The other day we were at the park with some friends. One of the boys ran by and his father said, with disgust, "He runs like a girl." I was pretty floored. Floored enough that I didn't say anything. Someone said, "Oh leave him alone he's only five." Later in the car, I sat for a moment thinking of what I should have said. I should have said "Who cares? What's wrong with running like a girl?" I run and I bet five bucks I can run faster than the guy who made the comment. And what does it mean to run like a girl?
My friend Julie posted this on Facebook: "I have often thought that homophobia is an extension of misogyny. That there is a strong, unspoken, often unrecognized belief that women and anything feminine is inherently less than everything masculine - and anybody who adopts any female qualities is somehow less than." H pointed out when I told him this that men can't deal with men acting feminine because they can't understand why somebody would want to embody that lack. And I think they are both right. Homophobia is about many things and one of those things is the feminine and what that means. To want to be a woman is seen as a flaw, a weakness. It is meet with disgust and violence. To have womanly qualities is seen as bad, and ultimately wrong. Why do so many men not want their sons to "act like a woman?" Why do they say them "Why are you crying like a little girl?" Why do they stop cuddling their boys after a certain age? What is wrong with acting like a woman (whatever that may mean?).
Shortly after this comment is made, my own son comes running from the creek. He runs awkwardly all skinny limbs. Not graceful and certainly not "manly." His elbows are tucked near his hips and his hands flop from his upward held wrists. He looks like the stereotype of a gay man running. He is flushed and happy because he has been taking photos. I do not look at the man who made the earlier comment. My son is not five. He is ten. If I see disgust, I feel like I might smack this man in the face.
There was a time when my son's hand gestures, the way he crosses his legs at the knee would not have been seen as womanly. Judith Butler argues "If one 'is' a woman, that is surely not all one is; the term fails to be exhaustive, not because a pregendered 'person' transcends the specific paraphernalia of its gender, but because gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts, and because gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities"(Gender Trouble, 6). Gender is something that is never stable as it transforms not just through history but through different social places we inhabit. Gender is free floating in some ways but also incredibly limiting because it imposes itself onto our bodies, and we learn through culture how to shape the way we carry our bodies in gendered ways. Look at this painting of George Washington:
I can't imagine a modern US general posing like this for a portrait. The very way our bodies move are mired in historical conceptions of masculine and feminine.
My son at ten would be bullied if he were in school. Of this I have no doubt. H and I both taught long enough to witness what happens to kids who hold themselves the way that my son holds himself. It is not the parents who will do this although they carry the attitudes themselves. Sometimes I even worry in our homeschooling groups that some kid is going to notice and say something. I don't think that saying "Hey dude George Washington held himself this way." is going to make much of an impression among preteens. At ten, my son is not holding himself this way because he is gay. He is not interested in boys or girls sexually. Well if he is not sharing the information with us. He knows that he's free to be interested in whatever gender he wants. We don't care. But he's just not telling us and we don't push.
But I have to confess that I do wonder if I should warn him that people might comment on the way he holds his body. I haven't because I also feel like this will wound him fairly deeply. I do not want him to be self conscious about his lovely body. He is already headed into that awkward stage where he becomes intensely self-conscious. This has come at a time when he is also feeling a little of out of control of his body due to his epilepsy. But then I am scared that someone else is going to say something. And they won't be kind about it.
I do not care how my beautiful son runs or how he holds himself. He has lovely qualities that some might call feminine. I don't label them. I just nourish them because they are good qualities for humans to have: compassion, nurturing, gentleness. I want my son to grow to be a good human. Not a good man. Or a good woman. Just human in a way that recognizes the human in others around him.
(Yes this is partially by the influence "My Son is Gay" post that has been all over Facebook today but it's also mostly been percolating in my head since the rash of suicides by young gay men over the last month. I have been struggling to find the words for what I wanted to say about bullying, my son, and the fear I have for him. My disclaimer is basically no I didn't just jump on her post.)