Never in the Closet?

A mother writing a blog called “Raising My Rainbow”, about “Adventures in raising a slightly effeminate, possibly gay, totally fabulous son”, asks whether it is possible to raise an LGBT child who never has to be in the closet, “thus making the coming out process (with the immediate family) obsolete?”

Sure, it’s possible, but I don’t think it depends entirely on how accepting or encouraging the parents may be. Even children who know that their parents don’t care whether they are gay or straight may nevertheless choose to conceal this aspect of their lives from the parents at some point. We’re still living in a culture that stigmatizes being gay, children are still teased for appearing to be different in various ways, and as children grow older they’ll learn about political conflicts over gay marriage, adoption, and other equal rights issues. Hopefully, things are easier when a child has supportive parents and has known this all along, but the pressures to be and stay in the closet come from other powerful sources too. The question posed here was specifically about “the immediate family,” as opposed to having a gay public identity, but I suspect the same forces could cause children to enter the “closet” even around their parents.

I admire the mother who writes that blog because she embraces her son no matter how he chooses to be, and I’m glad she is asking challenging questions about gender expectations. However, I have a few concerns about the story presented so far. First, I’m not sure why being “possibly gay” is tied to the non-gender-conforming behaviors of one child, but is not apparently tied to the more traditional preferences and behavior of their other male child. Perhaps children whose gendered expressions differ more from the norm are also more likely to be gay–I don’t know if evidence supports such a claim. Regardless, many gay adults are largely “gender-conforming”, and presumably this is also true of children. It seems parents who want to accept their kids as they are should avoid attaching labels, even qualified labels about “possible” gayness, to one child or another based on perceptions about non-traditional gender.

Second, a resistance to such definitions and labels seems particularly important when the child in question is still very young (preschool age, I believe). Children may develop preferences or behaviors early on that they retain throughout adulthood, and they may go through various stages that are quickly abandoned. Their expressions and interests may or may not match up neatly with the gender categories and boundaries typically recognized by adults in a particular culture. Why then bother marking “rainbow” behavior so keenly at this young age?

Third, it’s not as if children make completely free choices about what to prefer or avoid without being influenced by the surrounding culture. When a preschooler shows a marked interested in Barbie dolls, is it more noteworthy that this is unusual for a boy, or that we choose to offer children playthings like Barbie dolls in the first place? Perhaps we take special note when a girl wants to play hockey or a boy wants to be a figure skater, because of cultural perceptions about those sports, but we simply don’t bother much over gender when it comes to swimming, skiing, or soccer. From the perspective of the child choosing an enjoyable activity, though, our gendered associations may mean very little.

I hope I’m raising my children in such a way that they would find it comfortable to be honest and open about themselves. In the interest of achieving that, I don’t want to preemptively interpret their behaviors or preferences through the lens of this culture’s traditional gender associations.

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