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What I Tell My Son About Boys Who Like to Wear Dresses

I'm a sucker for a salacious headline just like the next American. But when I saw the headline "Jaden Smith Wearing Dresses: Reveals He Shops for Girl Clothes" listed as "news" I admit, I swore aloud. This was no more news than what I had for dinner. And maybe it would be fair game if the headlines regularly pointed out what famous men and boys wore on any given day the way they do to women, but they don't unless it deviates from traditional, binary and ridiculously limited social norms.

In fact, I showed the picture of Jaden in said dress to my 6-year-old-son and asked him what he thought. "He has cool hair," Ben said right away, indicating Jaden's sprightly dreds, and pressed a hand to his own thin, blonde hair.

"Do you notice anything else?" I asked my keenly observant and opinionated child.

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Ben cocked his head and shrugged. "Nope," he said, and I sent him on his way.

Whenever, during a playdate, whether boys or girls are over, I hear phrases like, "Pink is for girls" or "Boys don't wear dresses," I always take the opportunity to intervene. "Who says pink is for girls?" I'll ask the children. "Who is the authority on wearing dresses?"

They look up at me with their wide, open eyes. Not once has a child been able to give me an answer better than, "That's what my friend told me," or "My brother always says that."

I like to remind them that traditional Scottish men wore skirts known as kilts, and women once had to fight for the right to wear pants—that until the mid-19th Century, pink was a color only worn by boys and men.

My son loved wearing a crown and fairy wings until he was 5 ... and I couldn't care less about it.

Binaries are good at creating systems that make people feel other, broken and different from one another, and thus perfectly poised to want and then purchase products that will make us feel whole again. Capitalism is built upon these simple labels and gets squirmy around gray areas, which is why I was so happy to see ModCloth recently launch a campaign with a transwoman as their model.

I have friends who fall across the gender spectrum. My transgender friends—people born to one gender, but who identify more with their non-biological gender, and have taken steps to live in the world to match how they feel inside—post daily updates about the way "cis" people (those of us who live as the biological gender we were born with) respond terribly, even aggressively to what they don't understand. And every month another transgender teen takes their own life because of bullying.

In the tiny, California town where I grew up there's a man everyone calls "Snoopy." Don't know why, never asked. Snoopy has always dressed in hot pants and tank tops, even roller skates. He wears his hair long and occasionally wears lipstick. There have been no hate crimes perpetrated against him, no demands that he conform to male attire or call himself a woman. He is who he is and the town accepts him. And why shouldn't they?

It gives me hope that Jaden Smith, a very public figure, is comfortable wearing dresses without attaching any other explanation to it other than that he likes the fashion. Clothes do not make the person or the gender, and I hope that I am successfully teaching my son the same.

A friend of mine has a son and two daughters. Her son always insisted on and preferred to wear dresses—and why not? His two sisters always did.

My son loved wearing a crown and fairy wings until he was 5, and he still gravitates toward things often socially considered "girlish" like toy wands and shiny fabrics. And I couldn't care less about it, but a man at a kid's birthday party once remarked, "Ooh, watch out. People might think he's light in the loafers."

"So?" I shot him a clear look of disgust.

I am most encouraged, however, by the teen children of my friends, who are turning out to be much more open about gender than even we so-called "progressive" minded adults. A friend's son referred to his male friend as bisexual with a casual shrug of the shoulders. Other teens insist they are "pansexual" or "genderqueer"—terms emerging in a new landscape of gender fluidity that gives me great hope for the near future.

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I thank Jaden Smith for leading the way toward more awareness and acceptance. The more we let gender lines blur, encouraging people to be who they feel they are, the more freedom it allows for everyone. It goes a long way toward assuring a happier future for those who don't fit into a neatly defined gender box.

Image via Jordan Rosenfeld

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