HOUSTON — Wearing brick-red scrubs and chatting in Spanish, Miguel Alquicira
settled a tiny girl into an adult-size dental chair and soothed her through a
set of X-rays. Then he ushered the dentist, a woman, into the room and stayed on
to serve as interpreter.
A male dental assistant, Mr. Alquicira is in the minority. But he is also part
of a distinctive, if little noticed, shift in workplace gender patterns. Over
the last decade, men have begun flocking to fields long the province of women.
Mr. Alquicira, 21, graduated from high school in a desolate job market, one in
which the traditional opportunities, like construction and manufacturing, for
young men without a college degree had dried up. After career counselors told
him that medical fields were growing, he borrowed money for an eight-month
training course. Since then, he has had no trouble finding jobs that pay $12 or
$13 an hour.
He gave little thought to the fact that more than 90 percent of dental
assistants and hygienists are women. But then, young men like Mr. Alquicira have
come of age in a world of inverted expectations, where women far outpace men in
earning degrees and tend to hold jobs that have turned out to be, by and large,
more stable, more difficult to outsource, and more likely to grow.
“The way I look at it,” Mr. Alquicira explained, without a hint of awareness
that he was turning the tables on a time-honored feminist creed, “is that
anything, basically, that a woman can do, a guy can do.”
After years of economic pain, Americans remain an optimistic lot, though they
define the American dream not in terms of mansions and luxury cars but as
something more basic — a home, a college degree, financial security and enough
left over for a few extras like dining out, according to a study by the Pew
Center on the States’ Economic Mobility Project. That financial security usually
requires a steady full-time job with benefits, something that has become harder
to find, particularly for men and for those without a college degree. While
women continue to make inroads into prestigious, high-wage professions dominated
by men, more men are reaching for the dream in female-dominated occupations that
their fathers might never have considered.
The trend began well before the crash, and appears to be driven by a variety of
factors, including financial concerns, quality-of-life issues and a gradual
erosion of gender stereotypes. An analysis of census data by The New York Times
shows that from 2000 to 2010, occupations that are more than 70 percent female
accounted for almost a third of all job growth for men, double the share of the
That does not mean that men are displacing women — those same occupations
accounted for almost two-thirds of women’s job growth. But in Texas, for
example, the number of men who are registered nurses nearly doubled in that time
period, rising from just over 9 percent of nurses to almost 12 percent. Men make
up 23 percent of Texas public schoolteachers, but almost 28 percent of
The shift includes low-wage jobs as well. Nationally, two-thirds more men were
bank tellers, almost twice as many were receptionists and two-thirds more were
waiting tables in 2010 than a decade earlier.
Even more striking is the type of men who are making the shift. From 1970 to
1990, according to a study by Mary Gatta, the senior scholar at Wider
Opportunities for Women, and Patricia A. Roos, a sociologist at Rutgers, men who
took so-called pink-collar jobs tended to be foreign-born non-English speakers
with low education levels — men who, in other words, had few choices.
Now, though, the trend has spread among men of nearly all races and ages, more
than a third of whom have a college degree. In fact, the shift is most
pronounced among young, white, college-educated men like Charles Reed, a
sixth-grade math teacher at Patrick Henry Middle School in Houston.
Mr. Reed, 25, intended to go to law school after a two-year stint with Teach for
America, but he fell in love with the job. Though he says the recession had
little to do with his career choice, he believes the tough times that have
limited the prospects for new law school graduates have also helped make his
father, a lawyer, more accepting.
Still, Mr. Reed said of his father, “In his mind, I’m just biding time until I
decide to jump into a better profession.”
To the extent that the shift to “women’s work” has been accelerated by
recession, the change may reverse when the economy recovers. “Are boys today
saying, ‘I want to grow up and be a nurse?’ ” asked Heather Boushey, senior
economist at the Center for American Progress. “Or are they saying, ‘I want a
job that’s stable and recession proof?’ ”
In interviews, however, about two dozen men played down the economic
considerations, saying that the stigma associated with choosing such jobs had
faded, and that the jobs were appealing not just because they offered stable
employment, but because they were more satisfying.
