“He said I was gay,” reported my nearly nine year old son after arriving home from school one day last week.
It was a warm March day, and he was walking home with a few school friends. To cool off, he rolled-up his pants, revealing his skinny calves planted firmly in a pair of hot pink athletic socks.
His entire ensemble was cause for sideways glances. I laughed heartily when I saw him that afternoon: His silver-grey athletic pants with a neon yellowish stripe down each leg were rolled-up to just below his knees. His pale, twig-like legs were banded just above his ankles by the bright warmth of his pink socks which stuck out of his dirty, grey sneakers. (Comfort, not style, has always been the guiding principle behind my boys’ fashion choices).
But for the kid doing the accusing, it probably wasn’t my son’s clam-digger-look that was troubling. It was that vibrant fuchsia fabric around his calves. I can almost hear his brain attempting to process a boy who likes pink. I imagine him with steam pouring out of his ears, like in a cartoon. But then, his brain must have settled on an idea, a word, “gay”. It is symbolic of so much in the world of boys, and, clearly, this kid understood that.
As my son recounted the tale, I awkwardly navigated the terrain laid out before me. Begrudging the kid who delivered this teachable moment to my doorstep, I explained what my son already knew, what I and his father had already told him many times: Pink is just a color. It has nothing to do with anything. Being gay is just about who a person loves. It has nothing to do with colors. And, even though this kid used the word gay as an insult, being gay is just as natural as being straight. Those words are just there to help us describe a person’s characteristics, like saying someone has blue eyes or brown hair.
Sure, it was all the right stuff to say; it was simple. But simple truths become far more complex when road-tested in the real world. Pink is just a color–until it isn’t. And, any boy perusing his local toy store knows it. Pink Legos and baseball bats don’t exist to add variety for boys; they exist to attract girls to those items. Offering pink toys doesn’t break down the invisible barriers, it helps to reinforce them.
“Gay” and “straight” are equally normal? One bears the crushing weight of contradicting socially-expected and stereotypical masculinity. The other is always good, whether you’re drawing a line, mowing a lawn, or hanging a picture. Stay on the straight and narrow, as it were. Our words for these characteristics are tainted, and kids know it.
Colors and words become simple expressions of complex social norms that exist to distill our humanity into check boxes on a page. Those social norms pervade how we talk and think about our capabilities, expectations, and choices. They are so much a part of the landscape that they go unnoticed, until someone decides to step outside the invisible lines.
Months ago, my son asked that we buy him a pink school spirit t-shirt. Attempting to find the space between himself and the world, he only wears the shirt inside our house. But that embarrassing moment he was hoping to avoid just happened anyways.
While this experience hasn’t changed his mind about the shirt, it also hasn’t changed his mind about his socks. After our chat, he didn’t hide in the house or roll down his pants. He changed into shorts and kept the socks on. And, at least outwardly, he moved on and got to the business of being a kid–friends, video games, homework, chores.
Because, of course, a boy is more than the color of his socks. He is the embodiment of love, family, and friendship, of age and experience. He is life unfurling. And, I like to think, he is far more powerful and clever than the invisible lines that seek to contain him.