Pink Boys, Tomboys, and Bias

There’s been a lot of coverage of pink boys in the media this year, which, on the one hand, is really exciting. I like seeing people discussing gender nonconforming children and talking about the various forms gender expression can take. And the more information is out there, the more comfortable parents can feel. Instead of feeling alienated and distanced from their children, they can find out that their kids are far from being freakish figures of horror, and that there are resources out there for them.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, pink boys are, in essence, boys who enjoy femmeing it up. Not necessarily all the time, but sometimes. Maybe they wear dresses and skirts, prefer long hair, play with makeup and jewelry. This doesn’t mean they’re experiencing conflict with the gender assigned at birth, although in some cases that is definitely happening, nor does it mean they’re gay. The deeper meaning of the gender expression depends on the individual child, and the more the child is able to explore, express, and talk about it, the more comfortable the child will feel when it comes to talking about what it means.

One so-called pink boy might actually be a girl who needs appropriate treatment as a transgender patient. Another might grow up to be a heterosexual cis man who happens to have a good eye for frocks. Another might grow out of the phase entirely, enjoying femme genderplay for a few years in childhood and then moving on to other things. In a supportive environment where every garment doesn’t come with a loaded context, children can feel more free to be themselves, and in the process, find out who they are.

But there’s one thing about the coverage that troubles me, and that’s the need some people seem to have to play a form of oppression Olympics, suggesting that pink boys have it worse than other gender variant children, particularly more butch girls. ‘Tomboys,’ we’re informed, ‘don’t experience the kind of pushback pink boys do.’ Seeing that statement makes me want to claw someone’s eyes out because it’s not true, and it’s also not very productive. It doesn’t add anything to the conversation, nor does it help address deeper issues about gender presentation and stigma.

Because, uh, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but tomboys absolutely do experience stigma, judgment, and general nastiness from other children as well as adults around them. They’re punished for not being ‘traditional girls’ just as pink boys are stigmatised for not being ‘traditional boys.’ To be a tomboy means being taunted for your practical clothes, for not having a fashion sense, for wearing torn jeans and casual shirts that you can be rough and wild in. It means being told you’d look so much prettier if you put on a dress now and then, or ‘did something’ with your hair, or learned how to use makeup.

It means your parents and other adults insinuate you’ll probably grow up to be a lesbian (as though there’s something wrong with that) on the basis of how you dress and behave. If you’re a girl who likes field hockey and prefers climbing trees to playing princess, obviously you’re suspect and should be closely watched. Tomboys in unwelcoming families may be actively punished for expressing themselves the way they want to, while in others, they may be met with perplexity by parents who aren’t sure what to do with them, while other children on the playground mock them for not performing femininity well enough.

Even being an athlete doesn’t save you from nasty commentary. If you’re a tomboy who participates in school sports you’ll get some points for that, but you’ll also be reminded that when you’re not at practice or games, you need to go into girl mode. You should wear nice dresses and pretty things at school during the day, for example, and should gussy up for events in outfits becoming a girl. If you prefer to wear suits or more masculine clothing, or dress casually, you will absolutely be singled out and punished for it.

Claiming that tomboys don’t experience prejudice, that they can’t be at risk of bullying, taunts, assaults, and other problems, is ridiculous. Suggesting that pink boys have it worse or they’re the only ones who experience that kind of discrimination writes off the very real and sometimes painful experiences of tomboys. And it doesn’t do anything meaningful to change the way people think about gender, presentation, and expression. If you want people to talk about gender nonconforming children, to make a world that is safer for them, you need to openly admit that they all experience discrimination and social problems.

While these problems may vary in nature, it doesn’t mean one group suffers more than another. The parents of a tomboy and the parents of a pink boy are going to face different issues with their children, and they’re going to need to work with their children in different ways to keep them happy, safe, and supported, but playing a comparison game to see who’s the most troubled doesn’t serve anyone. The focus here should be kept on expanding conversations, not narrowing them; and parents working on awareness campaigns to promote the cause of gender variant children shouldn’t be hurting their own community by undermining the lived experiences of other children, their families, and their friends.

There’s nothing wrong with saying that pink boys experience unique forms of discrimination and can face a rough road, especially in conservative communities and areas where people aren’t familiar with gender variant children. This is an absolutely true statement, and it highlights the need to create safer spaces for children. More critically, it accomplishes the goal of discussing gender variance in children without suggesting that other gender variant children don’t matter as much, or shouldn’t be a priority.