“I.T. is just killing viruses and clearing paper jams all day,” said Scott
Kearney, 43, who tried information technology and other fields before becoming a
nurse in the pediatric intensive care unit at Children’s Memorial Hermann
Hospital in Houston.
Daniel Wilden, a 26-year-old Army veteran and nursing student at the University
of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, said he had gained respect for
nursing when he saw a female medic use a Leatherman tool to save the life of his
comrade. “She was a beast,” he said admiringly.
More than a few men said their new jobs had turned out to be far harder than
But these men can expect success. Men earn more than women even in
female-dominated jobs. And white men in particular who enter those fields easily
move up to supervisory positions, a phenomenon known as the glass escalator — as
opposed to the glass ceiling that women encounter in male-dominated professions,
said Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociologist at Georgia State University. More men
in an occupation can also raise wages for everyone, though as yet men’s share of
these jobs has not grown enough to have an overall effect on pay.
“Simply because higher-educated men are entering these jobs does not mean that
it will result in equality in our workplaces,” said Ms. Gatta of Wider
Opportunities for Women.
Still, economists have long tried to figure out how to encourage more
integration in the work force. Now, it seems to be happening of its own accord.
“I hated my job every single day of my life,” said John Cook, 55, who got a
modest inheritance that allowed him to leave the company where he earned
$150,000 a year as a database consultant and enter nursing school.
His starting salary will be about a third what he once earned, but database
consulting does not typically earn hugs like the one Mr. Cook recently received
from a girl after he took care of her premature baby sister. “It’s like, people
get paid for doing this kind of stuff?” Mr. Cook said, choking up as he
recounted the episode.
Several men cited the same reasons for seeking out pink-collar work that have
drawn women to such careers: less stress and more time at home. At John G.
Osborne Elementary, Adrian Ortiz, 42, joked that he was one of the few Mexicans
who made more in his native country, where he was a hard-working lawyer, than he
did in the United States as a kindergarten teacher in a bilingual classroom.
“Now,” he said, “my priorities are family, 100 percent.”
Betsey Stevenson, a labor economist at the Wharton School at the University of
Pennsylvania, said she was not surprised that changing gender roles at home,
where studies show men are shouldering more of the domestic burden and spending
more time parenting, are now showing up in career choices.
“We tend to study these patterns of what’s going on in the family and what’s
going on in the workplace as separate, but they’re very much intertwined,” she
said. “So as attitudes in the family change, attitudes toward the workplace have
In a classroom at Houston Community College, Dexter Rodriguez, 35, said his job
in tech support had not been threatened by the tough economy. Nonetheless, he
said, his family downsized the house, traded the new cars for used ones and
began to live off savings, all so Mr. Rodriguez could train for a career he
regarded as more exciting.
“I put myself into the recession,” he said, “because I wanted to go to nursing
NOW that the wrapping paper and the infernal clamshell packaging have been
relegated to the curb and the paying off of holiday bills has begun, the toy
industry is gearing up — for Christmas 2012. And its early offerings have
ignited a new debate over nature, nurture, toys and sex.
Hamleys, which is London’s 251-year-old version of F.A.O. Schwarz, recently
dismantled its pink “girls” and blue “boys” sections in favor of a
gender-neutral store with red-and-white signage. Rather than floors dedicated to
Barbie dolls and action figures, merchandise is now organized by types (Soft
Toys) and interests (Outdoor).
That free-to-be gesture was offset by Lego, whose Friends collection, aimed at
girls, will hit stores this month with the goal of becoming a holiday must-have
by the fall. Set in fictive Heartlake City (and supported by a $40 million
marketing campaign), the line features new, pastel-colored, blocks that allow a
budding Kardashian, among other things, to build herself a cafe or a beauty
salon. Its tasty-sounding “ladyfig” characters are also taller and curvier than
the typical Legoland denizen.
So who has it right? Should gender be systematically expunged from playthings?
