up as Superman or a princess in the course of imaginative play may have an awareness of the fact that they are not likely to develop the ability to fly or to kiss a frog and get a prince, but they are also not concerned about such things. They are simply enjoying the act of imagining. On Halloween, I’ve always felt that we all get that freedom, regardless of how old we are. I think that, if we polled many adults and asked them if they agreed with this assessment, they would say yes.

Why then, is the world so up in arms over this kid? For those of you who are unaware or don’t feel like looking at the link, a mom in Lee’s Summit, MO has written in her blog about her 5 year old son’s decision to dress as Daphne from Scooby Doo this Halloween, and the reaction to his costume from some of the other mothers at his preschool. According to the mom, whose name is Sarah, some of the other mothers were pretty disdainful toward her for allowing her son to dress like a female character. One even seemed to indicate that Sarah should have forbidden the costume in order to make sure that her son understood that he is not a girl. In short, these moms were acting like total dicks, but may be not in the way we think they were.

Many people have reacted to Sarah’s blog with a hearty “who cares if your son is gay?”

Others have reacted with the standard “OMG! You’re crazy. He’s going to now catch the gay!”

And now, we have on our hands the standard issue “Is it ok to be gay” debate, which leads to the even more annoying, ‘is it ok to encourage your kid to be gay” debate.

Neither of these debates are new, and neither of them are wrong, per say. However, neither of them should even apply here. While I think it is always a good idea to discuss issues of tolerance for those with different sexual orientations from our own and for those with different senses of identity from our own, I think it’s total bullshit that we are discussing this boy’s sexuality based on his Halloween costume. Furthermore, I think that, by doing this, we are ignoring several larger issues and actually continuing to damage the way our society approaches the gay and transgendered communities.

I know it may seem odd to say that people speaking out on behalf of a little boy’s seemingly homosexual tendencies is damaging to the gay and transgendered communities, but bear with me here. First of all, a five year old child’s desire to be a female cartoon character does not indicate that he will always and forever want to dress like a fem. Think about all the things that you played at as a child. If you can tell me honestly that you’ve grown up to be all these things, then I will grant you a pass on this one. You’re probably too busy being a firefighter/superhero/frog/teacher/astronaut to worry about the internet anyway. Since most of you are not in that category though, allow me to let you all in on a little secret: imaginative play does not always indicate anything other than imagination.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s focus on the bigger issue here. Not all transgendered people are gay. Many individuals who are transgendered are straight. This may seem like a bit of a statement of the obvious, but the fact that a little boy’s costume has caused so many people to come forward to discuss his potential homosexuality indicates that we are in drastic need of a whole lot more understanding here. So, let’s disregard the fact that his costume choice does not necessarily dictate that he is or will be transsexual or transgendered, and talk about the fact that gender identity and sexuality are not the same thing and when we view them as the same, we are damaging everyone by giving in to the same kind of limited and limiting thinking which has relegated both communities to the fringes of society for a very long time.

You see, the thing is that gender issues are not about sex. They are about identity. Identity, as anyone but the most vapid among us can demonstrate, is an extremely complex thing and sexuality is only one small part of that. When we view cross dressing as an indication of someone’s sexual preference, we are limiting that person and refusing to gain a real understanding of who they are. Likewise, when we view someone’s sexuality as the sole factor in their identity, we are limiting them without understanding them. Even if the intention behind it is to be helpful or supportive, which is certainly the case with most of the commenters on Sarah’s blog, the message is still a little bit wonky. What we are saying when we do this is that gay and transgendered people are different enough from what is normal to be placed into a flat two dimensional category which is relegated to the side and that one defining aspect is good enough for them.

It’s bad enough that we allow gender norms to dictate what is considered normal in our most superficial pursuits, but when we allow them to define an extremely diverse group of people as “others”, we are allowing them to dictate entire personalities. I wonder how any straight person who does not break gender norms in any way would feel if they were solely defined by one small factor of their personal identity. Let’s say, for instance, that Joe Blow is a straight male who likes to wear t-shirts. It would be wholly ridiculous if we looked at Joe over there and said “The fact that Joe wears T-shirts is the most important thing about him and dictates a variety of unrelated facts, therefore, when considering Joe, we need only consider his T-shirt.” Why then, do we do this to people who break gender norms? Are they suddenly not as complex and interesting as the rest of us? Or is it because somewhere, deep inside ourselves, we are terrified that we are not complex enough so we limit others as a defense? I suspect it is the latter, and that this mentality is exactly what is leading an entire country full of adults to go batshit insane over a 5 year old’s Halloween costume.



  1. "You’re probably too busy being a firefighter/superhero/frog/teacher/astronaut to worry about the internet anyway". Simply Lovely. 5 stars on that one.

  2. Well said. I agree that we should not be mapping adult characteristics of sexuality onto a 5 year old. I also love the example of Joe Blow and his T-shirt. What does Joe Blow do for a living anayway?

  3. I don't know what Joe Blow does. Maybe he makes T-shirts?