One of the Boys: Parenting the Gender Nonconforming Child

The New York Times Magazine published an eight-page, in-depth story on August 8 entitled “What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?” The title tells you much of what you need to know about the article. The article explores the world of boys, of varying ages, who in different ways act in gender nonconforming ways. Some want to wear dresses, some want to have long hair, some like Barbie dolls, or painting their fingernails. The article is interesting and worth a read even if it had moments where I rolled my eyes. For example, the article glosses over the fact that gender nonconforming girls face any backlash by claiming that tomboys are an accepted part of society. Right, because boyish girls never get treated poorly, that’s absolutely my experience. 

What seems universal in the article, regardless of how each child presented himself, is that the parents of these kids have a really hard time navigating. Parents don’t know how to react when their son says he wants to wear a dress to school. Some freak out, ban all “girl” things, toys, dresses, pink, anything that appears feminine. Other parents consult “experts” some of whom are great and some of whom are complete idiots. Some parents put limits on when their sons can dress in girly things, just at home or only a few days a week. I was touched by the journey of many of the parents in the article went experienced a change of perspective as their sons grew up.

At a coffee shop near their Cambridge home, [James’] father told me that he initially discouraged James from wearing dresses in public as much to protect his own ego as that of his son. But his embarrassment has long since turned to pride. “He’s just this very brave person,” the father said. “I’ve learned so much from him. . . . In college I remember wondering why the femme gay guy wouldn’t just act more butch so people wouldn’t give him a hard time. I didn’t think it was right for people to give him a hard time, but I thought, Hey, you bring it on yourself. Now I know that’s wrong. My son showed me this is part of core identity, not something people just put on or take off. And it’s not their job to make sure we’re all comfortable.

The article came out at an interesting time for me. I have two daughters, age one and three and a half. The younger one is still at the age where she wears whatever we put on her and doesn’t have any real preference about anything other than food she likes to eat and things she likes to do (anything dangerous)  A, the three-year-old, has a lot of thoughts about everything. Because this is important to this topic, I should note that A is my biological daughter and B is my wife’s, we took turns being preggers.

A is in many ways my clone. She looks like me, she’s stubborn like me, she acts like me. Some of the pictures of me at her age are eerily similar. It’s kind of weird. Why is this important, you are asking yourself?  Let’s just say that sometimes I may identify with her more than I would if we didn’t look or act at all the same. 

When I was about her age I demanded that my parents let me cut my hair. I wanted hair like all of my friends, who were boys. My parents, bless their hearts, gave in to my demand and took me to get a short haircut despite whatever reservations they may have had.  Until I went to high school, I had short hair. Until I was eight and joined the swim team, I refused to wear a girl’s bathing suit. Instead I wore shorts, just like the boys. I played sports with the boys, often as the only girl on the team. I was one of the boys.

Like many of the kids in the article, however, I hated it when people thought I was a boy. I was a girl, gosh darn it, and what was wrong with them that they couldn’t see that? I can’t count the number of times I was told that I was in the wrong bathroom, the wrong dressing room, how many times I was just told I was wrong.  I can still remember the face of a particularly aggressive bathroom policing woman who told me, as she loomed like a giant above me, “wrong bathroom kid!” 

When I was in fifth grade a classmate told me that one of the eighth grade girls who rode my bus thought I was a boy and thought I was cute. That was certainly one of the mortifying experiences of my life particularly when the eighth-grader refused to believe that I was, in fact, a girl and not the cutest boy in the fifth grade. 

So, you get the point, I have some baggage. So, when we visited a pre-school a few weeks ago and a teacher thought A, in her skirt and sandals, was a boy because her shirt was blue, I was angry and hurt. A, didn’t seem very fazed by the event, but I felt horrible as the teacher made excuse after excuse as to why she thought A was a boy. When I talked to my wife about the idiot teacher and her inability to say sorry for making a mistake, my wife asked if I would let A cut her hair short if she wanted it that way. I was completely stunned, of course I would let her. My wife wondered if I would be willing to allow our daughter to do something even if I knew it might subject her to all the things that I experienced as a kid. Would I warn her? Would I let her know what might happen, that people might think she were a boy? Would I tell her that it might be painful, awful even, to have people mistake you for something you aren’t over and over and over? 

The parents in the article grappled with the same issues. Even the ones who easily came to terms with their sons wearing dresses worried about the rest of the world. We worry that someone will hurt our kids. We worry about big stuff like one of them getting hit by a car, or falling off the jungle gym. We worry about those physical injuries but we also worry about the other kinds of pain. We worry about the pain that comes from having people tell you that who you are is wrong. There is a rage that comes from being a girl with short hair and wanting the world to acknowledge that you are a girl and not to keep telling you that there is something wrong with you for wanting to be a girl and to have short hair. You want them to acknowledge that it’s their own narrow view of what a girl or a boy is that led them to make a mistake. They are the problem, not you.

You want the world to be a place where a boy can wear a dress to school and not have it be a big deal, but you know we don’t live in that world. Some of the parents in the article sent notes to school and to the other parents in the class when their son was going to wear a dress. You do these things as you are trying to protect your kid but you risk giving the impression to your kid that you are apologizing for him or her.  If there truly wasn’t anything wrong with it than why do you feel like you have to warn everyone? Those are hard questions to answer both to yourself and to your kids.

I wonder if, because I was a gender nonconforming kid, I make a better parent to a kid who may also refused to conform or if I am worse parent for the experience. Is it better to be able to empathize so easily, or is it better not to have all that baggage? Obviously, I can’t change who I was or the mark it left on me, but I am lucky enough to be married to someone without this particular set of Samsonite. So, where I may identify too closely with the experiences of “mini-me” my wife is able to experience them as they actually happen, without the insane baggage. With any luck, we balance each other out. 

Did you read the article in the New York Times?  What did you think of it?  Do you think having been a gender nonconforming kid is an asset as a parent or just baggage?