Tuesday, August 11, 2015

An Open Letter to those struggling with Target's toy decision...

Like most middle-class, American women, Target is one of my happy places.  There's a million reasons this is true, and there are plenty of posts by other bloggers expressing the feelings we all share about Target.  My loyalty to and love for Target grew exponentially with one simple decision; they are removing gender labels from the toy aisles.  If you haven't heard about this yet, get a quick update here.

Decisions like this make my heart happy.  Why should our children feel like they are confined to a certain type of toy or color of toy simply because of their biology?  Don't we want our girls to explore their inner engineers and have building toys that construct more than a pink castle?  Don't we want our boys to find their inner nurturer and have a doll to tend to?  Why would we want to perpetuate a society in which girls take care of babies and boys become scientists and "playmate Dads", but with no crossover?  Those little mindsets turn into HUGE societal mindsets: girls should stay home with their baby after giving birth, and boys can be the CEOs and play with their kids on weekends.

For those against this decision, that seems like an illogical jump and a gross over-exaggeration.  I mean, generations worth of children have survived childhood with gender designated toys and they "turned out just fine", right?  Wrong.  If that were true, we wouldn't still be battling with gender inequality, the negative stigma that is associated with stay-at-home-dads (and even stay-at-home-moms, for that matter!), women who hold high positions wouldn't be coined as "bitchy" when a man in the same position would be coined as "strong", it wouldn't be called "babysitting" when a father is PARENTING on his own...

Growing up in a society that continually sends subliminal messages about gender roles IS dangerous and detrimental to the future.  The good news is, we CAN do something about it.  As a highly educated American, a woman, a department Director, a mother, and a lesbian, I COMPLETELY support this decision and cannot WAIT to see the ripple effect!

Regardless of how I feel, however, I recognize that there are still people who don't share that opinion.  You are entitled to your opinion; I invite you to open your mind for a few minutes and consider the alternative...

My best guess is that those "outraged" by this decision who are promising to boycott Target (good luck), are straight cis men and women.  That means your gender matches your biological sex, and you consider yourself heterosexual.  I'm not making a judgment or trying to define a stereotype, but I can tell you from personal experience, that if you fit that description and are against this decision, that description is probably playing a huge role in why you feel that way.  (Important Note: I am CONFIDENT that there are hetero cis men and women who DO support this decision; I'm simply implying that those who do not support it, likely fit in that category as well.  Allow me to explain...)

Heterosexuals who also identify as their biological sex often take the social cues in the world for granted.  Everywhere you look, you see things you personally relate to.  Those of us who don't fit cleanly into a previously defined box of expectations, don't have the benefit of seeing reflections of ourselves on a daily basis and that IS damaging.

For the MOST part (and I do mean MOST), the messages in society match YOU...
    ...couples on TV are straight
    ...women wear dresses and smile a lot
    ...men wear suits and have powerful jobs
    ...men propose to women
    ...women want and have children
    ...men go right back to work after a baby is born
    ...women stay home and take maternity leave with their newborn
    ...women take their husband's last name
    ...men are expected to be the primary provider for their family

    ...this list goes on and on...

I'm not saying that each of you fit each of those descriptions.  I'm saying that most of society agrees with those "norms" and lives by them... because those are the messages lurking in every corner of society.

Here is my personal example of how impactful those seemingly little messages can be...

I grew up in an Italian Catholic family.  I also grew up in NY where people are more accepting, progressive and open-minded.  I was about 8 years old when I realized that all of my crushes on TV and in movies were girls.  (Mind you, I was *8*.  There was NOT a sexual component to those childhood crushes.  I felt drawn to them and enamored by them, the way young kids do.)  It was also around that time that I became painfully aware that none of my friends felt that way, and I started to realize that I must be "wrong".  I couldn't find examples anywhere of other girls who felt like I did.  Everywhere I turned, girls and boys liked each other.  I may not have consciously processed that when I was 8, but I vividly recall feeling like it was something I needed to keep to myself.  So I did.

