My six-year-old son has just told me he wishes he were girl. A few months ago, I would have taken this comment lightly, laughing, as I asked him why. Today I try to smile, even as I feel my body tighten, and my voice comes out lower than I want as I ask him why. He has taken to wearing girl’s clothing at home these days: not simply run-of-the-mill play clothes, but big taffeta princess dresses, dramatic velvet gowns, nighties with puffy sleeves and ribbons. In lieu of long flowing hair, he secures scarves to his head with flower crowns and keeps warm with striped tights underneath the shimmering ensembles. When he comes home from school he goes up the stairs in a YMCA basketball t-shirt, muddy jeans, and crew cut. In his room he transforms himself into this extravagant girl character, coming down to perform pieces of her life as a queen, Sleeping Beauty, or housemaid. He’s like a six-year-old drag queen, asking where my bangle bracelets are. Entertained by his sense of style, I’ve humored him so far.
But now, as my son tells me he wishes he were a girl, I hear my voice change, lowering and a bit hesitant. I remember the recent evening when I found him sitting on our bed, wearing an orange dress he had discovered in a box of clothes meant for his little sister. He stroked the flannel with his hand and his face softened into a wistful smile.
“I like wearing dresses,” he said.
“What do you like about them?” I asked.
“When I dress like a girl, I feel less nervous.”
Red flags began waving frantically in my mind. For the first time, I realized that this dressing up was not just play. My son is nervous? Wearing dresses makes him feel better? I sat down next to him and urged him to explain.
“When I wear girl’s clothes my chest does not feel funny. Like when I can’t breathe.” His hands moved to his throat and made a strangling gesture.
Dots began connecting in my head. When my son wears dresses, his essence is transformed. Ordinarily, he is like a jack-in-the box, constantly winding up to a point of explosion; but in feminine attire he is instantly pacified: his words are clear and he focuses on a face when talking; his movements are graceful, his crashing body and erratic actions disappearing in a sea of purple crepe and sequins.
I resisted the impulse to wrap my arms around him and tell him it was okay. “You are normal,” I wanted to say. “Everyone likes to dress up in girl’s clothes. The world will embrace you in whatever you wear.” Instead, I said nothing. I didn’t want to lie to him.
A few weeks later, his teacher pulls me aside after school. “Quinn is partial to playing girl’s roles in our class,” she tells me. “He has become quite the princess.” She says this in her sing-songy British accent, emphasizing the word “quite” in that annoying British way.
Or maybe it just annoys me because my son’s cross-dressing has now entered the public sphere. He has never hesitated to don dresses with his numerous girlfriends, but recently he’s begun testing the water with boys who come to play. He’ll casually stroll out of his room in a Cinderella gown and princess crown, acting as if nothing has changed, ready to go back outside and torture beetles in glass jars. At this age, the boys just laugh and tell him he’s “silly.” But I watch him and my heart tenses. I can almost hear the words these boys will use as they grow older, as they become products of our engendered culture, words like “faggot,” “queer,” or “fairy.”
My husband blatantly ignores our son’s daily transformation and uses the dresses as leverage for good behavior. Nothing changes Quinn’s attitude faster than having his favorite white and gold number banished to the laundry room shelf. I find myself encouraging him to play the prince, or suggesting that it’s time to return a certain gown to the neighbor girl. When I say these things I hear, as well, what I am saying inside: “Please don’t wear girl clothes, because I don’t know what to do. Please don’t wear girl clothes, because I cannot embrace you as something other than what biology says you are. Please don’t wear girl clothes, because I am scared for you.”
This fear — that I will be unable to accept my child — comes from a familiar place.
I was six, the same age as my son, when my mother first spent the night with a woman. Many people who knew us were unsurprised by this event. My mother was essentially sexless in appearance. She had the skinny, knobby body of a 14-year-boy, and her heavy brows sat above eyes that had never known mascara or eye shadow. She wore men’s clothing and did not style her fluffy mop of brown hair. She was attractive, because her features were proportionate, but not pretty. Pretty would mean she was like a woman. She rode motorcycles and could operate heavy machinery. She hunted and fished with my father, and held her own in a community of big, drunk, farming men. At the same time, she was a mother and nurturer, tending a garden and raising children who ran naked through the hot, sticky Nebraska summers on our rundown farm. With my mother and the animals for company, my sister and I ran wild, our bodies covered only in the red earth that floated up in plumes as we stomped through it. This was the earth of sacred Pawnee ground and the earth of Willa Cather’s Antonia. Fused with that earth, my sister and I didn’t think of ourselves as girls, rather than boys; we were simply alive.
We moved into town when I was four, when my father took a job working on the massive dam that could change the flow of the Republican River. My mother let the earth fall from her fingers and had to work at a liquor store and wait tables to pay for the food our garden and animals used to provide. I started noticing other children and realized for the first time that there were two types of people, boys and girls. I stared at the girls, with their pink hair ribbons and purple jelly shoes that matched cotton skirts with heart prints. My clothes looked like the ones the boys wore, plain and often dirty. From then on, at every wish-taking chance I had — a star, a birthday candle — I asked for something pretty, something meant for a girl. I begged to have my ears pierced and began wearing ridiculous hand-me-down dance costumes from my cousins. My mother was uninterested in my appearance and always had my hair cut short, so I was often mistaken for a boy. I wore pink to assert to the world I was a girl. I was determined to grow to be like the other women in town, my hair feathered and my lips lined with shimmery pink. I would wear high heels and shave my legs. I would not be like my mother.
