April 13, 2011 -- A mother paints her son's toenails hot pink because it's his favorite color. Does that mean he'll become gay or transgender? That is the controversy surrounding a J. Crew ad that is swirling around the Internet.
It began when a photo of J. Crew's president and creative director Jenna Lyons painting the toenails of her son Beckett in an ad was sent to customers last week in a feature, "Saturday with Jenna."
"Lucky for me I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink," says the caption. "Toenail painting is way more fun in neon."
Social conservatives reacted with outrage. Fox News' Dr. Keith Ablow ran an opinion piece on the issue and Erin Brown of the right-leaning Media Research Center called the ad "blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children."
"Not only is Beckett likely to change his favorite color as early as tomorrow, Jenna's indulgence (or encouragement) could make life hard for the boy in the future," Brown wrote. J. Crew, known for its tasteful and modest clothing, apparently does not mind exploiting Beckett behind the facade of liberal, transgendered identity politics."
Reaction to the reaction was appalled at the notion that the child was being "turned" gay or transgender.
One of Brown's online readers wrote, "A small child, with no secondary sexual characteristics, cannot be considered 'transgendered' or even a transvestite. On the other hand, a fully grown person such as yourself can definitely be considered a small-minded a**hole."
Another noted that Speaker of the House John Boehner loves pink ties -- does that make him gay?
Advocacy groups are also fighting back, calling the reaction to the ad "ridiculous."
"This is not how the world works and not how children work, and not even how trans advocacy works," said Mara Keisling, executive director of National Center for Transgender Equality.
"Complaints about the ad are totally blown out of proportion," she said. "It's just a cute ad with a cute mom-and-son scene and the kid wants to wear pink nail polish...It could be the kids just wants to spend time with his mom."
A report last week by the Williams Institute, a UCLA think tank that focuses on lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender issues, reveals that an estimated 4 percent of Americans are gay and of that only about .3 percent are transgender.
Most research on gender identity and sexual orientation concludes that neither is a choice. Nor can they be shaped by a parent's wishes, said Dr. Jack Drescher, a New York City psychiatrist.
Drescher, who wrote the 2010 paper, "Queer Diagnoses," which was published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, serves on the American Psychiatric Association's committee that is addressing sexual and gender identity disorder for the DSM-V. DSM-V is psychiatry's encyclopedia of behavioral diagnoses.
"I can say with 100 percent certainty that a mother painting her children's toe nails pink does not cause transgenderism or homosexuality or anything else that people who are social conservatives would worry about," he said.
No One Knows the Cause of Transgenderism
"First of all, no one knows what causes transgenderism, and the idea that painting toenails pink causes it has no scientific validity," said Drescher. "What we do know is many people feel that it is their role to police gender and tell them what correct behavior is for boys and girls."
Feminist notions that gender is culturally determined are also erroneous, according to Drescher. Most studies showed that if boys were given Barbie dolls, they would "use them as if they were guns," he said.
"Certainly research shows that there are gender preferences in the way kids like to play, and boys may be rougher than girls," he said. "But then there is a broad range of children who don't fit into larger categories and for some families it causes panic and for some, it's not a problem at all."
Friction can result when someone outside the family -- a friend or perhaps a "horrified grandmother" -- tries to tell parents "what is right and wrong."
Drescher said there were "many pathways" to becoming gay or transgender and "not one size fits all." Some know when they are young and others could never have predicted their later feelings of sexual orientation or gender identity.
"The idea that a parent is indulging a child's interest in unconventional gender behavior does something to the child has no scientific basis," he said.
Meanwhile, J. Crew officials had no comment on the pink toenail controversy, but one parent wondered online, "Why would I want my son to paint his toenails pink? Why would I want my son to paint his toenails at all?"