One Good Reason, Part 2

The best way to start my follow-up to my previous post, “One Good Reason,” is to show you one of the search phrases that just showed up on my stats page this week:

how to tell my boyfriend he acts too feminine

It was probably the text from all of your comments that allowed this particular collection of words to lead someone to my site, and it expresses a sentiment that rankles more than a few of you:

“One thing that nobody has mentioned is that ‘masculinity’ is acceptable for both genders, whereas femininity is not. There are a great many women who were ‘tomboys’ as children, and might still be ‘masculine’ in their mode of dress, their interactions with other people, their business transactions, etc. etc. Somehow, it’s OK for a woman to be this way, even an adult. However, when a man exhibits a ‘girly’ side, it’s incredibly important that he look ‘masculine.'”

And also:

” . . . the big fear that a guy not being ‘manly’ means that he is/will be gay has always struck me as one of the stupidest things around. I know more straight guys with feminine traits than gay ones (as percentages). What is the general opinion: is the fear just that they don’t want a son who has ‘girly’ traits, or that the ‘girly’ traits will be taken as a sign that said son is gay?”

Madonna, our Patron Saint of Pop and Sexuality, was after the same thing in the introduction to her song, “What it Feels Like for a Girl”:

“Girls can wear jeans, cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots, because it’s okay to be a boy. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, because you think that being a girl is degrading.”

The expression of underlying fears is what I was after in my earlier post. We all have gender expectations, whether or not we are aware of them. Even the most liberal and open-minded of us have boxes in our minds for male and female, gay and straight. Many of you were courageous enough to admit to those expectations in yourselves:

“I was in a store with my son and my daughter and there were some pink, slippery, silky nighties on display which he was interested in and I think actually said he wanted . . . This particular thing challenged my openmindedness and my picture of my son and what I imagined for him and his future and his manhood. It was an instantaneous, gut response. Had he insisted, I would have affirmed his right to wear what he wanted to be himself, whatever that was, but there was that moment of fear and shame.”

“I am a mother of a 1 year old boy. I knit. My friend gave me a onesie that says ‘someone teach me to knit!’ When I showed it to my husband he said, ‘you’re not going to let him wear that are you?’ . . . He couldn’t really answer me as to why he wasn’t comfortable with our son wearing that outfit. But I knew. He didn�t want people to think our son was a girl.”

“We want our children to be accepted. I want that for my kids too. If my son wants to knit, I am here waiting to teach him. If my daughter or my son turn out to be gay, it won’t be because of the knitting or lack thereof. Again, I will still love them. Do I want them to be gay, no, I don’t. If they turn out to be gay, I won’t reject them and I will love them no less. Isn’t that what the fear is here, that our kids will be gay?”

This last one is the most volatile, because the commenter admitted to being uncomfortable with the idea of a gay child. While this is something no liberal-minded person wants to hear (including myself) it is precisely the kind of honesty I was hoping for, and it’s no accident that the remarks above come from parents. I don’t have a child yet myself, but it’s obvious from observing my peers with their children (and thinking back on my own parents’ methods) that raising a child bumps you up against all of your feelings about gender, religion, sexual orientation, and a million other things that I’m sure I can’t imagine (yet). The impulse to prevent your kid from getting beat up on the playground probably contradicts even the most open-minded beliefs about how to raise your kid, and parents have to walk this line inside themselves every day. For example:

“last week I was wearing a skirt, and when my toddler asked me if he could have a skirt to wear too, I said no. There are certain lines that I will not cross. He’s only 2-1/2. He doesn�t know that he�s asking to dress like a girl. He just sees that my skirt is cool and that I can twirl around in it, and he thinks that might be fun. Because he doesn’t know what he’s asking, I can’t honor the request, because he’s my little guy to train up to be a man, and for now, I need to make the decisions for him.”

And also:

“While it may feel uncomfortable to allow our sons and daughters to move beyond the mainstream because it feels easier to conform, it is necessary to allow non-conformity for positive change.”

I can imagine that parents, confronted with a boy who wants to participate in a traditionally female activity, might feel both of these things——even at the same time. I’m not really willing to judge either of these perspectives, even though my politics land me firmly with the second one.

There’s a lot more to be said on this issue, but this post is getting long. Feel free to keep the comments coming, of course. And for those of you who are sick of the politics and just want to see some knitting, there’s some on the way in the next post.

9 Comments

  • Jordan says:

    I am a straight male college student who knits, however I am considered by my friends to be the ‘gayest straight guy’ they know. I have artfully handled the question of my sexuality. It’s very simple, just because I may act in a traditionally feminine manner doesn’t mean that I’m gay. I enjoy women (both socially and sexually) which puts me into the category of being a heterosexual. Now I don’t believe that sexuality is black and white, it’s a spectrum which people fall into. Being an artist (theater arts [design to be specific]) allows me to have a fluidity of personal interests and sexual life. I know that if I ever come to a point where I feel that I am not as heterosexual as I feel now, I know that it will be right with my art, and with my body. However, it’s not me. One thing I’ve learned as a theater artist is that you must always be true to yourself, one of the pillars of theater arts William Shakespeare even knew this, to thine own self be true, he wrote. A person is not identified by their sexuality and their sexuality is not dictated by their interests.

