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Parents As Gender Warrior Heroes: Trying To Understand Boys Wearing Dresses

I was repeatedly called a “tomboy” as a child. “Tomboy” was used as a descriptive, a compliment and pejorative. As a toddler I apparently eschewed dolls by naming them all “Pam” and stacking them in the corner of my room, preferring to play with tractors and trucks outside. I was adamant about wanting to be a “cowboy,” not a “cowgirl.” I misbehaved to get kicked out of ballet, eventually refused dresses and cut off my hair to get the pixie cut I desired even as a kindergartner.

I remember being thrilled when I passed as male. Once it happened during a puppet show when the puppet was interacting with the audience. He called me a boy! The fact that forty years later I can remember being elated that a dragon marionette validated my boyhood is pretty poignant to me.

I probably remember that day because my family did not find validation as easy to offer as the puppet did. In their defense, parents were even less equipped to think about gender variance or fluidity back then.

For most parents, talking about gender, gender expression, gender variance and gender fluidity can be as complicated as playing naked Scattegories with strangers in a foreign language we don’t quite know. Where do you even begin? It so confusing, even a little shameful because we conflate gender with sexuality. It’s especially hard because we don’t all completely understand our own gender expression since we all grew up in a rigid gender binary world without a framework for understanding ourselves.

A recent New York Times Magazine piece tries to lay out some of the complexities faced by parents of gender-fluid boys. Despite some challenging threads and quite a bit of embedded sexism, the piece (What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress and follow-up interview with author Ruth Padawar) is a worthy attempt to highlight some huge questions.

Some of the comments, sigh, not as worthy. This is tough stuff.

Tough requires bravery, though, and that tons of bravery is present as well. Kids who buck against gender assumptions are huge gifts, because they force us to look at our culture and our preconceptions. That’s not to say all parents receive this confusing gift gracefully or carefully. Those who do, like the parents in Padawar’s piece, are my heroes, just as their sons are.

If you have a son who wants to wear a dress, the temptation is to feel discomfort, to rightfully worry about the social cost of breaking norms, and to shut down those impulses. Or to indulge them privately within the comfort of home, only as a family secret.

It’s so much braver to parent with curiosity and care towards what might be behind those impulses, even if we don’t have a framework for understanding the many possibilities. And I do mean many, because I don’t think that we even understand all of the questions to ask about gender, let alone the ability to see the answers. But even from our current limited perspective, the answers are limitless. Maybe a boy who wants to wear dresses, for example, is:

  • a boy who wants to play or enjoy clothing without being restricted by our limited concept of what is “girl’s clothes” and “boy’s clothes”
  • a boy who feels in whole or part feminine along current gender binary lines and wants to express that in a few external ways so he is seen as feminine, or partially feminine, or gender fluid, or genderless
  • a person with male genitals who identifies as being female, and would like to feel somewhat or as fully aligned as possible with her internal gender identity
  • a child who will become a straight man, for whom dress-wearing is completely separate from his sexual identity, or for whom gender-fluid dressing might be a part of or a symbolic part of his sexual expression
  • a child who will become a gay man, for whom dress-wearing is completely separate from his sexual identify, or for whom gender-fluid dressing might be part of or a symbolic his sexual expression
  • and/or living so many other themes.

My tomboy, cowboy self? I have ended up identifying very much as a woman, but one who has many “male” tendencies and expression points. I have loved being a child-bearing mother and having a female body for the most part, and I also feel entirely my self expressing some parts of a more masculine-than-center gender identity, including sexually. I have, at different times of my adult life, identified as bisexual and as a lesbian. I have been in relationships with people who have fallen across the wide gender/gender-expression continuum.  Wearing a dress feels like drag to me. I am aware of some of the ways these thread intersect, I have worked very hard to know myself and unpack scads of assumptions and baggage, and truthfully I’m just as confused as the next guy (or gal, or transgender warrior) about what it all means.

I will not be shocked if I continue to evolve my understanding of myself or of how my self-definition was limited and shaped by my environment.

Living these questions with open minds and hearts is the best we can do. The New York Times’ pieces highlight online communities as instrumental in helping parents of gender-fluid kids find others on similar journeys and in helping educate the larger community, and that excites me about how we live and parent today. The more we talk, read, inquire and think together on gender, the closer we will come to naming, or maybe even understanding, what it all means.

Do you know kids trying to break down gender boundaries? Do you struggle with this as a parent?

 

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