By Jena Ardell
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By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
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By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
Ever since offering me his Barbie, Joseph has been grumpily ignoring me. His father and I have been chatting for an hour, dissecting his activities and behaviors in low voices just out of earshot. He may only be three and a half, but Joseph clearly knows that we've been trying to figure him out. And he doesn't like it.
According to most progressive-minded parents, doctors, and educators, Joseph's right to object. Labels are bad and restrictive, they say. The best and only thing to do for kids who express atypical gender and sexuality is to leave them alone and teach them to respect difference. It's a Free to Be You and Me mentality, and in practice it involves stressing that there are "different kinds of boys" and "different kinds of girls."
"If we could just allow people to choose what is right for them, then this wouldn't be so difficult," says Stephanie Brill, a midwife and gender educator in California who runs a teaching program called Gender Spectrum. "We're not always talking about sexual orientation and gender identitywe're actually talking about personal preference. Some of these kids are gay, some of them aren't, but if we support them when they're young, they'll be healthy." It's a beautiful goal, but to make it work, you have to accept that kids will occupy points across the whole range of difference. If they never hear about gayness in schools, gay kids will be a lot longer in understanding who they are.
"I think adults are rightly wary of trying to force kids into the labels and preconceptions that we have," says Dee Michel, a former assistant professor of library science at the University of Wisconsin who's writing a book about the importance of the Wizard of Oz in the childhoods of gay men. "But when the kids are initiating it, I think adults can be a lot more sensitive."
From his research, Michel has seen how gay children appreciate having gay role models to look up to, and right now, they don't have any. "In schools today, you have kids' books about two mommies, but no books talk about gay kids," he says. "Just adults. That's one of the things The Wizard of Oz does. There are these images and scenes that resonate with these gay kids and pre-gay kids."
One of Michel's respondents, a gay man named Eric Rofes, wrote a moving description of how Oz helped him as a young gay child. "I think the general narrative of lots of the Oz books I read as a child . . . helped me find comfort from the more problematic narratives of my day-to-day real life," he wrote. "In a nutshell, these books told the story of a small group of misfits, who claimed and enjoyed identities that seemed at odds with the staid and regimented identities of 'normal' folks, who were pursued and persecuted. They found creative and daring ways to escape this persecution and, at the end, often ascended to positions of glory and respect in their culture. As a child who was bullied for being gender-nonconforming (girlish, nonathletic, studious, emotional) and who often felt trapped and without recourse, these stories offered me a happier ending to my own story."
Without that hope of a happy ending, all kids, gay or not, will be worse off. Which is why Allan Acevedo, the Point scholar who's only a few years out of puberty himself, thinks that adults should just get over it.
"You should lose the assumption that your child will be born heterosexual," says Acevedo. "If you're having children and you're not allowing the discussion of gayness, you're not allowing the option to exist."
No one's saying all gay kids know they're gay by the age of naptime and cookies. It's just that some do, and some know they're different but not why, and most will eventually figure it out.
"Why should their chance of arriving at adolescence in a relatively intact, healthy, well-adjusted state be compromised by an unwillingness to acknowledge that they're headed to their adolescence from birth?" asks Will Fellows. "The fact is that the lives of many young people, now increasingly even earlier than junior-high-school age, are redeemed and sometimes saved by being able to see a label and recognize the connection that it has to what's going on within them.
"Labels," he says, "are tremendously valuable things."