When children don’t conform to stereotypical gender assumptions, is it ever appropriate to punish them?
This month, 9-year-old Grayson Bruce of North Carolina was told to leave his My Little Pony backpack at home because it was a “trigger for bullying.” To which his mother said: “Saying a lunchbox is a trigger for bullying is like saying a short skirt is a trigger for rape. It’s flawed logic.”
And last month, 8-year-old Sunnie Kahle in Virginia was told to stop dressing like a boy or she would not be able stay at her Christian school.
It’s shocking to hear that any school — a place of learning — would take the cowardly route of banning the bullied students’ behavior rather than promoting acceptance of difference. Grayson Bruce was being harassed for wearing his My Little Pony backpack, but instead of disciplining the bullies, the school blamed Bruce. After his story went viral, the school said it “regretted” that its request was “perceived as blaming Grayson.” The boy and his backpack have since returned to school after he and his mother met with school administrators.
For Sunnie Kahle, it wasn’t students who bullied her out of school for not adhering to mainstream gender expectations, it was school administrators. Timberlake Christian Schools sent a letter home about how Kahle’s appearance didn’t live up to the school’s “biblical standards.” The letter said that unless Kahle and her family “understand that God has made her female” and that if her dress and behavior didn’t “follow suit with her God-ordained identity,” TCS was not the school for her. Her grandparents, Doris and Carroll Thompson, responded by pulling her out of TCS. They’ve since enrolled Kahle in public school, according to WSET-TV.
“Gender policing” — the act of enforcing particular expectations on how males and females should look — doesn’t just happen at school. Often a child’s first experience with it is from parents, especially for boys, according to a 2006 study by Emily W. Kane of Bates College. But parents don’t come up with these expectations on their own; they are maintaining a standard ingrained into them by a society that dictates how boys and girls are supposed to behave.
I am always struck by how readily strangers are willing to peg my daughter as a boy just because she isn’t wearing pink head to toe. And how uncomfortable they are when they learn that my little girl would be dressed in a navy blue coat and jeans.
Gender policing isn’t just about telling someone what or what not to wear; it’s one piece of our societies’ larger problem with misogyny, homophobia and transphobia. We’re so obsessed with fulfilling gender expectations that when someone deviates from those norms, the reactions can be as subtle as a quizzical look to as violent as getting set on fire or killed.
It’s heartbreaking to think that these kids will learn at such an early age how unforgiving the world can be. School should be a place for children to learn and grow, not where they end up bullied for simply being themselves.
The public outcry over Bruce and Kahle’s cases is heartening, but gender policing occurs in actions big and small, both at home and in public. Hopefully, kids will someday be allowed to be kids, no matter what that looks like.
Susan Rohwer is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @susanrohwer.