I recently started a new job, which only partially explains my four month blogging hiatus. The remaining explanations all relate to my especially poor decisions in the world of romance. More on that to come. First, the new job: I have to wear a suit and tie daily for no reason other than to make us look way more important than we are. I hated the idea at first. I’ve never liked ties and previously owned few suits. Despite the fun I had shopping and all the ways I have found to add color and variety to my new wardrobe, there is still something very stiff and boring about a suit and tie dress code. But there is something even worse than the collective yawn of suiting up everyday: the way it demands conformity and stymies self-expression.
I do not fancy myself a particularly subversive sort. Save a few brazen color choices, I generally blend in. But the “dress code” makes me fear for Bryce, my now four and a half year-old son, whose fashion tastes lead him straight to his twin sister’s side of the closet.
In my old job, I could have walked into the office in sweatpants and the only remark would have been that it was unlike me. Me — not a socially constructed idea of who I should be or what I should look like. It was a small office and a really tightknit group of people who were, in all their dysfunctional glory, like family. Now, it’s Corporate America, where dress codes matter. And, it’s not just because we don’t want clients walking into meetings to find their lawyers in tanks and sweats. (Or do we?) It’s because, despite how progressive some might find mainstream American culture, there is still not a lot of room for all the variations of me. We are all expected to look and present ourselves a certain, predetermined way. Me isn’t actually welcome, despite all the diversity initiatives Corporate American can dream up. If diversity is in fact a goal, it’s diversity in a box–wearing a suit and tie.
The first time Bryce wanted to wear a dress, the three of us were swash-buckling around the house with hooks for hands and fairy wings for good measure. Bryce was the “pirate princess.” But, when he asked to wear the pirate princess dress outside, I recoiled, “we don’t wear our dress-up outside,” thinking (hoping?) that would be the end of it.
It wasn’t long before Bryce pulled a dress from among Jane’s things and asked to wear it to school. While I hope that I didn’t let him see it, I struggled. As much as I want my children to always feel safe and accepted, if I’m being honest, I did not want him to wear the dress. I tried to convince myself that he didn’t really want the dress. He idiolizes his 30-second older sister, he just wants whatever she does. She doesn’t care whether it’s a dress, just as long as it’s flashy. The more glitter and rhinestones, the better. This is all Twins’ Mom. She loves to be controversial and would be elated to present her gender nonconformist son in a dress. He got that message and is trying to please her. Despite TM’s open embrace of many a subversive idea (sometimes just for the sake of controversy), there was no dress coaching. What was I thinking?! “Yes, Bryce, you can wear that dress, but let’s throw some shorts on underneath.”
Thinking that maybe his wardrobe wasn’t exciting enough, I took him to the store to look at some fun–and I’ll admit traditionally boy–clothes. TM had been in charge of the clothes shopping to that point, and she prioritized especially gender neutral clothing, her focus solely on avoiding Jane’s indoctrinization into a pinkified princess culture. As a result of TM’s efforts to avoid telegraphing traditional gender roles, the Twins’ wardrobe came to be characterized by dulled earth tones with as little pink as possible (incidentally, reflecting TM’s personal style.) A bit of a snooze if you’re a four-year-old. My intervention revealed two things: 1) pink and Elsa are unavoidable, and 2) Bryce really did want that dress…and more of them.
Why did I initially shudder when my son slid into a calf-length flower print? Because I’m an awful excuse for a single gay father who can’t see the hypocracy in denying my son his own identity? I sure hope not. Was it because society insists on a restrictive, heteronormative view of gender, which we all buy in to, either unknowingly or despite our better judgement? Perhaps. The gender binary is so deeply engrained in who we are as human beings. It pervades all cultures, and works its way to our young children in the dichotomy of Princesses vs. Power Rangers. You can have one or the other. And, you best pick the right one–the one that fits with what you look like on the outside–so that the world continues to make sense to the rest of us. We need our boxes.
No one really understands Bryce’s choice. His one grandmother didn’t understand why telling him “boys don’t wear dresses” might not be the best response. The other didn’t understand why we stopped her from immediately changing Bryce into the sailor’s outfit (just as painful as Elsa!) that she kept stashed away for use when he would visit. And, at first, I didn’t understand why suggesting that he wear the Batman shirt instead of a dress might be signaling that I don’t accept him. The point is, children can in fact make choices. And this is his. I’ve watched that choice unfold over and over again: when confronted with multiple traditionally gendered and unisex outfits, he almost always chooses a dress. One of the most interesting things is that this choice is just about dresses, not “girl” clothing. Bryce pays almost no mind to girl clothing other than dresses. Once, when handed a longer “girly” shirt that flared out at the bottom, he corrected me “this is not long enough. I want a dress.”
A few weeks into the new job, as I was struggling with Bryce’s dress code, I was sitting in my office. Just me. Floors below the communal space where it’s all fancy, all the time. No clients. No firm brass to impress. I slightly loosened the knot of my tie, and undid the top button — the one meant to cut off your air supply. Moments later the leader of my group stops by. Idle chitchat, followed, by a motion to the neck. “You’re gonna want to tighten that up.” And so I did.
The interaction made me wonder how Bryce felt when his grandmother, or even I, suggested that he shouldn’t wear a dress. Was he getting the message that it was not okay to be whoever it is that he is becoming? At only 4 years-old, was society’s constricted view of gender cutting off his air supply? The next morning he excitedly showed me the way the dress flaps around when he twirls. My eyes welled up. The kid inside–the one who was viscously bullied for being gay–wanted to save Bryce from anything resembling that kind of pain. The man who is emerging–the one who struggled to accept himself enough to step out of the closet–was filled with pride for the way this little person fearlessly grasped his identity.
So, what does all this say about Bryce? What does it mean about his gender identity? His sexuality? I have no idea. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps it’s the beginning of a difficult road ahead. Or — maybe — it’s just a dress, and the rest will fall into place.