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Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D. Headshot

Look at Him, He's Sandra Dee: What House of Lies' Roscoe Can Teach Us About Gender-Nonconforming Children

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On Jan. 8, 2012, in a television series seemingly about corporate greed and rampant sexuality -- Showtime's new series House of Lies, starring Don Cheadle -- a very unconventional child character made his debut on American television: Marty Kaan, the main character in House of Lies, stalwartly goes to bat for his gender-nonconforming, 12-year-old son Roscoe. Roscoe wears skirts and drapes himself in shimmery scarves. He has a major goal: to get picked for the part of Sandy in his school's production of Grease. And he gets the part, until a mother complains -- it's a girl's part, after all. Marty is befuddled by his son's gender transgressions, but Marty's own wise father, a retired mental health professional, offers his son sound counsel: just let Roscoe be who he is.

Marty and Roscoe are only fictional characters. But they mirror the challenges that are facing real families and real classrooms all around the country and beyond. As author of Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children, and as a psychologist who spends much of my time working with children who just don't fit inside neat, binary gender boxes, I applaud Showtime and the writers of House of Lies for bringing a new perspective on children's gender in a compelling and sympathetic way, and one that hopefully opens up the question: who should get to be Sandra Dee?

Who is Roscoe? Ken Tucker, critiquing the show, thinks Roscoe is conflicted about his pubescent sexuality. Jesse Carp, another critic, is quite sure Roscoe is a flamboyantly homosexual son. Wrong, or at least we don't know yet. Lesson number one: children who mix up gender in their dress, in their play, and in their self-declaration as "boy," "girl," or "other" are telling us information about their gender, not their sexuality. All we know about Roscoe is that he is challenging our gender prescriptions and proscriptions of what boys or girls can or cannot do. Yes, maybe someday he might go on to be gay, exploring the margins of gender on the way to understanding who he likes -- boys, girls, both, or other. But I cannot stress enough that sexual identity and gender identity are not the same; they are two separate tracks. If it helps, jumping ahead to adulthood, gender is who we go to bed as, whereas sexuality is who we go to bed with. It is so important that we start getting that straight (no pun intended). If we don't, we'll miss seeing our children for who they are and hearing what they're trying to tell us.

What does Roscoe do when he's told that the well-earned part of Sandy is pulled from him by the principal? He's furious, as well he should be. Lesson number two: it is not for us to tell children what their gender is; that's up to the children to say. As Marty says, backing Roscoe in a heated argument with the school principal, "Sandy is not a girl's part, it's a Sandy part." And if we stretch that exclamation further, our children should have the right to decide how they want to express gender, not limited by our gender policing but by the children's own gender creativity -- how they weave together all the meanings of gender and beyond to come to a gender that is their true authentic one, which may be male, female, gender-blended, or something of their own invention.

Don Cheadle, who plays the part of Marty, wonders whether the character of Roscoe is questioning his gender. Maybe. But maybe not. He may just be exploring it, or playing with it, or just being creative about it. So just who is questioning? Lesson number three: typically, with gender-nonconforming kids, the questioning is more ours than theirs. It can make us anxious when we can't pinpoint a child's gender. It can make parents especially anxious; they're the ones who get fingers pointed at them, with people asking, "Why do you let your kid do that? That's' sick." To escape the anxiety that a gender-bending kid like Roscoe can generate in all of us, we may be tempted to jump to, "Oh, it's just a phase. He'll outgrow it." Any time you have a phase to outgrow, it equates with something we all hope will disappear. Children's gender expressions may indeed evolve over time, but gender is never a phase. It may be a cross-section in time, it may be a forever thing, but it is always a deep and real thing about a child at that particular time and place. The best thing we can do about our own questioning is to use it to relearn gender and come to know that parents have very little control over their children's gender identity but tremendous influence over their children's gender health.

If House of Lies can bring into all our living rooms a new consciousness that the Roscoes of the world need loving parents and supportive communities who will follow Roscoe's grandfather's advice and open up the space for all the children to discover their true gender selves, then we will make the world a better place for the children of all genders. So thank you, House of Lies, for bringing us closer to the truth.