When we said our vows 11 years ago, I never would have guessed we would be celebrating our anniversary at a Pride Parade. But here we were, all five of us, figuring out what our signs were going to say. What was our most important message to the world on this day?
Mine said, “We heart our Gender-Variant Son!”
I was pretty impressed when my hubby decided on “My Son is Perfect.” He hasn’t always known what to do about this whole thing, so his statement was pretty profound.
Our 4-year-old said, “I want mine [to say] ‘We All Need Love’.”
“Ok, honey, how about ‘All We Need is Love,’ does that work?”
“OK!” he shouted.
“What about yours, what do you want to tell people?” I asked my 5-year-old.
He said, “Girls can wear nail polish. Boys can wear nail polish. Girls can wear skirts. Boys can wear skirts, too. Sometimes I wear skirts. It doesn’t matter!”
I knew this was prompted by a neighborhood kid’s comment that “Boys can’t wear nail polish,” because the boy saw my kids wearing it.
“Well, we do need it to fit on a sign… could we make that shorter?”
He replied with, “I Can Be Who I Am.”
“Perfect. I love it, honey. What about you, sweetie, what do you want to say?”
My 8-year-old paused for a minute, and said, “Gender Variant Joy… No, Joy for Gender-Variant.”
“Ok!” I said, knowing how much he liked using the word “joy” and loving his take on this.
We started on the signs and he said, “Wait, Magic in the Middle. I want it to say that.”
Huh? I refrained from blurting out something about not being jelly-filled donuts. Instead, like my last 3 years of parenting a gender-variant son have taught me, I just kept my mouth shut. I kind of thought he would change his mind, but when he decided on using both, I asked him to explain.
“You know, Mom, how the American Indians thought people like me were magic because we could float between both worlds?”
That is when I felt like the proudest fool on the planet.
“Yep, exactly right.” People like my son weren’t always the outcasts, they weren’t always forced to hide who they really were. At one time, they were celebrated. They were made Shaman and believed to have special powers because they could relate to both genders. If my son had been born then, he would have been celebrated for his gifts.
My son was like every other 2- and 3-year-old boy who liked to play dress up. The first time he asked for the princess dress, I remember a twinge of fear. I quickly dismissed it, knowing that it was totally normal for boys to play dress up, that they were playing out life as they knew it, and moms are a central focus in the life of young children, regardless of their gender. When he was 4 and asked for nail polish when I was doing my nails, I paused. Ok, why not, right? What is nail polish really? It means nothing. But as he kept asking for it, I thought, is this really ok? Why do I feel like I am doing something wrong? Luckily my girlfriend was on the phone at one of these moments and I expressed my concern.
I will never forget how adamantly she said, “So what? It is nail polish, if it makes him happy, do it.”
I am not sure I can thank her enough for that. Just feeling safe supporting my child and knowing that maybe not everyone would criticize me for it was what I needed to hear. After that, “So what?” became my mantra. Any time my son asked for something and I had to pause, I asked myself those two words. I took the time to think my discomfort through. Did it really matter? What does it really mean?
In time I came to a few conclusions: Toys are just toys, clothes are just clothes, colors are just colors. If you didn’t come out of the womb with it, then really, what difference did it make? I often reflected on how quickly society’s views on appropriate gender choices changed. Men used to wear skirts, they used to have long hair and wear make up (think George Washington). When society decided to adopt a standard color profile for each gender, boys were originally intended to use pink and girls to use blue. Pink was considered just a lighter version of red, and therefore masculine. The most popular favorite color for boys under age 5 is pink. Some people believe that as these boys enter school, they quickly learn this color choice is not ok, and change it. Really, it is all kind of ridiculous. In 100 years people will laugh at what we think is socially appropriate now, so if my son has a problem conforming to these made-up rules, so what?
For my son’s 5th birthday we had a party where we sent wishes up to heaven on balloons. I will never forget how I felt when all the moms were writing down the wishes of their kids in these little whispering huddles, and my son said “I wish I was a girl.”
Huh? Cue tires screeching. I wrote out the words and initially wondered what everyone else would think. Hard to admit that. Honestly, I think that is what is at the root of it all. We are all afraid of what everyone else will think, that as parents, we often neglect to consider who really matters most, our kids.
We spent the next year trying to figure out what was missing from his puzzle. What did he need to feel whole?
“Tell me, what is it about girls that you feel like you can’t have or do?”
“I like their clippity-cloppity shoes.”
“Ok, that is easy, let’s take tap class.” He took it and loved it, but something was still missing.
“I want to have long hair.”
“Fine. Let’s grow it out, no biggie.” But no, that wasn’t it either.
“I like their clothes. I like the colors.”
“Well, I don’t really blame you, the boys’ section kinda sucks. You have red, blue, grey, green, and brown. It would be nice if they would put a little more effort into the choices there. Let’s look for some boy’s clothes with colors you like.”
So we went out together and picked out new clothes: pink-striped polo shirts, aqua polo shirts, pale blue button downs, shirts with lots of detail, shirts with patterns he liked. Ok, I think we finally got it.