Or is Lego merely being realistic, earnestly meeting girls halfway in an attempt
to stoke their interest in engineering?
Among the “10 characteristics for Lego” described in 1963 by a son of the
founder was that it was “for girls and for boys,” as Bloomberg Businessweek
reported. But the new Friends collection, Lego says, was based on months of
anthropological research revealing that — gasp! — the sexes play differently.
While as toddlers they interact similarly with the company’s Duplo blocks, by
preschool girls prefer playthings that are pretty, exude “harmony” and allow
them to tell a story. They may enjoy building, but they favor role play. So it’s
bye-bye Bionicles, hello princesses. In order to be gender-fair, today’s
executives insist, they have to be gender-specific.
As any developmental psychologist will tell you, those observations are, to a
degree, correct. Toy choice among young children is the Big Kahuna of sex
differences, one of the largest across the life span. It transcends not only
culture but species: in two separate studies of primates, in 2002 and 2008,
researchers found that males gravitated toward stereotypically masculine toys
(like cars and balls) while females went ape for dolls. Both sexes,
incidentally, appreciated stuffed animals and books.
Human boys and girls not only tend to play differently from one another — with
girls typically clustering in pairs or trios, chatting together more than boys
and playing more cooperatively — but, when given a choice, usually prefer
hanging with their own kind.
Score one for Lego, right? Not so fast. Preschoolers may be the self-appointed
chiefs of the gender police, eager to enforce and embrace the most rigid views.
Yet, according Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist and the author of “Pink Brain, Blue
Brain,” that’s also the age when their brains are most malleable, most open to
influence on the abilities and roles that traditionally go with their sex.
Every experience, every interaction, every activity — when they laugh, cry,
learn, play — strengthens some neural circuits at the expense of others, and the
younger the child the greater the effect. Consider: boys from more egalitarian
homes are more nurturing toward babies. Meanwhile, in a study of more than 5,000
3-year-olds, girls with older brothers had stronger spatial skills than both
girls and boys with older sisters.
At issue, then, is not nature or nurture but how nurture becomes nature: the
environment in which children play and grow can encourage a range of aptitudes
or foreclose them. So blithely indulging — let alone exploiting —
stereotypically gendered play patterns may have a more negative long-term impact
on kids’ potential than parents imagine. And promoting, without forcing,
cross-sex friendships as well as a breadth of play styles may be more
beneficial. There is even evidence that children who have opposite-sex
friendships during their early years have healthier romantic relationships as
Traditionally, toys were intended to communicate parental values and
expectations, to train children for their future adult roles. Today’s boys and
girls will eventually be one another’s professional peers, employers, employees,
romantic partners, co-parents. How can they develop skills for such
collaborations from toys that increasingly emphasize, reinforce, or even create,
gender differences? What do girls learn about who they should be from Lego kits
with beauty parlors or the flood of “girl friendly” science kits that run the
gamut from “beauty spa lab” to “perfume factory”?
The rebellion against such gender apartheid may have begun. Consider the latest
cute-kid video to go viral on YouTube: “Riley on Marketing” shows a little girl
in front of a wall of pink packaging, asking, “Why do all the girls have to buy
pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different-color stuff?” It has been
viewed more than 2.4 million times.
Perhaps, then, Hamleys is on to something, though it will doubtless meet with
resistance — even rejection — from both its pint-size customers and
multinational vendors. As for me, I’m trying to track down a poster of a 1981 ad
for a Lego “universal” building set to give to my daughter. In it, a
freckle-faced girl with copper-colored braids, baggy jeans, a T-shirt and
sneakers proudly holds out a jumbly, multi-hued Lego creation. Beneath it, a tag
line reads, “What it is is beautiful.”
Peggy Orenstein is the author, most recently,
of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter:
Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.”
December 17, 2011
The New York Times
By STEVE KETTMANN
ON Friday, a federal judge in San Francisco sentenced Barry Bonds, Major League
Baseball’s career home run leader, to two years of probation and community
service. Mr. Bonds’s success in baseball, and his conviction for obstruction of
justice earlier this year, both stemmed in part from his use of a
testosterone-based balm famously known as “the cream.”
