Was FDR born that way?

Back when kids were kids.

I can’t wait to see historian Jo B. Paoletti’s forthcoming book Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America. Her work is profiled in a new Smithsonian.com article my friend Scott showed me. I used an article of hers to write about historical changes in the social construction of gender for children, which got me into the whole gender-color thing.

The Smithsonian article has this great portrait of Franklin Roosevelt at about age 2, dressed — as children typically were at that time — in a gender-neutral outfit of frilly white dress, patent-leather shoes, feathery hat and long hair:

I recommend the article.

It reminds me of the Born This Way blog, which features pictures of kids that, in the view of their adult selves, express their true nature. The site is “a statement in sociology. As you’ll see – time after time – their sexual orientation was simply NOT a choice.” Here’s one:

The text says:

In 1968, I was “The Flying Nun” for Halloween, as I was obsessed with her TV show. Everyone had a big laugh over the boy in a dress! But being so young, I really didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I kept wearing my magical dress for playtime, all the way through here, in the summer of ’69. I started to sense that I was different from anyone I knew. By the time I was 12, it dawned on me that I was gay.

So, what would a gay 5-year-old in 1884 have done?

7 thoughts on “Was FDR born that way?

  1. That’s a great question, and one that I was only able to raise — and not to answer definitively — in the book. My guess:

    * gay children still felt “different” as they gained awareness of cultural norms and expectations
    * this sense of difference was mitigated and probably delayed because early childhood culture was less gender binary than it is today. In the baby books I examined, baby dolls were common gifts for both boys and girls at their first Christmas or birthday.
    * the transition to boy clothing and the first haircut might have been more jarring for boys who were comfortable in feminized “baby”styles.

    I am hoping this first serious foray into the topic will inspire others to examine this question. I am dying to see what historical clinical literature might reveal, for example.

    (I posted this reply to my blog, with a link to your post as well.)


  2. I am so intrigued by this question – especially the possible delayed ‘outsider’ feeling as gender neutrality continued longer than at present. My eldest son is now 7, but when he was 3 I had a huge row with my (now ex) husband about our son wanting to wear his snow white outfit to the shops. I now have a one-year-old with a new partner of Indian heritage. The Indian tradition is that boys’ hair isn’t cut until 2 years old, and our very long-haired baby boy is assumed to be a girl. It doesn’t bother me, but the stranger complementing my ‘beautiful girl’ is always mortified. Why is there so much embarrassment about people not knowing the sex of a baby? And how did I miss out on it?


  3. I don’t care for the title of this article because It hink a lot of people will take away from this that he was somehow gay because he looked like what we consider today to be a girl. Also, way people back then had less stigma in some ways. It wasn’t until WWI that our society became hyper-sexualized and new extremist “God hates fags” type movements began to emerge, along with a strong homophobia and pedophilophobia. Sure, they weren’t perfectly accepted, but “foppish” men were everywhere, straight and gay alike, and gays didn’t face the same kind of animosity that we focus on now.


  4. If people knew as little about geography as they know about sex typing of clothes (which we no longer do to restrict women), people on both coasts would not be aware that another major ocean exists, or that the oceans have anything to do with the hydrologic cycle. “Mental health professionals” know the very least about gender and clothing of any group! Have a review of the start page at the nonprofit site linked. Skirts and fancy clothes as sex differences? So if pants and plain clothes aren’t sex differences that women should abstain from wearing them, does that make women hermaphrodites? No, it just means we allow women human choices in attire, but deny this basic right to men. And it is NOT skirts/fancy clothes that gay men are interested in—it’s their similar anatomy. A box of corn flakes is unchanged as to contents regardless of how the package may change!


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