October 17, 2022

Gender Nonconformity and Culture Wars

Jenny Enos author photoBy Jenny Enos

For the past few years, an unprecedented “culture war” has been brewing in the U.S. While contemporary issues of race, class, sexuality, gender, and abortion (just to name a few) have deep historical roots, our current hyper-polarized climate has amplified each of these debates to the point where each side feels that their very existence is threatened by the other. We have recently seen this sense of threat escalate to violence numerous times: from the insurrection on January 6th 2021, to parents fighting at local school board meetings, to deadly massacres driven by white supremacist ideology.

One recent, explosive development in this culture war is the debate around children’s sexuality and gender. Just this year, an unprecedented number of legislative bills have been introduced across the country that aim to “erode protections for transgender and gay youth” and to limit discussions about gender and sexuality in classrooms. This legislative pushback comes as teachers are being accused of “indoctrinating” or even “grooming” students by parents and politicians who are concerned that discussing sexuality and gender identity will strip children of their innocence. As part of a larger effort to consolidate more power in the hands of parents to make their own decisions for their children – the so-called “parental rights” movement – school districts across the country have been forced to change curricula and even remove books from school libraries that a minority of parents deem inappropriate. The argument is that parents, and parents alone, should decide whether and when to have conversations about “sensitive topics” with their children – not teachers.

Meanwhile, parents on the other side of the debate are welcoming and even encouraging “gender nonconformity” in their children. As opposed to strictly adhering to the social rules about how boys and girls should e.g. behave and dress (what sociologists refer to as gender norms), gender nonconformity refers to behaviors and expressions that do not align with societal expectations of how a person of a certain gender should behave. From birth, some parents are raising their children as neither boys nor girls, thus letting the children explore and figure out their gender identity on their own. More commonly, parents find themselves having to adjust after their children express that they identify as gender nonconforming or transgender. Interestingly enough, many parents of gender nonconforming children often report that it is the negative or dismissive reactions of other adults to the child’s identity – of other family members, friends, or teachers – that is the most challenging part of raising a gender nonconforming child. Of course, in many cases, those negative or dismissive reactions also come from the parents themselves, who may be unsupportive of their child’s gender nonconformity.

In sociological terms, how can we explain parents’ attitudes toward their children’s gender nonconformity? And in what situations are parents more likely to be supportive of their children breaking gender norms? In a recently published article in Sociological Forum, Lawrence Stacey conducts a survey experiment that shows that parents are more supportive and less upset when girls break gender norms than they are when boys do the same. The author argues that this discrepancy is the result of societal belief structures that privilege masculinity over femininity, leading parents to feel greater concern when boys behave in feminine ways than when girls behave in masculine ways. Because of the high value of masculinity, boys “stand to lose more” by not conforming to gender roles, causing parents to be more concerned by boys’ gender nonconformity than girls’.

Importantly, this study suggests that much of the narrative of “concern” about children’s gender identity is ultimately rooted in patriarchy and misogyny. If society did not devalue femininity and women to the extent that it does, perhaps there would be more acceptance of gender nonconformity – especially for children assigned male at birth. 

Comments

It is an empirical question whether young boys are always being ridiculed for effeminacy and thus expected to act more masculine which tends to be aggressive. An important issue is where these attitudes are coming from concerning nonconformity: from the studies in social psychology regarding conformity by Asch or Milgram? What I find objectionable is that the biological information regarding sexuality is not being provided to young children who do not know what sexuality is all about. Another issue is the ecological relation between our overcrowded nation and alternative sexual strategies related to dispositions towards reproduction and family.

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