But in the more than eight years since Mr. Bonds was first accused of using
performance-enhancing drugs, something strange has happened: millions of men
have started to use “the cream,” too — or one of any number of similar
treatments to make themselves look and feel younger and stronger.
According to reliable estimates, total testosterone prescriptions have
skyrocketed, from 1.75 million in 2002 to 4.5 million last year. The demand,
said John Hoberman, author of “Testosterone Dreams,” isn’t limited to would-be
pro athletes; it extends to “police officers, bouncers, biker gangs and the
‘anti-aging’ industry that provides legal prescriptions to millions of older
Too often, the Steroid Era in baseball turned into a game of sanctimony and
whodunit, distracting from the more important question of why we, as a culture,
want our athletes comic-book pumped up and artificially enhanced. And it helped
us avoid recognizing that, from Hollywood actors on human growth hormone, to
weekend athletes, to men in their 40s or 50s or beyond who just want to feel
less blah because of “low T,” we are on the cusp of an Age of Juicing.
It’s as if we’ve all stepped into Jose Canseco’s world. The retired baseball
player opened his 2005 book “Juiced,” a No. 1 New York Times best seller (which
I ghost wrote), by predicting that the use of steroids and other enhancements by
athletes was a precursor to widespread use among the general population.
“I have no doubt whatsoever that intelligent, informed use of steroids, combined
with human growth hormone, will one day be so accepted that everybody will be
doing it,” Mr. Canseco said. “We will be able to look good and have strong, fit
bodies well into our sixties and beyond. It’s called evolution, and there’s no
What’s behind this explosion? A change in medical opinion, for one thing. New
research has cast doubt on claims that low-level testosterone supplements pose a
health risk for men, specifically regarding links between prostate cancer and
high testosterone levels. That opened the door for doctors to start recommending
treatments to a wider range of patients, just as it loosened the floodgates for
drug companies to start pushing them.
“Over the last five years the market for prescriptions for testosterone products
has been one of the biggest growth areas for the pharmaceutical industry,”
Abraham Morgentaler, an associate clinical professor of urology at Harvard
Medical School and author of “Testosterone for Life,” said in a phone interview.
And, to be fair, there is a medical justification for many of the prescriptions.
“There are still millions of men in this country who have symptoms and signs of
testosterone deficiency who are not diagnosed or treated and should be,” Dr.
But the medical establishment wouldn’t have had much luck had demand not spiked
as well. In a way, the juicing scandals in sports served as a perverse
advertisement for the drugs’ effectiveness. We saw the home-run totals, we saw
the muscles and we saw the guys who looked as if they were having a whale of a
good time with their Adonis bodies — until they pushed it too far and started
looking ridiculous, like Barry Bonds, whom one insider dubbed “the Michelin Man”
for his bulging neck.
The truth is that a big part of steroids’ attraction was always mental. Jason
Giambi, an admitted juicer who now plays for the Colorado Rockies, once told me
the key to being a big-league hitter was to “feel sexy” up at home plate, and he
meant it far more literally than I understood at the time. Extra testosterone
does a lot for the body, but it also gives an athlete a feeling of being
unstoppable, of having an edge, of feeling, well, sexy. It’s this feeling that
many men at home watching “low T” ads during the recent baseball playoffs want
It’s not just sports. People laughed when Sylvester Stallone was arrested in
Australia in 2007 for trying to transport his personal stash of growth hormone,
but its use is reportedly widespread among actors of a certain age looking to
keep a youthful appearance.
Of course, millions of men (and women) remain, to say the least, wary of such
treatments. Dr. Morgentaler, a self-described testosterone skeptic when he began
researching it more than 20 years ago who later became an advocate, believes
that the stigma was created unfairly. “People have the idea that stuff is
illicit and illegal and dangerous,” he said. “But really the story in sports is
that it’s against the rules of whatever game it is.”