As I got a little older and my crushes got more intense, I had this fear of someone finding me out.  I paid attention to who the other girls liked and picked boys that fit the classically good looking description (like Toby from Baywatch, JTT and Andrew Keegan), and decided to make myself crush them instead.  (Having an obsessive personality, this was easier to do than I would have thought, but it still wasn't "right".)  Once I had enough pinups of boys plastered on my walls, I'd pick one or two of the REAL crushes I couldn't get out of my head (insert Kimberly the Pink Power Ranger -- Amy Jo Johnson) and hang them up too.  I mean, there were enough boys up there that no one would suspect I "liked" the girls that way, right?  Sadly, yes, that was right.

The even sadder part is, deep down inside, I truly believed my family loved me and would accept me if I ever shared my secret... but I didn't want to take that risk.  My childhood and teenage years were hard enough; if I admitted that I was a lesbian, I was also accepting that everything about my life from that point forward would be harder than it was for anyone else.  That infuriated me and seemed SO unfair!  But it also solidified what society was already secretly telling me: how I felt was wrong so I should stop feeling that way.  ...believe me when I tell you, take the challenges I already had in life (see link above), add the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence, and throw the HEAPING pressure of self-loathing on top of it and, frankly, it's miraculous I survived those years.  Seriously.

I played the straight game VERY well.  Sure, I fit some stereotypes in that I was always a Tom Boy.  But I'm also girly.  I was always just as excited to sweat it up playing sports, take my brother's Hot Wheels and build intricate ramps, and beg to play Mortal Kombat, as I was to pick out a new dress, let my mom do my hair, and wear pretty accessories and shoes.  I made it a point to always talk about guys "I liked", and to show my interest in being just like Samantha Jones.  (Even though I was WAY more interested IN Samantha Jones.)  I actively dated guys and made sure that was a well-known fact.  I even joked about my interest in "becoming" a lesbian when guys were being ridiculous.  I was in serious relationships with men to the point that *3* different guys, upon breaking up with them, told me they were already ring shopping.  (I'm sorry, guys. :(  I had genuinely convinced myself that "I could be happy with this nice guy who loves me" until I realized I couldn't.)

In the middle of all this chaos, society started to shift... marriage equality jumped to the forefront of the judicial world, more and more TV shows and movies were portraying same-sex couples as NORMAL people (thank YOU Shonda Rhimes! #seriously) who happened to prefer their own gender.  It became a conversation.  It became acceptable (to most).  It became commonplace.  Sure, there were still negatives associated with it and ignorant people who are still talking about "Adam and Steve", but as a whole, it wasn't an anomaly anymore.  The evolved FAR out weighed the ignorant.  I started telling myself that it was time and looking for validation of that instinct everywhere... I had to take the leap and trust in the people I love to still love me anyway - and (with the sad exception of one "friend") they did.

After 23 years of keeping my secret, I stopped.  I am now FINALLY my true-self.  I have never been happier for a second of my LIFE, until I stepped out of that proverbial closet and owned who I really am.

If society didn't shift, I'm not sure if my courage would have either.

That brings us full-circle... let kids be KIDS.  STOP sending messages that confine them to little, archaic boxes of what it means to be a kid, or a boy, or a girl.  Let them just BE.  Let them find their own interests and passions without the suggestion of what they "should" like because of the genitals they happen to possess.  Let boys develop an interest in cooking sets and dolls so they can find they have a calling as a Chef or father.  Let girls discover their inner superheroes and architects.  Let them do that without feeling like they are different or strange because they prefer "the boy's/girl's" toy.  Remove the unnecessary stigmas.  If you love and support them, they will turn into powerful grownup versions of THEMSELVES, and they will be a MILLION times happier and more secure in life because of it.  Besides, you can't ever succeed in MAKING a person be anything -- straight, gay, transgender, or purple.  Everyone is who they are and that should be nurtured, not judged and shaped.  So, listen to the Beatles: Let It BE!

Having a gender-free selection of toys could NEVER "turn" a child gay, or result in them questioning their gender identity -- and that is NOT what this is about.  They don't need an aisle to be labeled by their gender to find their way in the world.  It certainly will NOT hurt *anyone* to remove said label, but it can do a lot of damage to not.

Be part of the evolving world which is centered on acceptance (*not* the passive aggressive, bigoted "tolerance") and help our society progress.  There is no downside to letting people be who they are and feel secure in that... they will only contribute greater things to the world as their confidence and self-esteem will encourage.