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Little Boys Wearing Dresses

How families can navigate raising gender non-conforming children.

My son finished Kindergarten just a couple of weeks ago. This milestone feels momentous. A year before, at orientation, as I anticipated sending him to a large public elementary school, the loudest sounds were not the hundreds of five- and six-year olds in the halls and classrooms, but my worries about whether my son would be accepted.

Over a year ago, he began wearing dresses. What began as a preference — he would change from typical “boy clothes” to a dress whenever he had the opportunity — gradually became the way he wanted to dress, always. If given a choice, he would choose to wear a dress every day.

When he was in preschool, at a small school where we had gotten to know many of the families and all of the teachers and administrators knew our son, there was acceptance of his choice, with some questions. But, sending him to a large school brought the big question of whether he would still wear dresses. Kids could make fun of him. Adults could misunderstand. Why put a child in a situation like that?

At the beginning of the school year, I put my child in a situation like that. Not because I don’t love him, but because I do. As I wrote here in September, I want to be the kind of parent who doesn’t let her own anxieties and fears get in the way of her children becoming the people they deserve to be.

So, what has that meant, really, over the past nine months?

  • Expanding my vocabulary, learning more words to describe my son and kids like him: Gender fluid, gender non-conforming, genderqueer.
  • Talking to a lot of parents of gender non-conforming kids as we help each other with the questions that come up for all of us.
  • Checking in with my son to see what he feels. (He’s said he doesn’t “want to give up.”)
  • Difficult — very difficult — moments when there was disagreement within my family about what he could or could not wear.
  • Challenges making friends and not being sure if those challenges were related to clothes/gender or not.
  • Learning that my child can be very flexible when he understands that wearing what’s expected is what’s needed.
  • His grandparents buying him dresses. (Read Julian Is A Mermaid, a beautiful book about a grandma and a grandson.)

As I reflected on this past year, I was touched reading about a child in a Native American community dancing in that community’s first Pride event. This child, born a boy, had been expressing that he wanted to be a girl for several years. At first, his mother thought it was a phase, but soon it became clear that this was his identity. The feature in the Saskatchewan publication states, “He wanted to express his identity by dancing a girl’s jingle dance for the memorial special. Spectators were left in awe and judges picked him as the champion ... the crowd’s applause was deafening. It was a triumphant moment that he will cherish forever.”

Some Native/First Nations communities have a term for people who are LGBTQ+. “Two-Spirit” describes beautifully the complex, multifaceted identity of someone who identifies not as solely male or solely female, who sees the world from both male and female perspectives. This term grew from the experience of Native/First Nations people who had long seen community members hold cross-gender identities.

I share these stories because they’re what’s on my mind, but also in light of the recently released data indicating that suicide rates are the highest they have been since World War II. For children like my son and the child who danced in the Pride/Two-Spirit Pow Wow, World War II is history they haven’t even learned yet; it’s that far back in time. But, in their present, at this moment, the suicide rates for children like them are the highest: Among LGBTQ+ young people, nearly 40 percent seriously considered suicide in the past year. Among Native Americans and Alaskan Natives — teens and adults, people who identify as men, and people who identify as women — the rates are rising, and are highest among all racial and ethnic groups.

When I first wrote about my son this past fall, it was through this lens: That the reason I “allow” my son to wear dresses is because I know that when people are not allowed to become who they want to be, they are at risk for suicide. I know this as a practitioner and I know this personally. In this moment, with the release of these stark data, I am arriving at a different place in the spiral of parenting — a similar place, but slightly differently positioned.

I’m raising a child in a particular historical moment. How can I, knowing what I know and what we as a nation now know because of these data, not respond with compassion, with openness, with hope? In a different moment, denying rather than encouraging identity may have made sense: Better to fit in than to stand out. But in this moment, when we know that the most vulnerable, the most historically oppressed, the individuals and groups with the identities most “not allowed” are at highest risk, I have a responsibility.

That responsibility extends to my role as a citizen, by which I mean a person who contributes to a community. I’ve chosen to be open about our family, which means I may share both my optimism and my worries, the data and our personal story. Our story isn’t the only story, so I also have the responsibility to open up conversations about other children and other families who’ve chosen to share their stories in order to help people think about how to support children who don’t fit inside a gender box. (Here are two: Kai and Josie.)

Finally, I am aware of the risk that my child and my family, as well as others in the same situation, live with each day. I recognize that, as I type these words, human and civil rights are being called into question, that not every city and not every school would be as accepting and open to my son as the place where we live and raise him. I recognize and respect that not every parent would be in the position I am in and would not feel free nor able to make the same decisions.

If you’re raising a gender non-conforming child, I’d love to hear from you here. If you are working in a school and would like to make your school more welcoming to all kids, I’d suggest checking out this resource. And, if you’re a teen or adult who has useful advice for parents on raising children who fall outside the gender binary, I’d love to hear what you think.

Copyright 2019 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

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