  • Typesetter says:

    Teaching our male children that anything feminine is bad… Does it also teach them that anything feminine is… Well, bad, degradating, humble in the worst sense of the word, and therefore that women are all of the above? When a parent (even worse if it’s a mother!) recoils at the thought that her precious little boy wearing a pink shirt or knitting or holding a doll, does she pass on to him the idea that femininity is disgusting, that being a female is bad, that females are inferior beings?

  • Sean says:

    Great discussion! I have thought about this set of issues a lot in the last few years. When I started seriously knitting about four years ago, I was pretty shy about telling people, especially men, that I am a knitter. The ironic thing is that I have no problem letting people know that I’m gay. That was a huge struggle for me ten years ago, but now it’s old hat to me.

    Somehow “coming out” as a knitter was almost as challenging, especially the first time I was brave enough to knit in public. I guess part of it for me is that as a gay man, I never feel “girly” or feminine. I just happen to prefer men as partners. I’m not a fan of musical theater, I don’t like Barbara Streisand, and I don’t conform to lots of the other silly stereotypes that people ascribe to gay men. And even if I did, who cares? Yet somehow knitting felt transgressive to me at first, and I had to overcome my own issues about “acting girly.” Am I knitting because I’m gay? Will people assume I’m gay because I’m knitting? But wait, I don’t care if people know I’m gay. So where did that leave me? It was all a bit confusing.

    My mother, who had a very hard time coming to grips with the fact that she had not one but two(!) gay children, perhaps never saw the irony that the Christmas gifts she gave me when I was a kid included a fully functional mini-sewing machine (“No more sewing by hand!” I exclaimed), toy mixers, blenders, egg beaters, and all sorts of kitchen gear. I was delighted by such gifts. My sister, on the other hand, couldn’t have been less interested in Easy Bake ovens (something I craved, but was never lucky enough to receive.)

    So, I suppose my interests, even at age 5, were in some sense traditionally “feminine,” but neither of my parents (both highly educated liberal-minded sorts) felt a need to intervene and steer me into playing football instead. In fact, when I was 7, a visiting great uncle gave me a football helmet and shoulder-pads. I burst into tears and begged not to have to wear it. My parents assured me that I only had to try it on briefly to humor my uncle, and then we would give it away to a neighbor boy. Being gay and playing football aren’t supposed to mix, and in my case they didn’t. Yet here in the Twin Cities, a local celebrity I often see at the gym is Esera Tuaolo, the former Minnesota Vikings player who came out in the national press several years ago. Clearly his feelings about football aren’t like mine at all, yet because we’re both gay, plenty would call both of us girly. (Though I’d be reluctant to do that to Esera’s face.)

    I guess I’m not coming to any sort of neat summation, am I? Sorry, haven’t had my morning coffee yet. I did want to chip in to the discussion, though, and to say that I’m glad we’re talking about these issues.

    Sean

  • Lori says:

    Part of the problem, I think, is that traditional conceptions of masculinity are so sacrosant in our culture that they rarely get challenged. I used to do work on gender and education, and one thing I was always struck by was how, in much of the literature, when the issue was girls underperforming, it was always something about them being girls that was the problem, whereas when boys were underperforming, it was always something wrong with the curriculum. Girls aren’t doing as well in science? Well, that’s because they are passive and boy-obsessed and need to learn how to act more like boys in the classroom in order to succeed. Boys aren’t doing as well in English? It’s the books. We certainly can’t expect boys to actually empathize with a character. We can’t expect them to read and think about books about relationships. Nope, just change English classes so boys get assigned adverture stories and we’ll be all good. Girls bully each other and we get dozens of books about how destructive “girl culture” is. Boys walk into their schools and start shooting, and the idea that perhaps some of the expectations we put on boys could be part of the cause doesn’t even get spoken.