He had been begging for a birthday photo shoot in his new clothes for months and about 5 months after his birthday I finally had the lights set up and the time to do it. He put on a parade of clothes and posed himself, telling me when to snap the shots. As the child of photographers, he knew what he liked and had seen this done a million times before. I look at the photos now and know there was one thing missing from that photo session. My son. I can only see this now because the next day we did another photo session, one where my real son was actually in the photos. For the first photo shoot, my son was physically there, but his spirit, his joy, his real identity, it was all hiding.
The next day we realized he had outgrown all his jeans, so we ran over to the store to get some bigger ones. We grabbed all the styles from the boy’s section and headed to the fitting rooms. I watched as he pulled on each pair and looked at himself in the mirror, each time with sadness in his face. He didn’t say anything, just looked at himself, but I had never really seen this before. It was the moment where I realized his mirrored self was still not who he was inside. I ran out and grabbed more jeans in a bigger size from the boys’ section, making sure I had all the styles, and then I stopped. I walked to the girls section and pulled a few pairs from there, brought them all back to him in the dressing room, and plopped the stack down. He tried the first few pairs of boys’ pants, with the same reaction, but the moment he slid on a pair of girls’ skinny jeans his face lit up. He just beamed! He bent his knees, spun around, checked himself out and smiled. I never told him what he was trying on, they were all just jeans to him, but when he found what he wanted, he knew it. We settled on two pairs of skinny jeans and headed out. Maybe it was the rush of seeing his face glowing, but I decided to ride it out. We walked past the girls’ tees and stopped.
“What do you think of this shirt?” I said, as I held up an aqua gathered-shoulder tee.
“Love it,” he said.
“Ok, what else do you like here?” He went through the display of plain tees with feminine details and pulled out a few that he loved. I told myself, so what? They’re tee shirts! Why does a gathered shoulder or a v-neck make any difference? It didn’t, and I knew it. So, we headed home with a bag of my son’s identity. He couldn’t wait to show them all off to his Dad.
I said “Just warning you… he got some new clothes.”.
We are lucky. My husband let me take the lead on this topic. I read all the articles and told him the bits that I found the most interesting. I know he could have responded totally differently, but he trusted me and I trusted how much he loved our kids. We knew that if we parented from love, nothing else really mattered. As long as our son knew he was truly loved for who he was, and that every decision was based on this love, we couldn’t make the wrong choice.
That day as I took photos of my son, his eyes were shining, his face was glowing, his body was moving how he always knew it should. I look at the photo of his toes pointed in the air and his hands under his chin, and I see his freedom. I no longer see the shyness, I see softness. He always knew who he was, it just took us a little longer to see his “Magic in the Middle.”
It has been 3 years since that day he got those clothes. There is so much I have learned along the way. When I realized he was still craving more, we would dip just a little deeper into feminine styles, bit by bit, finally taking the plunge into the world of skirts, dresses and swimsuits. He is now finally expressing who he is on the inside, with his outer identity.
When people say, as they often do, “What a beautiful daughter you have!”, we just say “Thank you,” and smile at each other. For him, he would rather just take the compliment and move on than start a debate with people he doesn’t know.
For a long time I thought our son was Transgender, which means a person feels they are the opposite gender of their anatomy. I kept waiting for him to tell us that was the case, and occasionally would ask “Do you like your name?” or “Does it bother you when I say ‘son’ or ‘brother’?”
His answer was always no, he loved that part of his identity. It was only in the last year that I found a book which changed everything for us: ‘The Transgender Child’ by Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper. Every page of this book was an “Ah-ha! moment” for me.
My son would keep asking “What? What???”
I would read the section out loud and he would say “Yep! That is me!”
I am so thankful for that dialogue with him and watching his own “ah-ha moments” unfold. We discovered together that he was actually Gender-Variant, and that for him, he preferred not to be defined into either gender, but felt best right in the middle. We also found out about puberty blockers, a drug which will give us all more time for this journey before we have to decide anything permanent.
As I read Brill and Pepper’s book, I was in awe of how much they were reading my mind. Some people thought I was too nonchalant with the whole gender thing, that I never considered that the real world might not be such a nice place for him. Far from it. Stephanie and Rachel knew what kept me awake at night, what was my deepest darkest fear: that someone would harm my child for being who he was. This book helped me to realize I was not alone, that all parents of transgender and gender-variant kids worry about that. They gave me the information that I couldn’t find anywhere else. What helped me put it all in perspective, though, is the real risk to my son. Transgender and gender variant kids have the highest suicide rates in the world. Some sources say the risk is 50-60% or greater. These are young kids we are talking about! If I didn’t teach my son that he was loved for who he was, and allow him the time and space to figure that out with our support, he would likely become one of those statistics. I will not let that happen. I want my son, and all children who don’t fit into the stereotypical gender profiles, to know they are loved and ok, just as they are. Children deserve that.
They all deserve to know that they are “Magic in the Middle”.