Gender-Variant Children Are Teaching Us That Girls Are Still The ‘Lesser Gender’

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gender variant childrenGender-variant kids aren’t necessarily LGBTQ kids. A little girl who wants to play with trucks and pretend to be a firefighter is to be upheld as a bad ass contradiction to every Barbie that ever existed. But a little boy who wears princess dresses is reason to sound the parental alarm. To start Googling terms like “hormone blockers” and “genderqueer” and send out mass emails to playgroup about your child’s personal interpretation of gender. Such are the quandaries of the parents in The New York Times Magazine second big piece this year exploring gender and children. And yet the disparities between what constitutes a “gender alarm” for our sons versus our daughters — or any other gender identification between — lets us firmly know that being born male is considered better. Even now.

In the Times’ exploration of many parents’ struggles to properly parent their gender-variant kids, it’s noted that being a “tomboy” is more of a pat on the back for our modern girls rather than a derogatory descriptive. Films like Brave may have quite a lot to offer princess culture, which is still replete with problematic messages. And even though running around carrying a bow and arrow without a boyfriend may have some critics floating the idea that said little girl is our first lesbian princess, girls who waltz into previously male-dominated arenas are almost uniformly applauded. The Google science fair has awarded another genius young girl for the second year in a row. Stories like that of Our Lady of Sorrows, whose team famously refused to finish a game of baseball against a girl, are in the minority. This isn’t to suggest that anomalous achievements by girls should be exemplified to convey that girls are uniformly all right, as with 6-year-olds looking to up their sex appeal, there are still a rainbow of concerns we should be having about them.

But when the metaphorical pink princess castle is tipped the other way, it seems that where we root for our daughters to boldly obliterate gender norms, our eyebrows furrow for our sons. For every little girl who picks up a baseball bat, there is some parent somewhere shushing their boy from playing with Barbies in public. The Times points out that that isn’t only evidenced in how we think about toys, but even baby names, as it was reported last year that Americans love “gender-bending” baby names — but only for girls. A little girl named Maxwell Drew or Wyatt, as we’ve seen from celebrity mothers, is considered edgy or cool, whereas a boy named Madison is reason for people to squint over your baby announcement.

“The shift,” the Times notes, comes down to basic sexism. Boys are better than girls:

The shift, however, almost never goes the other way. That’s because girls gain status by moving into “boy” space, while boys are tainted by the slightest whiff of femininity. “There’s a lot more privilege to being a man in our society,” says Diane Ehrensaft, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who supports allowing children to be what she calls gender creative. “When a boy wants to act like a girl, it subconsciously shakes our foundation, because why would someone want to be the lesser gender?”

It’s this exact “status gain” that has parents of gender-variant kids rushing their kids off to therapists at completely different rates — and for much different behaviors:

Boys are up to seven times as likely as girls to be referred to gender clinics for psychological evaluations. Sometimes the boys’ violation is as mild as wanting a Barbie for Christmas. By comparison, most girls referred to gender clinics are far more extreme in their atypicality: they want boy names, boy pronouns and, sometimes, boy bodies.

Phrases like “throwing like a girl” might silence a modern baseball field of parents, but the underlying sentiment of that statement remains the same and continues to thrive in not just our conversations surrounding gender-variant or LGBTQ children, but also how we raise cisgendered girls. Don’t be fooled. Just because we’re all breaking into smiles over a possible engineering LEGO set “for girls” doesn’t mean that our daughters are necessarily eons away from the notion that they can’t do math. Until even that “whiff of femininity” doesn’t seem like an inherent downgrade for boys, girls are still absolutely perceived as the second sex.

(photo: olly/ Shutterstock)


  1. Debbie Lindsay

    August 9, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    Round of applause! I posed this argument to a friend of mine a couple of weeks back and she just stared at me with horror (of realisation, because she new it was true).

    Until it is completely okay for a boy to want to wear a tutu for a halloween costume as it is for this… we still have a long way to go.

  2. CCP

    August 12, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    You make it sound like a bad thing that girls are being encouraged to express themselves and do all the same things boys do. I don’t think you understand that this isn’t a reason to be anti-feminist. All this you speak of is the result of oppositional sexism, where for all the anti-feminist and sexist beliefs people tend to hold against girls and women, there is also an antecedent allegory for men. For example, for each person who thinks women should stay in the kitchen, those same people also believe that men should stay out of the kitchen, and it’s not fair. Everyone suffers for living in a sexist society, not just women. Those who want to do away with oppositional sexism could learn and do a lot by teaming up with the feminists.

    • Xyzzy

      August 13, 2012 at 2:35 am

      Re-read it with your outrage button set to low… The article states clearly that the difference in reactions for boys/girls acting like their counterparts is based on the real problem, which is our society feeling that girls are inferior. It’s calling not for girls to be discouraged or non-encouraged from tomboyish behavior, but for boys to be given the same latitude and (more importantly) society dropping the notion that one side is better than the other.

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  4. 8ball

    August 13, 2012 at 11:32 pm

    Maybe once parents stop treating their sons-who-wear-dresses as some sort of talisman that they can hold up to the world and scream “LOOK HOW PROGRESSIVE AND TOLERANT I AM! GIVE ME KUDOS!” and using their gender-bending offspring as sideshow fodder to get their own fifteen minutes of fame, and actually START treating those kids as, well, normal… gee, maybe then society will stop gawping… for awhile anyway.

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  6. Johnny Noir

    August 18, 2012 at 11:06 am

    Remember Jayne County? Vaughn Bode’? David Bowie? Divine? — Dressing up like a girl? Playing with dolls? “Gender-Variant”? We used to call that Glitter Rock.

  7. katia

    September 5, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    “When a boy wants to act like a girl, it subconsciously shakes our foundation, because why would someone want to be the lesser gender?”
    (your quote from ‘1 psychologist from 1 university’) no.
    when in doubt ask a mom, koa.
    it would frighten me if one of my sons acted feminine (even though i put my older one (other is a baby) in ballet and piano and gymnasticss, not soccer, etc)
    the fear is nothing about lesser gender. its all about the bullying and depression and suicide and gay murders (straight men murdering gay men) that i read about in the news.
    if one of my sons is a happy feminine gay man one day im fine with that. but i will be a fearful mom if i have a gay son in today’s highschools. for his own safety and happiness.
    tell me why i dont need to be scared of that
    it has nothing to do with lesser gender

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  9. Mark Daniels

    April 15, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    this is exactly the point. what women have failed to realize during this so called feminist revolution, is that it only went one way, that of the male privilege. how they missed this point, other than because it was easier to assail is beyond me, and I’ve thought about that aspect since the 70’s. actually, I think I know the answer. not only would a girl get “his” privileges in this culture, but she gets to keep hers to herself too. how grossly unfair is that????

  10. Justin Reese

    June 16, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    as stated on the website,, feminism is a gender-identity issue. it is a gender-identity issue to advocate for the little gender with the words “a woman can do anything a man can do”. this is because anyone’s gender is a matter of reality, and anyone’s identity is merely a matter of self-understanding (or of self-misunderstanding). gender-identity is a matter of the understanding (or misunderstanding) of one’s own gender. “a woman can do anything a man can do” is a gender-identity issue because it is based on (mis)understandings of the female gender. it is for this reason that i understand feminism as a gender-identity issue. a woman simply cannot do anything a man can do, this point is justified by every gender-based physical competition (olympics, military requirements, hot dog eating competitions, weightlifting competitions, etc)…as well as the gender-based competitions that have slipped my mind.

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