He has a point. But I remember interviewing an East German athlete outside a
Berlin courtroom in 1999. She was one of many plaintiffs in a case against
Manfred Ewald, the former East German sports boss, who had given orders to give
underage female athletes large doses of steroids without their knowledge,
leading to a wide array of health problems, including giving birth to babies
with club feet. “Steroids are a time bomb,” she said. “They are always
dangerous. I would tell athletes around the world, ‘Keep yourself off steroids.’
Then again, there’s a difference between sluggers shooting themselves up to
reach testosterone levels 50 times above normal — consequences be damned — and
low-level supplements that can improve quality of life with a minimum of health
My real worry, though, is cultural. Just as group pressure led ballplayers to
juice to keep up with the competition, might not the “low T” mind-set push men
to juice up, even if a little slowing down with age might in fact be natural?
Dr. Morgentaler told me about men he treated who no longer had that burning
drive to run out and sell another client, all because of low testosterone.
But is that so bad? Do we really want to feed a business culture that
increasingly elevates cocksure confidence and pushiness above all else,
especially if it filters into everyday life?
In an era marked by the dangerous decisions of an entire industry full of
gung-ho alpha males, shouldn’t we be wary of a culture that pushes us even
further in that direction? Maybe some quiet time for reflection or awareness of
the consequences of one’s actions might not be so bad — even if it means a
little lower T.
HARD as it has been to watch, harder still to live through, the spectacle of
Herman Cain’s dodging sexual harassment allegations is a real step up for the
status of women. Their sexual treatment is now part of the open political
process, rather than a smarmy rumor to be passed among cognoscenti in the dark.
The fact that what several women have said might register in a presidential
campaign — as if women’s sexual mistreatment at work might really matter — could
be a potential game changer, even though the prevailing dynamics of sex, race
and power that made sexual harassment so difficult to denounce in the first
place are amply on display.
The firestorm surrounding Clarence Thomas’s defense to Anita F. Hill’s
allegations in his confirmation hearing for the United States Supreme Court 20
years ago not only falsely set up race and gender as mutually exclusive and
opposing forces, but also framed subsequent defenses to sexual harassment
charges by Bill Clinton and others as mere personal peccadillo or political
fodder. Predictably, in this latest remix, political intrigue and racial
grandstanding, combined with vicious attacks on the accusers, have obscured the
principal inquiry: the leadership potential of a presidential candidate.
Sexual harassment is not a Democratic or Republican issue, a liberal or
conservative issue, or a black or white one, although those politics can shape
it. As a consequence, it does not present a test of group loyalty but a chance
to evaluate the reported behavior of someone who seeks to govern.
Sexual harassment is no private problem, readily compartmentalized, or a merely
symbolic disqualifier. The allegations of sexual harassment go to the core of
Mr. Cain’s qualifications to lead. Even lacking certainty about facts, what
emerges as the Cain story unfolds is a picture of a man with significant
deficits in terms of temperament, judgment and, potentially, veracity.
The seeming lack of concern about behavior that cost his former employer money,
the sense of entitlement and belief in personal impunity, and the supposed
failures to remember are disturbing enough; the accusations about his behavior
toward women, abuse of authority, and inability to follow the law should be
presumptively disqualifying in a person who seeks to unite and lead.
Polls indicate that some may be swayed by Mr. Cain’s denials, suggesting that
the disclosures are a smear campaign, implying that these women fabricated their
claims to derail his nomination. How inconvenient that the two initial claims
surfaced over a decade before there was any political campaign to derail, and
that Mr. Cain’s own employer apparently concluded that prudence dictated their
settlement. This decision does not reflect how easily employers can be cornered.
Sexual harassment law sets the bar high, even for the kind of quid pro quo
demands reported by Sharon Bialek, the first of Mr. Cain’s accusers to go
That the National Restaurant Association decided to resolve the prior claims
with compensation provides some picture of their nature: they were most likely
not a one-time event (unless extremely severe), they were most likely not made
by someone whose credibility could be easily demolished, and they were most
likely not behaviors that would offend only an overly sensitive woman (as Mr.
