“Normal” is a Social Construct

Nina McCollum
6 min readMar 1, 2019

My son is in 4th grade. In the fall, he will move on to middle school. I’ve been trying to prepare him for what life will be like in a much bigger school environment. There will be more kids, more homework, less free/play time. It will be a little more challenging, and as you proceed through middle school, there will be physical and hormonal changes you and your friends will go through that will affect how you feel, dress, and behave in this new environment. People might start to make fun of other kids for their clothes or hair or for somehow being “different.” There might be bullying, which hasn’t really manifested itself yet in elementary.

I think preparation for each stage of what may come next in life is one of the most important things I can do for my son as his parent. I’ve been there, done that. He has no siblings, so nobody to pave the way, the way my older sister did for me. I still remember us going up to the high school the summer before my freshman year, us walking all around the school until we found a door that was unlocked (there was always one — times were different in the 80s). She walked me all around the school, which was huge (to me). She told me what period I’d have lunch, as all the orchestra people ate during the same lunch period. She showed me where the freshman lockers and classes were. She took me upstairs and down halls and pointed out names on doors and said, if you get lost, go to this teacher’s room, they are nice, they will help you. She walked me down the long, sloping hallway ramp that led to the wing with the band room, where I would end up spending most of my time in high school — it was where I hung out after school to wait for mom to get off work if I couldn’t catch a ride, and didn’t want to tackle the 2-mile walk home. It was where I felt welcome, valid and important. I helped listen to music the band and orchestra directors were considering for the coming year’s slate. They asked my opinion. They gave me different instruments to try. My orchestra teacher once said that with instruction, I could master any instrument in 6 weeks. That kind of validation was in short supply during my school years. I want to provide it to my son.

I’ve talked to my child since he was very little about the fact that someone may seem to have romantic feelings for him, and how to prepare him to deal with that, especially if he doesn’t feel the same way back. I’ve talked to him about how girls and boys might express interest in him, and how to handle it delicately so as not to hurt someone’s feelings. I check in with him from time to time to see if any of his friends seem like they are gay, so that he is aware and not participating in any group that would mistreat someone for having those feelings. I think these tactics are as important to impart as teaching him how to handle it if he does like the person back, including discussions about not touching others without their consent, and appropriate behavior in school. Though my son clearly identifies as hetero and has since he was a toddler, as a pan/bi mom, I think the importance of teaching him to be inclusive and aware cannot be overstated.

I was at an event at his school last week and talking with a few other moms I know casually from PTA stuff. Several of us have children who are moving on to middle school next year, and that came up in conversation when we were discussing the end of the year party that we host for 4th graders, their “graduation” from elementary school. We talked about how we are preparing our kids for the transition, and I mentioned how my kid’s teacher has remarked that he’s ready academically, and how I am trying to make sure he’s ready emotionally, including mentioning about how to deal with someone of any gender who might have feelings for him in the new school.

“I have a kind of controversial opinion about that,” one woman said. “Oh?” I asked, with interest. She leaned in and got close to the others in the group, a sure sign that she was going to say something that wasn’t popular or deemed socially acceptable. “I just have a problem with that whole ‘gender thing,’” she said. I looked at her, expressionless, waiting for her to go on. “I just think it’s weird,” she said, “And I don’t support it.” The rest of us waited, as she clearly intended to go on. “I mean, if you’re born with a penis, you’re a BOY. You can’t change that! Pretending to be a girl, I mean, you want everyone to call you a girl, I just can’t with that. I think it’s stupid. It’s not normal.”

Notwithstanding the science that disproves her statement, which I felt would be difficult to explain or defend in a small group setting, I asked her how it differed from someone wishing to be called by a nickname, or even someone changing their name with marriage. “You were named one thing at birth, then you ask to be called something else,” I said. “How does it affect you somehow, if someone asks to be called Maggie instead of Margaret, or you always knew them their whole life as Jane Smith and now they want you call them Jane McGillicuddy?” She just stared at me. You simply accept the change because it’s what the person prefers, I went on. How is that somehow bad or about you, what someone else prefers? “I just don’t understand it!” she exclaimed, throwing up her hands. “I don’t like it!”

I have a trans family member. I have gender fluid exes. At least 70% of my friend base are people who identify somewhere in the LGTBTQ+ spectrum. I’ve been talking to my son about these issues since he was little, exposing him to a wide variety of people and relationships, so that he wouldn’t label things he doesn’t understand as “weird,” but I know not everyone does that.

“You don’t have to understand it,” I said. “That’s the thing.” I explained how my son didn’t “understand” when our family member came out as trans years ago, and I told the woman what I told my son at the time: It doesn’t affect you, just like someone changing their name. It’s simply what they prefer. It’s their personal business, and that’s all you have to know. You don’t need to “understand” it. You just need to respect it, accept what they are telling you as their truth, and treat people the way they want to be treated. Why is that so hard?

Inside, I was appalled and upset, but I tried not to show it. This woman is a nice person. She has spoken to her children about how bullying is wrong, as it is part of the school’s credo to have a “zero tolerance” for bullying, and all parents are required to talk to their children about it. But apparently that hasn’t translated yet to acceptance of all people, and that is disappointing.

I could see that I made her uncomfortable in our conversation, which ended shortly thereafter, though it was still friendly. She had admitted she knew her position was wrong, or at least not socially acceptable or otherwise controversial, but she said it anyway. I feel that we have to work to change minds and hearts like this. You can’t wave a flag saying bullying is wrong and then teach your kids through your own language and behavior that being what you think of is “different” in some fashion is “weird” or wrong or bad, and that you don’t accept it.

This is obviously very important to me. Even if I can only work on one person at a time, I want to change how people who are “different” are accepted. I want people to keep their mouths shut if they don’t like someone else’s choices. It’s personal. I was so poorly treated simply for being “different” (unrelated to gender) throughout my school years, I just can’t stand that for anyone else. I will push for people to accept folks for being the way they are, the way that makes them feel good. I will push my son on it, and I will push other suburban moms on it as well, even if it makes them uncomfortable.

Lives depend on it.

Different is cool.