My son is not like the child I was then, desperate to fit in. Quinn wears pink, not to assert that he is a girl, but because it makes him happy. His reasons are like his grandmother’s, who wore men’s clothing not as a rejection of femininity, but to give herself comfort.
Comfort or happiness was never the point for me. I just wanted to be normal. Now, as an adult, I affirm my normalcy in other ways: making sure people know my child is talented or does well in school. These statements send a message, the way my pink tutus did when I was a child. They compensate for the traits others may not accept — boys dressing like girls, or mothers turning out to be lesbians.
My mother came out when I was seven, leaving my father and the life we had known. The next several years were spent talking to a blur of custody investigators, answering questions about my mother’s friends, how she spoke to us, and what we did together. I spent nights screaming until my face was bloated and my chest ached, telling my mother that I hated her. And I did hate her. She was different and confused, and she didn’t love my father the way mothers are supposed to. The morning after these outbursts I crawled into her bed, where I knew I would be forgiven. She scratched my back and we started fresh, pretending that neither of us was hurting.
Now, I lie in bed with my son, rubbing his back and listening to his stories from the day. We are not hurting, but I feel the edge of fear creep into my nighttime kisses. What if he comes to know hatred and I am unable to give him comfort, or to protect him?
My father won in the end. The judge granted my mother limited custody, deeming her lifestyle unfit for the family structure needed to foster healthy, well-adjusted children. With the filing of that court document, her ability to be a mother was invalidated.
As I grew older and learned what it really meant to be a lesbian, I was thankful for the separation. I became a master at disguising my mother’s identity, creating lavish stories about why her hair was so short. I even made up imaginary boyfriends for her. Every other weekend, when we stayed with her, I would forgo all social activities, fearing that my mother’s sexual orientation would be discovered. I holed up in her cold apartment, where we created a kind of “gay shield” — no one could get in, and my mother could not get out. Even my boyfriends and best friends didn’t know. The lies I told about my mother were deeply ingrained; I never mixed up stories or allowed myself to be caught in an inconsistency. I did this to protect myself, so that no one could hurt us.
The memory of those secrets makes me thankful for the community where I raise my children, one where tolerance is easier to come by than it was in the towns where I grew up. Yet now I find myself creating stories again — not lies exactly, but versions of my son’s life that omit his comfort in the feminine. Even here, even now, I find I’m reluctant to test the limits of tolerance.
When I emerged from the conservative community of my adolescence, I discovered that not everyone was terrified of homosexuality. The first time I told someone that my mother was gay, a layer of heaviness lifted from my torso. Each time the disclosure was made I felt less need to assert my own femininity. I ventured into the realm of Women’s Studies at the university, where lesbians could be found around every corner. Here, my straightness was suddenly a liability; I welcomed the stigma as atonement for my guilt.
Coming to terms with my mother’s sexuality was easier in college, where the distance between us allowed my understanding to develop. No longer was I frozen with fear at the everyday realities of her life: the discrimination at work, her lack of political rights, even her recognition as a whole person. These were parts of my mother’s existence that I wanted to pretend were not real. Away from her, I could disclose her identity without fearing that my words might affect her. And back home, my mother could be openly gay without fearing that her actions would hurt my sister and me.
She is still far away, but my son is so, so near. The acceptance that comes with distance is not an option for us.
My mother no longer conceals her sexuality, living openly and confronting a world she has felt trapped in her entire life. She emerged from hiding like a Christian Xenia warrior princess, fighting her way to ordination as an Episcopalian priest and becoming a leader in the gay community. In pride at my mother’s strength, I tell her story to anyone: My mom is gay! My mom is gay! I am sorry, Mother. Do you hear me? I am telling them who you really are. I am not ashamed.
But I am still scared. My pride is mixed with trepidation every time I see her on the news or read about her somewhere. How can she be safe when the bigots and the zealots know exactly where to find her? I am far away, powerless to protect her. Now I envision placing a different kind of “gay shield” across her body. Not one that suffocates and hides her identity, like a dirty secret that everyone knows but will not voice, but one that reveals her true self — a shield made of bulletproof glass, transparent, but able to deflect the blows of the intolerant and the fearful.
I don’t have this shield or the ability to create one. Accepting my mother and my son means accepting that I cannot protect either of them.
This is the fear I recognize when I urge my son to dress like a boy. When people comment on his love of all things fancy, they almost always add, “Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s gay.” I reel at this. “It’s all right if he’s gay.” I say, instantly defensive. But I know I’m trying to convince myself. I am terrified that Quinn will live a life of marginalization and abuse. How do I not feel failure as a parent if I am forced to watch my child suffer? But the protection I want to offer — the protection of concealment — could extinguish my son’s light. What would be left?
I cannot be unafraid, I realize. But I can offer love. Today my son tells me he wishes he were a girl. My body tenses and my voice lowers as I ask him why.
“Girls get all the beautiful things” he says. I cannot argue with his reasoning. I try to think of all the good parts about being a boy; but I remember the child I once was, wishing for anything glittery pink, and I know that for a child, nothing compares to this: the beautiful things.
I also know that beauty is not restricted to the sparkly clothes we allow our daughters and forbid our sons. Beauty is more than the glimmer in our objects: it is our actions, our capacity to love when we don’t understand. I let go of my fear for a moment and explore my reflection in the clear eyes of my son. He can see who I really am, straight to my soul, and I know he recognizes all the beautiful things I can’t always see. Sparkling, flowing, softness soothes away his anxiety, makes him feel whole. If what completes him are the beautiful things, I will let him wish.