The hall of the department store looms. In this era of online purchasing, the store is empty, dying. My 14-year-old twins and I meander past racks holding hundreds of women’s dresses, tops, and skirts, before we loop around to the teens’ and kids’ merchandise. This is the kind of old-fashioned store where my mother used to take me when I was a child. That was a simpler—not necessarily better—time when a mother’s word was law, and genders were clearly defined.
“We just bought jeans. Why do you need jeans?” I ask my son, my former daughter, Noah.
“I need boys’ jeans,” he says.
Working as a team, Noah and his twin, Lydia, educate me about styles and cuts of jeans, and his urgent need to purchase several pairs.
Goodbye skinny jeans; goodbye bootcut jeans. Goodbye girls’ jeans, size 14, extra slim. Noah’s given them all to Lydia. The pencil-pants look isn’t the right look for him anymore. He needs the more masculine, looser, straight fit.
Already he and his sister resemble boys in their black T-shirts, wool plaid shirts, jeans, hoodies, and high-top sneakers. Noah’s haircut, cropped on the sides and trimmed above the ears, is especially masculine. Lydia’s hair is a bit longer, also straight and blondish, with a purple streak.
There’s no doubt we’ve reached the boys’ department when we see superhero outfits and clothes decorated with dinosaurs, spaceships, and warriors. This blatant separation of genders feels oddly retrograde. The 1980s pop music playing overhead—Cyndi Lauper, Michael Jackson, Prince—brings me back to my own teenage years.
At the boys’ changing area, a salesperson counts the number of jeans in Noah’s hands. It feels bizarre to me that Lydia and I can’t go along with him, though I’m pleased at the ease with which Noah passes as male. Soon Noah comes out again to show Lydia and me his new look. The first few pairs of jeans are so large they’re falling off him.
After 11 frustrating tries, Noah stands proud in Levi’s 514 denims, the classic, straight-fitting style that has defined generations of boys. Fortunately, he has small enough hips to fit into a boys’ size 12. He smiles with confidence. Score. He’s resigned, at least for the moment, to wearing clothing intended for a boy younger than himself. But when he tries on button-down shirts and blazers, his shoulders are too narrow, and the chest appears too tight.
I choose a bunch of striped shirts from the racks, which the teens immediately veto. They have a long history of tears and tantrums over clothing choices. By age four, they insisted on wearing unisex pants and T-shirts and I reluctantly retired the lovely, floral matching outfits Mom, and others, gave us. When the twins were nine, I pressured them into wearing black-and-white velveteen dresses, white tights, and slipper shoes to my mother’s memorial service. They’ve never forgiven me. Now, I know when to back off.
Noah stands before me, exhilarated, and looking quite handsome in a royal blue oxford shirt. I sense the freedom he feels, and I too feel the freedom gained by silently imparting the heartfelt message, I love you as you are.
It’s Lydia’s turn to shop, and she needs underpants. In the women’s lingerie department, we discover that she is too tiny for the smallest size on the racks. By default, we go to the girls’ department, and pass by row after row of frilly princess dresses, some with tiaras. My girls, when very young, preferred Thomas the Tank Engine. Now, in the underwear section, we mostly find hot pink or purple panties decorated with ponies or kittens. Our society is built upon assumptions that don’t apply to my children (or many other children).
While Lydia is in the dressing room, I look at the three-packs of cotton briefs on the racks. Meanwhile Noah, selecting for Lydia, rummages through bins on a sale table. A grandmotherly saleswoman comes up to him. “Dear,” she says, “are you looking for a training bra?”
“No,” he says, and walks toward me, tight-mouthed, glancing downward. I’m sorry for this blow to his dignity. At the same time, it’s easy to see why this elderly staffer made a mistake. The changing mores aren’t easy for many people to navigate.
Noah and I check on Lydia. When we enter the girls’ changing area, I don’t stop to think about Noah’s gender. There is no one in the girls’ changing room besides Lydia, anyway.
A young saleswoman, a few years older than my teens, appears. “Boys aren’t allowed in here,” she tells Noah. Her voice is curt.
“Fine,” Noah says. “I was just leaving.”
He glances back at me as he walks down the changing room aisle, a bounce to his step.
I’m weary of shopping, but Lydia says she saw a shirt she wants to try on. I realize after we once again cross the imaginary line between the princesses and superheroes that the shirt Lydia has in mind, white with a red bow tie, is in the boys’ department. Maybe Noah’s social transition has emboldened her to go there?
Lydia carries a combination of boys’ and girls’ shirts in her hands as she approaches the girls’ dressing room. The attendant bars her from entering. “You can’t go in. Boys aren’t allowed.”
Lydia frowns. “I’m not a boy,” she says.
Noah and I walk over to Lydia. “She is my daughter,” I say matter-of-factly. I don’t hide my annoyance.
“No boys allowed,” the attendant repeats. Lydia makes a face, but she doesn’t argue. Though I’m willing to press my point with the saleswoman, Lydia urges me to let it go. We simply walk back to the changing room in the girls’ underwear area for her to try on the shirts.
I notice how differently Lydia and Noah react to people’s confusion about their gender identity. Noah suffers greatly if he isn’t viewed as a “he.” Lydia’s feelings don’t appear to be hurt if she’s called either a “he” or a “she”—perhaps because she sees herself as a little bit of both.
My children are teaching me that more than two genders actually exist.
* * * * *
A few months later, Noah and Lydia and I pass a construction site where the department store used to be. “I’m sorry it went out of business,” Noah says. “I liked the dressing rooms. We never had to find someone to unlock them.”
“You liked those dressing rooms?” I say. I thought of the times he and his sister had been misgendered.
“Someone just needed to take down the ‘male’ and ‘female’ signs,” Lydia says. Noah smiles in agreement. For them it’s so simple. Actually, I wish it were that simple.
“Well, I’m not sure patrons would go for the idea.” To my surprise, I add, “I could get used to it.”
What’s the big deal if I have my own stall? I allow myself to dream with my children, to see their vision of goodness, simplicity, and trust.
“Tell me what else you would change if you had a department store,” I ask Noah and Lydia.
“I’d categorize all the clothes according to colors and body types,” Noah says.
“And carry lots of sizes,” Lydia adds with a grin, “especially my size.”
The images in my mind are blocks of red, orange, blue, green, pink, purple, black, and gray clothing. Racks of the princess and superhero outfit in all sizes. Noah and Lydia breezing into the unixex dressing rooms.
I say, “That sounds like an awesome store.”