April 28, 2011 at 4:38 pm EDT | by Kathi Wolfe
Fighting prejudice based on gender identity

When I was 7, I dressed as Fred Flintstone for Halloween.

“How could you let Kathi do that,” my grandmother asked my parents. “She’s a girl! She should be Wilma.”

“It’s a cartoon,” my mom said. “It won’t hurt her.”

“It won’t turn the kid into a boy,” my Dad added.

I soon morphed from a Flintstones worshiper into a fan of Natasha of “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” But, I’m grateful that my folks resisted my grandma’s gender stereotyping and allowed me to dress as Fred.

A J. Crew ad and “Marwencol,” a documentary (just out on DVD) airing on PBS’s “Independent Lens” on WETA on May 1 make me recall that long ago Halloween. Why? Because the controversy surrounding the ad and the story told by the doc show how our culture engages, sometimes in the blogosphere, all too often violently, in gender stereotyping.

The ad, which J. Crew sent to customers earlier this month, shows a photo of Jenna Lyons, J. Crew’s president with her five-year-old son Beckett. In the picture, Lyons is painting Beckett’s toenails pink.

“Lucky for me I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink,” Lyons says in the caption, “Toenail painting is way more fun in neon.”

I haven’t a clue whether J. Crew was trying to challenge traditional thinking about gender roles or trying to drum up sales for its clothing. (J. Crew hasn’t commented on the ad.) But the photo of Jenna and pink-toe-nailed Beckett (and its caption) unleashed a firestorm.

For social conservatives it was practically the end of civilization as we know it (paving the way for the erosion of family and moral values–promoting “identity politics”).

“It may be fun and games now, Jenna, but at least put some money aside for psychotherapy for the kid — and maybe for others who’ll be affected by your ‘innocent’ pleasure,” wrote Fox News contributor Dr. Keith Albow in an opinion piece.

“Jenna’s indulgence … could make life hard for the boy in the future,” wrote Erin Brown of the Media Research Center. “J. Crew … does not mind exploiting Beckett behind the facade of liberal, transgendered identity politics.”

Whoa! Let’s exhale. At age 5, who can tell what Beckett’s sexual orientation or gender identity will be when he’s older? But we can say, backed by scientific evidence, that our parents can’t cause us (no matter what color they paint our toenails) to be queer.

“A mother painting her children’s toenails pink does not cause transgenderism or homosexuality,” Dr. Jack Drescher, a psychiatrist, who wrote the paper “Queer Diagnosis,” published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior told ABC News.

The fuss about the J. Crew ad seems absurd. Yet the controversy highlights our cultural fear of gender bending.

Unfortunately, as the documentary “Marwencol” illuminates, gender identity prejudice has a dark side.

Eleven years ago, five teenagers attacked Mark Hogancamp, a talented artist, then 38, outside a Kingston, N.Y. bar. Hogancamp was left with brain damage. His memory was destroyed, and after being in a coma, he had to rebuild his life. “Marwencol,” movingly recounts how Hogancamp recreates his life through his art. Hogancamp, who is straight, was attacked because he is a cross-dresser. Coming home from the hospital, Hogancamp was surprised to see 218 pairs of women’s shoes in his closet. When he asks a friend if he has a girlfriend, his buddy says, “no.  You buy, collect and wear [women’s] shoes.”

Unfortunately, Hogancamp is far from alone. A National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force survey “Injustice at Every Turn,” released earlier this year, documents the harassment encountered by transgender and gender non-conforming people.

• Nineteen percent have experienced domestic violence;

• Thirty-five percent of those in grades K-12 in schools were physically assaulted;

• Fifty percent experienced workplace harassment;

• And eight percent have been physically assaulted in doctor’s offices, stores and other public places.

When asked what he wants audiences to take away from seeing “Marwencol,” Hogancamp said, “that it’s all right to be themselves.”

Let’s do what we can to make that happen. Let’s work to fight gender-identity prejudice in ourselves and our society.

1 Comment
  • “Let’s work to fight gender-identity prejudice in ourselves and our society.” I completely agree with this statement and identify with this article. Thank you, Kathi for posting this insightful and meaningful article. I am a student at the University of New Hampshire and am currently in a Gender and Sexuality course, which has profoundly changed my views on the way people perform their gender roles. I’ve currently been working on a paper for this course which looks at the J. Crew ad as just one popular culture example where “gender bending” is occurring and how there is such an uproar with these “non-traditional” ways of performing gender. I look at how all “gender performances” are merely an act which society has become so blind to, that no one realizes that gender is culturally produced. Society doesn’t realize that gender and biological sex are two different ideas completely. Society culturally produces gender, whereas biological sex is separate. It saddens me that society is scrutinizing a little boy, who simply enjoys the color pink, and his mother for such a simple action of coloring one’s toenails. This shows how unaware people can be and that there certainly needs to be a change and more education on this topic.

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