Dresses, rainbows and unicorns for boys: Raising children without gender norms

As part of CBC Montreal's series, Close Up on Gender, CBC spoke to two parents aiming to raise their children without gender norms.

'When boys wear dresses … it does break people's brains a little bit," says parent Natasha Chenier

Natasha Chenier, right, says her two-year-old son, Ira, has a dress, and it's one of his favourite things to wear. (Submitted by Natasha Chenier)

Close up on Gender is a CBC Montreal series for radio, web and television. You'll hear from Montrealers who are sharing their stories, or thinking and acting differently when it comes to gender in 2019. 

When it came to buying her son a dress, Natasha Chenier was a bit wary.

Half of two-year-old Ira's wardrobe already came from the girls' section of the store, including a pair of bright pink shoes, but he had never shown an interest in a dress before.

"I think that when boys wear dresses there's kind of a line in the sand there, and it does break people's brains a little bit," Chenier said.

Now, she said it's one of his favourites, something he wears in public and to daycare.

"I think people don't really know what's going on there," Chenier said. "But I just like seeing him frolicking around and being happy."

Natasha Chenier and Omar El Masri say they are each trying to raise their respective children without paying too much attention to gender norms. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

As part of CBC Montreal's series, Close Up on Gender, CBC spoke to two parents aiming to raise their children without gender norms.

For Omar El Masri, that means not defining the toys his son plays with. At home, Barbie dolls and a playhouse kitchen sit alongside his son's hockey set.

"I bring him the things that might bring his personality out, encourage his personality to discover what he wants and what he prefers," El Masri explained. While his son hasn't asked for a dress or a skirt, he has grown out his hair and experimented with his mother's makeup.

In both cases, the parents let their children take the lead and decide what they want to engage with. In Chenier's case, that means buying things that would traditionally be seen as more feminine.

"He'll point out what interests him and it's usually just like the brightest, most colourful things," she said.

"He often gravitates towards so-called 'girls' stuff' just because it's, frankly, more fun. Girls get all the unicorns and rainbows."

Speaking to CBC's Daybreak, Chenier and El Masri said they both had experimented as children themselves. Chenier, who was raised in a queer household with two mothers, said she was allowed to pick how she wanted to dress and present herself.

"Sometimes that was a crop cut and so-called boys' clothes, and sometimes I wanted to be a princess and I wanted a pink room with Leonardo DiCaprio all over my walls," she explained. "[My mom] went along with it."

Omar El Masri's son has grown out his hair. His favourite toys include a hockey set and a Barbie dollhouse. (Naskademini)

For El Masri, who was raised in Lebanon, it was the opposite. While he used to play in his mother's high heels and lipstick, he said it wasn't something he could do in front of his father, especially as he got older.

"I tried to raise [my son], not the opposite, but just in a better way than I was raised."

Chenier sees her parenting choices as part of a greater issue.

"It's not just an innocuous issue of pink or blue," she said. "Homophobia and transphobia are really built into these binaries we've set up, and they actually do a great deal of harm to kids who are growing up and trying to discover themselves."

El Masri said he just wants to give his son the opportunity to explore who he wants to be.

"It's a new human being you're raising," he said. "You want to give them the option to discover everything."

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With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak