Boys don’t cry. Or so they’re told. But Minnesota native Kyle Letendre thumbed his nose at gender stereotypes on Friday when he Instagrammed a picture of a pink pleather jacket with the glittering words “Boys Don’t.”
Growing up I was always softer than the other boys — swishier, quieter, more expressive — and I was warned that this was not the way boys behave. “Boys don’t draw, and boys don’t sew. Boys don’t care about handwriting or flowers.” It took some time, but eventually I built a life out of all the things “boys don’t” do. So in between projects, I’ve been hand sewing a couple sequins here and there to make my own sissy punk jacket. Because boys like me don’t care anymore. ✨
The post surpassed 1,000 likes on Instagram in less than 24 hours.
“I was really humbled by the response,” Letendre says. Men with similar experiences of being gender-bullied showed up in the comment sections. Women responded, saying that they heard similar gender-biased messages such as “girls don’t care about science.” Parents shared their efforts to accept and nurture their own sensitive sons. (Letendre is quick to add, however, that “If your kids just like football, that’s totally fine, too. I don’t want to be crapping all over their dreams, either.”)
The jacket was purchased from Forever21’s website. When it arrived, he didn’t like the fit. Instead of getting rid of it, he decided to make it worth wearing. Over 115 hours, Letendre hand-sewed sequins onto black canvas, cut out the words, and attached it to the jacket. He posted images of it on social media, and the likes racked up.
The message he wants to get across is: “Do your thing and do it exactly how it suits you, no matter what that thing is.”
Letendre is a freelance lettering artist, illustrator, and designer currently based in Chicago, but he grew up in White Bear Lake. As a child, he heard many “boys don’t” messages but didn’t abide by them. Strength-based activities like hockey, wrestling, and football didn’t appeal to him. Despite being steeped in Midwestern hunting culture, he was more interested in finding flowers.
Letendre says his mother “realized from a young age that I was kind of soft all around and she was totally on board with it.” She didn’t force her son into sports because she understood, “I would have just cried on the field,” Letendre says. The men in his family were less supportive, albeit in a loving way a la,“Hey, they’re going to be rough on you out there. Maybe you should toughen up.”
But by the end of high school, Letendre realized none of these gender rules really mattered. He didn’t think people imparted them with maliciousness, but were instead parroting back what they had been told by their parents or society at large. He knew he had to get out of White Bear Lake to find other “soft boys” and people who didn’t praise male aggression.
Letendre enrolled in a college in rural Iowa. Though he’d always considered himself a small-town guy, at college he met truly small-town folk. For many of his classmates, Letendre was the first queer person that they’d ever encountered.
Still, he managed to find his tribe. “I think there are soft and sympathetic people anywhere. It takes a little time to find them,” he says. He embraced the “fashion sins” of wearing pink, florals, and sequins. “I was kind of like, ‘I don’t really care about this anymore. I look really cute in pink. I’m just going to wear it all the time,’” he says.
About halfway through his undergrad, Letendre decided to study graphic design, and transferred to Columbia College in Chicago, a much more progressive atmosphere. “It may as well have rainbows on the walls,” he says.
After obtaining a BFA, Letendre worked his way up to senior designer at a creative studio. But the office environment was rife with “weird dude energy” and machismo. Letendre ruminated on how “all the things we were told as kids [about gender] were kind of bullshit,” and realized he wanted to work with more queer-friendly clients. So in 2017, he quit. He’s been freelancing for almost a year now.
Letendre has addressed gender-related issues in his personal work and on social media before, but now he’s more fired up than ever to explore that arena. “If you look through a compendium of contemporary illustrators, it’s kind of all dudes. Ironically, it’s a pretty male-dominated field, which I think is another problem in and of itself,” he says. The lettering community, at least on Instagram, also consists of primarily straight artists. He’d like to see more queer design represented.
As for whether he’ll do more wearable work? “Heck yes,” he says. “I’m hopeful that in future wearables I can continue doing more things that are kind of around being effeminate and being soft and being fine with it.”