Cain suggested when he said that he had merely compared the height of one of his
accusers, Karen Kraushaar, to the height of his wife). The law requires a
pervasive pattern of unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature or acts of real
severity as viewed by a reasonable person that create a hostile working
environment, or demands to exchange sexual compliance for workplace benefits.
Anything less would have provided the company little incentive to settle.
Mr. Cain’s assertion that the public attention to these reports is “a high tech
lynching” threatens to insulate his behavior from the deeper assessment it
demands. Like Mr. Thomas, whose elevation to the Supreme Court was facilitated
by this statement, Mr. Cain rides a wave of suspicion and empathy. It would be
wrong to dismiss the appeal of his defense, given the common dimension of public
sexual humiliation and how deeply “lynching” resonates as a metaphor for black
men in the real context of the sexual politics of racial hierarchy.
But neither Mr. Cain nor Mr. Thomas stands in the shoes of those crucified for
offenses against the powerful. No one was, or will be, killed and hung from a
tree for defending the prerogatives of the top 1 percent. And it is germane that
women of all races face a specific kind of public sexual humiliation for
reporting their abuse at the hands of those with power over their employment.
This is a major reason that so many, rather than speaking out, have opted for
silence, and in overwhelming numbers still do. Simply put, women do not want to
Remarkably but not atypically, Ms. Bialek’s Republicanism and her personal
respect for Mr. Cain remain intact. Women who come out of the shadows, like Ms.
Bialek and Ms. Hill before her, are not silenced as others can be, including by
confidentiality agreements routinely forced on them by companies as the price of
relief. These women want and expect the harasser to man up: acknowledge what he
did, genuinely apologize, and change, meaning never do it again. And the failure
of a candidate to do so should not be considered a winning political strategy
but instead regarded as presumptive evidence of unfitness to lead. That would be
a step toward real progress. Our leaders owe us nothing less.
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw is a professor of law
at Columbia University
and the University of California, Los Angeles.
Catharine A. MacKinnon is a professor of law
at the University of Michigan
and a visiting professor of law at Harvard University.
OAKLAND, Calif., Dec. 1 — Until recently, many children who did not conform to
gender norms in their clothing or behavior and identified intensely with the
opposite sex were steered to psychoanalysis or behavior modification.
But as advocates gain ground for what they call gender-identity rights,
evidenced most recently by New York City’s decision to let people alter the sex
listed on their birth certificates, a major change is taking place among schools
and families. Children as young as 5 who display predispositions to dress like
the opposite sex are being supported by a growing number of young parents,
educators and mental health professionals.
Doctors, some of them from the top pediatric hospitals, have begun to advise
families to let these children be “who they are” to foster a sense of security
and self-esteem. They are motivated, in part, by the high incidence of
depression, suicidal feelings and self-mutilation that has been common in past
generations of transgender children. Legal trends suggest that schools are now
required to respect parents’ decisions.
“First we became sensitive to two mommies and two daddies,” said Reynaldo
Almeida, the director of the Aurora School, a progressive private school in
Oakland. “Now it’s kids who come to school who aren’t gender typical.”
The supportive attitudes are far easier to find in traditionally tolerant areas
of the country like San Francisco than in other parts, but even in those places
there is fierce debate over how best to handle the children.
Cassandra Reese, a first-grade teacher outside Boston, recalled that fellow
teachers were unnerved when a young boy showed up in a skirt. “They said, ‘This
is not normal,’ and, ‘It’s the parents’ fault,’ ” Ms. Reese said. “They didn’t
see children as sophisticated enough to verbalize their feelings.”
As their children head into adolescence, some parents are choosing to block
puberty medically to buy time for them to figure out who they are — raising a
host of ethical questions.
While these children are still relatively rare, doctors say the number of
referrals is rising across the nation. Massachusetts, Minnesota, California, New
Jersey and the District of Columbia have laws protecting the rights of
transgender students, and some schools are engaged in a steep learning curve to
dismantle gender stereotypes.
