(Originally published as my Mombian newspaper column.)
I was recently asked by a mainstream journalist: “Are you worried about providing male role models for your son?”
I answered, as I always do to the question, “No.” It’s not that I don’t want him to have male role models; it’s just that I’m not worried about it. I think that very often, when the media asks that question, they are ignoring the realities not only of same-sex and single parents’ lives, but also of children’s lives in general.
A few weeks ago, for example, I went to a department store with my eight-year-old son to buy him a dress shirt for his piano recital. It wasn’t a super-fancy affair, but I wanted him to wear something a little nicer than his usual Lego Star Wars t-shirt. I was envisioning a plain white button-down shirt and khakis.
To my surprise, he made a beeline for the tie rack, insisting that he wanted to wear a tie, too. He pulled off a spiffy bright blue one with a thin diamond pattern in green, and then told me he preferred a light blue shirt to go with it.
After that—and even more surprising—he said he wanted to get a pocket square as well. I reeled from his sartorial vision. He’s rarely seen any of his close male relatives in suits (we’re a casual bunch), and not one of them has ever worn a pocket square. (Neither have my spouse or I, for that matter—we’re just not that butch.) Somehow, though, my son had created an image in his mind of what a well-dressed man should wear, and was pursuing it.
His conception of how to dress like a man is therefore clearly influenced by far more than just the men to whom he is closest. And even children with opposite-sex parents are influenced by more than just their parents, no matter how primary the parents’ influence may be.
The incident got me thinking further about the whole issue of gendered role models. I think there are three essential points many non-LGBT people miss when they inquire about this issue.First, most lesbian moms don’t live in feminist communes with nary a man in sight. Fact is, most of us have fathers, brothers, donors, or other men who are close to us in our families—not to mention coaches, teachers, clergy members, fathers of our children’s friends, and other respectable people of the male variety (whether cisgender or transgender) in our communities. And many of the lesbian moms I know make an extra effort to reach out to them. The same is true in reverse for gay dads seeking female role models for their children.
Second, it’s hard to talk about gendered role models without getting into clichéd gender stereotypes. Many butch lesbian moms exude more masculinity than a lot of the men I know—but even I, a middle-of-the-road kind of gal, can still teach my son to throw a ball, shoot an arrow, swing a hammer, and other such “manly” things. (The Dangerous Book for Boys, a tome of adventurous activities for tween and teen boys that came out a few years ago, reads like a chronicle of much of my own childhood.)
Yes, it’s just as biased to assume all lesbians have such masculine interests (or that gay men have feminine ones), but nor should we assume the opposite—that children without a male parent will learn no “masculine” skills at home. Such assumptions also insult straight moms who coach sports, or straight dads who teach their children to sew.
If we leave aside stereotypes, however, I will agree it is important for my son to have role models of people who identify as male—not because of any old-fashioned beliefs about men’s interests and roles vs. women’s—but because I believe there’s a resonance when a child sees a person who identifies the same way he or she does. I think it is important for my son to have male role models, in the same way it is important to have LGBT-headed families appear in books and media. It’s reassuring to see that part of oneself reflected in a positive way.
That doesn’t mean those role models need to adhere to any particular definition of what it means to “be a man.” It’s probably even better if they don’t—that way, my son can find his own way of being and his own position on the spectrum of masculinity.
Lastly, when the media asks about role models of the opposite gender, it seems they are really going after the heart of the argument over whether same-sex couples—or single parents of any orientation—should be parents. The question seems to imply “Don’t you worry that you’re lacking an essential component for raising a child?”
Fact is, almost every parent and parenting couple, LGBT and not, lacks something they will need to raise their child. A non-athletic couple could be raising a child with a talent for soccer; someone who is tone deaf might be raising a child who wants to become a professional pianist. We will all likely do the same thing, and look to friends and community for advice and role models. It does take the proverbial village to raise a child, and in this, LGBT and non-LGBT parents are very much alike.
So I don’t worry about needing male role models for my son, although I want and welcome them. Maybe I’ll buy them all pocket squares as a gift. I hear they’re a hot accessory for men these days.