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Problem With Sissy Boys? Get Over It!

Pathologizing cross-gender behavior is culturally bound.

Lately, there has been quite a focus in the media on sissy boys. A J. Crew ad featuring a toddler with pink painted toenails, a recent article in The New York Times about children with cross-gendered interests, and the surfacing of a tragic story about the suicide of Kirk Murphy — who as a boy received a harsh "therapy" to "cure" his girlishness — all suggests the beginning of a growing acceptance of sissy behavior in boys. As a gay man and former (and, at times current) sissy boy myself, I applaud this small but hopefully growing movement.

It is important to recognize that pathologizing cross-gender behavior is culturally bound. In contrast to Western society, there are indigenous cultures in which cross-gendered behaviors are respected, even revered as markers of intellectual and spiritual superiority.

For certain Native American tribes, a man who acts like a woman or a woman with manly characteristics is seen as having "two-spirits" and is believed to be imbued with mystical holy powers. As a matter of fact, in many of these cultures, children were sometimes encouraged by their parents to "fake" a tendency to act like the opposite gender so that the family could get the benefits of having a holy member. Elaborate tests would be conducted to make sure that a young son, for example, wasn't feigning "sissyhood."

Getting back to our own culture, it would be nice to think that our world is finally wising up and seeing that, at the very least, it is no big deal if a boy acts like a girl. However, make no mistake: We are not there yet.

The growing backlash, particularly to the toddler with the toenail polish, suggests that the norms governing gender role behavior and appearances are still so firmly entrenched in our society that it can be deeply troubling when people violate them. We are uncomfortable with short-haired women with deep voices who wear masculine clothing and work in construction. We are perhaps even more discomfited by males who sway their hips when they walk and wear cosmetics and feminine clothing ( that scent in the air the smell of misogyny?).

It is still particularly upsetting for parents to see such behaviors in their children. In my study of 65 gay and lesbian youth and their families, the parents, like most of us, were raised to believe that there are clear distinctions between the ways men and women are meant to act, and this may have contributed to the discomfort parents felt when they observed cross-gendered behavior in their daughters and sons. Parental adjustment to a child's sexual orientation was hindered if children behaved or groomed themselves in ways that were cross-gendered and corresponded to the prevailing stereotypes.

Sometimes, parents felt that their children who chose to appear identifiably gay were putting themselves in harm's way. They correctly understood that among certain segments of our society, presenting oneself as a feminine man is like waving a red flag in front of an angry bull. As stated by one mother of a gay son:

His flamboyancy is hindering because I do get concerned about that sometimes. It seems to me that he is saying out loud, 'Somebody bother me!' You know how heterosexuals are so mean. Some of them are horrible, and when you act flamboyant, to me you are just saying 'Here I am.' And that worries me.

However, for other parents, a feminine male made them feel just plain uncomfortable. As stated by this mother: "I don't care if you are homosexual or not. I just like men who look like men and act like men."

Allen, a father of two gay sons, felt lucky that neither of them acted in feminine ways, but he talked about how shameful it must be for parents who had an effeminate son:

I am sure that I really wouldn't have as easy of a time if either of my sons were flamboyantly effeminate. My kids are anything but an embarrassment to me. They are really a source of pride.

I think it takes a remarkable parent to really be able to be so accepting when the kids do stuff like that ... It is a call for attention, I think, on their part. It's hard for me to imagine that a kid is not aware that there are ramifications for their family when they do this and to be indifferent about it ... They must realize the way their parents might be affected by their own behavior ... And the fact is that my kids made it incredibly easy for me because they never did present themselves that way.

What is perhaps even more disturbing to me as a gay man is the "sissyphobia" within significant segments of the gay male community. Gay men all too frequently refer to each other as "big queens" and stigmatize those who are "bottoms" or who prefer the passive role during intercourse. Perusing the personal ads on various gay websites, it seems that the majority of gay men state they are seeking "real men" and "no femmes" (There's that smell again...) Furthermore, hypermasculinity is erotized in media and messages aimed at gay men. It is sad to think that rather than liberating ourselves from the iron-bound gender role expectations that have served to oppress us, many gay men have adopted and in fact may be helping to foster them.

Nevertheless, the more recent movement toward accepting and embracing feminine behavior in boys is cause for optimism. Perhaps someday we will all realize that rejecting or pathologizing a "sissy" reflects a problem in society rather than a sickness in the brave young man who chooses to act and live the way he was meant to. I, for one, hope that day comes soon.

More from Michael C. LaSala Ph.D., LCSW
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More from Michael C. LaSala Ph.D., LCSW
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