At the Park Day School in Oakland, teachers are taught a gender-neutral
vocabulary and are urged to line up students by sneaker color rather than by
gender. “We are careful not to create a situation where students are being boxed
in,” said Tom Little, the school’s director. “We allow them to move back and
forth until something feels right.”
For families, it can be a long, emotional adjustment. Shortly after her son’s
third birthday, Pam B. and her husband, Joel, began a parental journey for which
there was no map. It started when their son, J., began wearing oversized
T-shirts and wrapping a towel around his head to emulate long, flowing hair.
Then came his mothers’ silky undershirts. Half a year into preschool, J. started
becoming agitated when asked to wear boys’ clothing.
En route to a mall with her son, Ms. B. had an epiphany: “It just clicked in me.
I said, ‘You really want to wear a dress, don’t you?’ ”
Thus began what the B.’s, who asked their full names not be used to protect
their son’s privacy, call “the reluctant path,” a behind-closed-doors struggle
to come to terms with a gender-variant child — a spirited 5-year-old boy who, at
least for now, strongly identifies as a girl, requests to be called “she” and
asks to wear pigtails and pink jumpers to school.
Ms. B., 41, a lawyer, accepted the way her son defined himself after she and her
husband consulted with a psychologist and observed his newfound comfort with his
choice. But she feels the precarious nature of the day-to-day reality. “It’s
hard to convey the relentlessness of it, she said, “every social encounter,
every time you go out to eat, every day feeling like a balance between your
kid’s self-esteem and protecting him from the hostile outside world.”
The prospect of cross-dressing kindergartners has sparked a deep philosophical
divide among professionals over how best to counsel families. Is it healthier
for families to follow the child’s lead, or to spare children potential
humiliation and isolation by steering them toward accepting their biological
gender until they are older?
Both sides in the debate underscore their concern for the profound vulnerability
of such youngsters, symbolized by occurrences like the murder in 2002 of Gwen
Araujo, a transgender teenager born as Eddie, southeast of Oakland.
“Parents now are looking for advice on how to make life reasonable for their
kids — whether to allow cross-dressing in public, and how to protect them from
the savagery of other children,” said Dr. Herbert Schreier, a psychiatrist with
Children’s Hospital and Research Center in Oakland.
Dr. Schreier is one of a growing number of professionals who have begun to think
of gender variance as a naturally occurring phenomenon rather than a disorder.
“These kids are becoming more aware of how it is to be themselves,” he said.
In past generations, so-called sissy boys and tomboy girls were made to conform,
based on the belief that their behaviors were largely products of dysfunctional
Among the revisionists is Dr. Edgardo Menvielle, a child-adolescent psychiatrist
at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington who started a national
outreach group for parents of gender-variant children in 1998 that now has more
than 200 participants. “We know that sexually marginalized children have a
higher rate of depression and suicide attempts,” Dr. Menvielle said. “The goal
is for the child to be well adjusted, healthy and have good self-esteem. What’s
not important is molding their gender.”
The literature on adults who are transgender was hardly consoling to one parent,
a 42-year-old software consultant in Massachusetts and the father of a
gender-variant third grader. “You’re trudging through this tragic, horrible
stuff and realizing not a single person was accepted and understood as a child,”
he said. “You read it and think, O.K., best to avoid that. But as a parent
you’re in this complete terra incognita.”
The biological underpinnings of gender identity, much like sexual orientation,
remain something of a mystery, though many researchers suspect it is linked with
hormone exposure in the developing fetus.
Studies suggest that most boys with gender variance early in childhood grow up
to be gay, and about a quarter heterosexual, Dr. Menvielle said. Only a small
fraction grow up to identify as transgender.
Girls with gender-variant behavior, who have been studied less, voice extreme
unhappiness about being a girl and talk about wanting to have male anatomy. But
research has thus far suggested that most wind up as heterosexual women.