    As to the issue of parents and gay kids, as a parent, I think there may be more going on than just homophobic and sexist ideas coming to the surface. If I’m honest, I’d have to admit that I’d prefer my son be straight. It’s not because I think there’s anything wrong with being gay, but because so much of the country does think there is something wrong with being gay. His life would be harder and, as much as I’d like to think that we’ve gotten past blaming mothers for everything “wrong” with their kids, part of me would worry that other people would wonder what I did as a parent to “make” him gay, and a small part of me would probably wonder if I did do something to make him gay. As a slightly less loaded example, I think most parents would prefer that their child be of an average weight rather than obese, even if they fully accept that people come in all different sizes and that there is nothing wrong with that. And yet we have such negative views about obesity in this country, and still hold to the idea that all fat people must be fat because they eat junk food all the time and never get off the couch, that even if we realize that it is entirely possible for someone to be healthy, active, and still quite a bit larger than average, we know it would make life harder for our kids to be obese. And, we know that people would look at us and wonder what we did to “make” them fat. I think most parents are already worried enough about whether or not they are doing a good job that the thought of any criticism of that kind really hits close to home emotionally, no matter what they might rationally think, whether the issue be their kids’ sexuality or size or intelligence or anything.

  • Mary says:

    Clearly there are aspects of a child’s personality that a parent can and does influence strongly. One of the things that is so UNCLEAR is which aspects those are and what is best to do in regard to them. And which aspects are immutable and what is best to do in regard to THEM. I expected that an infant would have much less personality than actually was the case with my children. It always felt to me that I was one step behind my children…they would express or display some trait, desire, aptitude, difficulty and I had to figure out what to do about that… In general I saw my role as understanding them and helping them go in that direction as best I could. One of the things that’s so scary is if they seem to be going into territory unfamiliar to me; maintining faith in their basic goodness and health, while being as honest as is appropriate about my fears. I think also that this uncertainty about whether I’m ‘doing OK’ as a parent, causes me to look to certian markers, like good grades or socialability, or athleticism to reassure me. One of my children was able to do well in several of those arenas, the other struggled in those same arenas. As their mother I wanted to have a positive vision for both children’s future, which meant that i needed to grow in imagination and faith. I needed to also shift my focus from ‘success’ to ‘lifetime journey’. Thank you Jesse and everyone who’s participated in this discussion!

  • Lisa says:

    I (still) do not understand why your looks and/or hobbies automatically place you in a certain sexual preference catagory. My boyfriend buzz cuts my hair every week and I wear no make up and fairly plain clothes. I love to borrow from my boyfriend (when I can – he is much bigger than I). (Truth is I prefer to spend my time knitting instead of in front of the mirror.) I have on several occasions been called “that dyke over there”. I don’t know whether I am more sad for them for their ignorance in stereo-typing me (a self proclaimed Domestic Godess) so far from fact or the tone in which they say the word “dyke” – like that would make me a bad person if I was. Why can’t we all accept each other for WHO WE ARE and not for who we want them to be? I wore dresses to school everyday – it didn’t change my desire to be comfortable. I had VERY long hair and had to put it up everyday – it only made me NOT want long hair as an adult. Letting your male child knit – or even wearing a dress – will not change his sexual tendancy but MAY allow him to have a more open mind to the world around him and make him more accepting of people who do not fit into the “generally accepted norm”.

  • Sean says:

    Hi, Jesse. Just arrived from Knitty, love Danica. 🙂

    I think this is an excellent point you raise. I’m going to attempt not to stray too far off topic, but I can’t help but mention some reading I was doing recently along a similar line. When my best friend and I do laundry together, we’ll read and joke about the personal ads. In a staggering amount of the ‘M4M’ ads, the phrase “no fats or fems” comes up… A LOT. On another insomneic night, this really disturbed me and I did some online research that went into great detail about these gender issues, this perceived role of the male to be strong, physically and emotionally, lacking any softness of body or heart, because to posess any kind of tenderness at all would be to exude the qualities of a woman, perceived to be of larger hip, suppler skin, less muscle, cry easily, actually admit to having emotion to the extent of even letting on to vulnerability… weak. I know this scenario doesn’t quite apply to the heterosexual male knitters, but the act of knitting is thought by a sad many to be “woman’s work” (and aren’t you too young to be knitting anyway?), and much of the gay community feels this way, fat equates to feminine, larger belly, larger legs, more breast tissue, blah blah, as well as “feminine” traits (i.e. knitting, sewing, quilting, spinning, weaving,) of course, and this equates to undesireable. Well, I guess that would apply, really, the straight male knitter would have the more “socially acceptable” heteros judging and questioning, while the hetero females will either be quite attracted to him or equally put off, and either or both may suspect or “accuse” him of being gay. In the gay community, though, it boils down to people of this mindset having complete and utter disregard for those who fought for what rights we do have. The ones who fought at Stonewall weren’t “butch.” Back to the matter at hand, though, that, and this issue of male knitting, like many things, is all about the brainwashing. We’re all programmed on a moment to moment basis from the instant we are born, really. Some of us choose to change the channel when we are granted the choice, others don’t. I don’t think this necessarily makes people BAD when considered this way. For a person that thinks knitting is “gay,” we can ask them why they have this feeling, we can tell them the history of knitting and how much males were involved in it, even name straight celebrity knitters, tell them about the freakin awesome things we make and how much chicks dig it… the person is either going to be open to the reprogramming or not, maybe it will make them think about it, maybe they’ll go have a beer with their buddies and mock you. We may be able to “fix” a few, but in their psyche, they are correct, and I believe people inherently do the best that they are capable of at any given time. The important thing, like others mentioned, is to be true to yourself first and foremost. Screw the labels and do your best to accept and love those who don’t fit the open-minded and accepting roles we’d like them to take. All we can do is try to educate them, but they have to want it and be ready for it.

