It isn’t pink with princess stickers, nor is it blue with DC comic book superheroes. There are two things that make the perfect sled, according to Zack Malbogat: It’s super fast, and it’s covered in rainbows.
When Zack went sled shopping this year, he ran into an array of gendered sleds. He doesn’t think it has to be that way.
“For people who make sleds, you could do lighting bolts,” the 9-year-old suggested. “For people who make toys, make them all of the colors.”
Zack, a transgender boy living in Toronto, is among a growing number of gender-diverse children navigating the holidays and the toys that often come with them in a world that still codes play in pink and blue.
The holiday gift-buying season makes Julie Malbogat, Zack’s mom, acutely aware of the gendered toy selection available to her son. About six months after Zack told his family he was a boy last year, he asked his parents for a basketball net, a dart board and a punching bag last Christmas.
“He almost never played with any of them,” Malbogat said. “So on reflection now, I’m wondering if he made those very stereotypically boy choices to assert his boy identity and make sure that everyone knew he’s a boy and he wants boy stuff.”
She continued: “He may want something, but if it is pink or frilly or glittery, then his instinct would be to reject it, not because he doesn’t necessarily like it, but because he knows that that implies girl, and he is not one.”
Now, Malbogat is on the hunt for the perfect sled, one that can hurtle her son down a hill without the color coding. It seems simple enough. Finding a gender-neutral toy can be a tall order, but one with big impacts.
Andrew Sackett-Taylor counsels dozens of transgender kids in his job as a a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Transhealth Northampton, the first rural transgender health clinic in the country. He says honoring a child’s gender complexity at a young age can create safe space for them as they develop. Sackett-Taylor says experiences in which kids can see themselves reflected in toys matter, for kids who are transgender and cisgender alike. For trans kids, they can help them figure out they are trans, or assure them that they aren’t alone.
“If they’re supportive and coming out in early childhood, then conversations about what they actually want to play with and having their space can be hugely affirming or hugely not affirming,” he said.
Trans kids will use those toys, books and clothing to communicate who they are, he added. When the stakes are scary for kids who are testing out if their parents and peers will accept them, Sackett-Taylor advises his young clients to ease into exploring their genders incrementally, trying on a tie in the privacy of their rooms where they feel safe. Or maybe picking up the doll to play with, if that’s what their heart tells them.
“Not all of my patients that I see are willing and or able or capable at this point to be like, ‘I’m gonna wear whatever I want to school and I’m not going to care about the reaction,’” he said. “A lot of people care about the reaction.”
The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found in 2017 that 0.7 percent of kids age 13 to 17 identify as transgender. Data on younger kids was not available because the study was based on surveys that the federal government does in high schools. But research suggests that many more young people are coming out as gender variant than ever before. Last year, the journal Pediatrics published a study that found 1 in 10 teens identify as gender diverse, or falling outside the binary of man or woman, analyzing a sample size of more than 3,400 kids across 12 high schools.
Kids increasingly expect a world that reflects who they are, experts say, and that includes things as simple as toys that reflect them.
Earlier this year, Lego announced it would be easing up on gendering of its products after an internal study it conducted of 7,000 kids across the globe revealed that toys perpetuating gender stereotypes were limiting children. The study found that 71 percent of boys interviewed were afraid they would be mocked for playing with “girl” toys, while girls were increasingly exploring toys traditionally made for boys. The company concluded that girls were also developing less spatial skills by being discouraged from playing with construction toys and that those limitations showed up in their careers later in life.
In the UK, nonprofit Let Toys Be Toys lobbies toy companies and book publishers to weed out gender labels, arguing that the labels limit children’s interests, setting girls up to play house for a lifetime. The organization has persuaded retailers to drop gender labels in toy aisles and on websites.
In 2015, Target made national headlines by doing just that. The company removed gendered signage from many sections of its stores, most notably its toy aisles. At the time, the move set off a fiery debate as conservative pundits and evangelical leaders vowed to boycott the chain. The company said in a statement to The 19th that it has not made changes to its signage since that time.
Still, many companies have quietly shed their binary label systems. Fisher-Price allows a consumer to shop by nearly 30 categories, eight age groups and seven brands, but the company has no option for searching for toys by gender. Hasbro likewise sorts its toys by age, brand and type of toy. Gender is not among the filters on its site. Shoppers on Etsy, where smaller vendors can showcase their crafts, can filter toys by gender still, but that requires a bit of searching.
Aaron Williams, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect his 8-year-old transgender son from harassment, said his family has gravitated toward gifting one another books.
“That’s a space where we’ve found more ability to present to them perspectives and points of view,” Williams said. “It’s where our oldest can see himself represented, particularly the rise of a lot of LGBTQ literature toward kids, which has been a great moment for us.”
Williams’ son Kevin, also a pseudonym, says he hasn’t struggled to find toys that work for him. Ask him what he wants for Christmas and he quickly says “Animals!” (The stuffed variety.) The shy D.C. resident who likes martial arts gravitates toward toys that have historically been marketed as gender neutral — Legos and blocks.
“He wasn’t a big truck kid and he also wasn’t a big doll kid,” Williams said.
But finding gifts that reflect their son as he articulated who he was has still been important, said Williams. Books have provided that outlet for their whole family.
Among the new books for trans kids is “Calvin,” a story that chronicles the journey of a transgender boy as he tells his parents who he is. The story has been celebrated as one of a handful of books that feature a trans protagonist. It is also among just a handful of books that center a trans kid of color.
Vanessa Ford — who co-authored the book with her husband, J.R. — said they wrote the book out of necessity. They have a nonbinary child, Ellie. Ford said that when her family looked for toys for Ellie, it was often divided into the “pink aisles” and the “Nerf gun, Lego aisles.” This extended even into books — the couple found few about trans kids, in particular trans kids of color, like Ellie.
“We were looking at the children’s books. … We couldn’t find any that represented trans kids of color, and there were also very few books, if any, about trans boys,” Ford said.
“Calvin” is not autobiographical. While the Fords do have a transgender child, Ellie, Ford is clear that the book is fiction, loosely based on experiences the couple has had as trans activists in the years since Ellie came out.
“When we started writing this we talked with Ellie about it, and Ellie was very clear that they did not want it to be their story,” Ford said. “Interestingly, even though this is not a book about Ellie, when we gave it to some folks, Ellie said, ‘Now you know my life.’ So, they see themselves reflected in this book, and very proudly reflected in this book.”