Although many children role-play involving gender, Dr. Menvielle said, “the key
question is how intense and persistent the behavior is,” especially if they show
Dr. Robin Dea, the director of regional mental health for Kaiser Permanente in
Northern California, said: “Our gender identity is something we feel in our
soul. But it is also a continuum, and it evolves.”
Dr. Dea works with four or five children under the age of 15 who are essentially
living as the opposite sex. “They are much happier, and their grades are up,”
she said. “I’m waiting for the study that says supporting these children is
But Dr. Kenneth Zucker, a psychologist and head of the gender-identity service
at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, disagrees with the
“free to be” approach with young children and cross-dressing in public. Over the
past 30 years, Dr. Zucker has treated about 500 preadolescent gender-variant
children. In his studies, 80 percent grow out of the behavior, but 15 percent to
20 percent continue to be distressed about their gender and may ultimately
change their sex.
Dr. Zucker tries to “help these kids be more content in their biological gender”
until they are older and can determine their sexual identity — accomplished, he
said, by encouraging same-sex friendships and activities like board games that
move beyond strict gender roles.
Though she has not encountered such a situation, Jennifer Schwartz, assistant
principal of Chatham Elementary School outside Springfield, Ill., said that
allowing a child to express gender differences “would be very difficult to pull
Ms. Schwartz added: “I’m not sure it’s worth the damage it could cause the
child, with all the prejudices and parents possibly protesting. I’m not sure a
child that age is ready to make that kind of decision.”
The B.’s thought long and hard about what they had observed in their son. They
have carefully choreographed his life, monitoring new playmates, selecting a
compatible school, finding sympathetic parents in a babysitting co-op.
Nevertheless, Ms. B. said, “there is still the stomach-clenching fear for your
It is indeed heartbreaking to hear a child say, as J. did recently, “It feels
like a nightmare I’m a boy.”
The adjustment has been gradual for Mr. B., a 43-year-old public school
administrator who is trying to stop calling J. “our little man.” He thinks of
his son as a positive, resilient person, and his love and admiration show. “The
truth is, is any parent going to choose this for their kid?” he said. “It’s who
your kid is.”
Families are caught in the undertow of conflicting approaches. One suburban
Chicago mother, who did not want to be identified, said in a telephone interview
that she was drawing the line on dress and trying to provide “boy opportunities”
for her 6-year-old son. “But we can’t make everything a power struggle,” she
said. “It gets exhausting.”
She worries about him becoming a social outcast. “Why does your brother like
girl things?” friends of her 10-year-old ask. The answer is always, “I don’t
Nila Marrone, a retired linguistics professor at the University of Connecticut
who consults with parents and schools, recalled an incident last year at a Bronx
elementary school in which an 8-year-old boy perceived as effeminate was thrown
into a large trash bin by a group of boys. The principal, she said, “suggested
to the mother that she was to blame, for not having taught her son how to be
But the tide is turning.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, requires that students be
addressed with “a name and pronoun that corresponds to the gender identity.” It
also asks schools to provide a locker room or changing area that corresponds to
a student’s chosen gender.
One of the most controversial issues concerns the use of “blockers,” hormones
used to delay the onset of puberty in cases where it could be psychologically
devastating (for instance, a girl who identifies as a boy might slice her wrists
when she gets her period). Some doctors disapprove of blockers, arguing that
only at puberty does an individual fully appreciate their gender identity.
Catherine Tuerk, a nurse-psychotherapist at the children’s hospital in
Washington and the mother of a gender-variant child in the 1970s, says parents
are still left to find their own way. She recalls how therapists urged her to
steer her son into psychoanalysis and “hypermasculine activities” like karate.
She said she and her husband became “gender cops.”
“It was always, ‘You’re not kicking the ball hard enough,’ ” she said.
Ms. Tuerk’s son, now 30, is gay and a father, and her own thinking has evolved
since she was a young parent. “People are beginning to understand this seems to
be something that happens,” she said. “But there was a whole lifetime of feeling
we could never leave him alone.”