    In regard to parents, I think we have to consider why they would feel this way too. I don’t believe it’s a fear of a child being gay so much as a fear of the stigma parents feel is associated with it. Would they love a gay child differently or less? I really doubt it. But will they fear their child will be ridiculed, maybe even harmed physically? Do they maybe fear the looks and comments of family members and friends? Do they worry what they will tell people when they ask if their son/daughter is married or who that man/woman is in the vacation photos? Are they upset at the thought of the “bloodline” not being continued, no pitter patter of grandbabies’ feet? Again, all programming. I hate to say it, but in our society today, I can’t fully blame them.

    I’m going to close this because I’m babbling already, but babbling because it’s a great topic. 🙂 I do have to say one more thing about the first Sean’s comments though… year after year after year I BEGGED for an Easy Bake Oven. EVERY birthday, EVERY Chanukah, pleaded and cried. All I got was, “It’s a girl toy,” and opened up army men and racetracks. (le sigh) My sister got me one for my 21st birthday and the last time I used it was to make my ex-boyfriend sugar cookies that spelled out I

  • Shawn says:

    Hello Jesse,
    I was just recently introduced to your blog by a friend that is constantly sending my blogs of male knitters. I am fairly new to knitting, my mom just taught me at Christmas. I have found knitting to be something I am completely obsessed with but I have a hard time knitting in front of other men. I am not sure why I would feel this way when I certainly do not hide any other part of who I am. This past weekend, I was camping at a friend’s resort and the cabin next door made me feel very uncomfortable. It was a family that were camping for the weekend and all I wanted to do was knit outside on the deck but thought they would think I was too girly.

    So many of the comments about this topic have mentioned gender identity and sexual orientation but I think we have just started to scratch the surface. I used to teach a class on Sexual Orientation in the workplace and one of the most profound things I learned was the fact that Gender Roles were set before a childs language skills. I think that if a child, boy or girl, wants to learn something that will enhance their life experience it should be celebrated rather than frowned upon. After all, at the point they can start to learn to knit, they will already have set gender roles based on what they learned at a very young age.

    I thought I had so much more to share but now of course my mind is blank… Oh, one thing, a friend who should be considered one of my best friends will freely call me “So Gay” because I knit. I have tried so many tactics to get her to understand that the knitting does not make me gay. These are the things we need to change, how that will happen how knows.

  • Lindsey says:

    Hey Jesse, I also found your blog through knitty. Which, your blog is seriously awesome- I’ve been looking for a hat to make the boyfriend for a while.

    The points that people are raising are really good ones. My grandmother taught me how to knit when I was about 12 and I’ve only really done that since, nothing frilly or cool until just recently. But still, even just knitting in the plain knit stitch looks like you’re doing something cool, like pyrotechnics or brain surgery or something from far away. I got a lot of people into it when I was in highschool and now in college. The thing is that it’s not only a ‘woman’ thing to do, it’s an ‘old person’ thing to do like someone on your messages said before. I taught my boyfriend how to knit and he really dug it but got laughed at when he did it at his school (a technical college filled with guys) so he felt like a real minority. Just like I felt really weird doing it in middle school (which my school had a ‘no knitting needles tolerance policy’ because they were afraid people might go crazy and start… knitting people into sweaters? I mean, honestly, you could stab someone with a pen as easily as you could a knitting needle.) Now when people come up to me and say “oh yeah, knitting is really catching on with the younger generations,” I just kind of say “well it’s always been around.”

    It’s like waking up one day and suddenly being tolerant of something you weren’t before or hadn’t realized you weren’t tolerant of before. You can’t expect everyone else to wake up and suddenly realize it just like you at exactly the same time, or even to ever expect them to come around. Just like people who are offended by whatever posts before about people’s ‘manly’ men or kids who like to wear dresses. We all have things that we think or believe that upset or don’t agree with someone elses ideas of what happens to be ‘right’ or even politically correct. Even the people we love the most in the world, there’s always something we’ll (at least secretly) disagree on. Unless, of course, you happen to be a robot. But robots don’t knit, that’s too much of a weak ‘human’ thing to do. No, but seriously, I’m not trying to jump on anyones thoughts or feelings and I don’t think I’ve addressed the issue at all, if anyone is reading this I apologize.

    Cool blog though, I’ll definitely pass it on to the boyfriend so he doesn’t feel so alone in his knitting conquests.

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