Two years ago today, I sent the letter below to my extended family and closest friends. M. had just turned four, and had been trying to tell me for months that she wasn’t the kid I thought she was. Reading this letter now, I’m struck by how frightened I was and how hard I was trying to present M. – and the rest of us – with every possible scenario other than the one that ultimately came to be: That she was really a girl. But I’m also proud of this letter. It was my line in the sand, my declaration to our community:
I am going to support this child – no matter what. Are you with me?
(p.s. I know that a lot of parents like me send letters like these to family and friends. If you are trying to write such a letter, please feel free to borrow any words from my letter that resonate with you.)
From: gendermom <email@example.com>
Subject: Food for thought for those who love X
To: My extended family and my closest friends
Date: Wednesday, February 1, 2012, 5:00 PM
Dear friends and family,
As you know, X is a child who knows his own mind. And that little mind is just not interested in cars, trucks, sports, or the other things that we usually expect boys to like. Instead, he likes – no, I should say he LOVES – princesses, dolls, fairies, ballerinas, dresses, and just about everything else we usually expect girls to like.
I have had a lot of conversations with X about what he likes and what that means about who he thinks he is. These are some of the things he has told me:
“Mama, I think I was supposed to be born a girl, but something went wrong in your tummy, and I was born a boy instead.”
“I want to be a REAL girl. Please make me a real girl right NOW.”
When he says these things, he’s really upset, crying, and begging me to help him with this problem he’s having.
As you can imagine, these are not easy things to hear. It’s very scary to think that your child is following a path that is not acceptable to much of society, and, worse, feels that there is something wrong with him because of what he likes – that “something went wrong” when he was made.
I have done a lot of thinking and reading about children and gender, and I’ve learned a lot. Most kids by X’ age are embracing and identifying with their biological sex, but our kiddo isn’t, and we need to pay attention to that and figure out how to help him. I think it’s FAR too soon to draw any real conclusions from X’s gender-bending ways, except for one thing: X is struggling to find a way to feel good about the fact that he’s different from what is normally expected of boys in our culture. He knows he’s different, and he has already suffered because of it. And he REALLY needs our help and support with this.
I’ve tried to question X, asking him: “Well, what IS a girl? What makes someone a girl or a boy?”
And his response was, “You are a girl if you look like one: Long hair, wearing dresses.” He doesn’t seem to think that his anatomy has much to do with it. For him, being a girl means looking and dressing like one – and playing with “girl things” like dolls and fairies.
I am trying to keep the path as wide open as possible for X to explore his identity, while also engaging him in conversations that push him to think about things in a less binary way, in which all behaviors are classified as either “boy” or “girl.” I think that, developmentally, X isn’t quite aware that there are many ways to be a boy or a girl, and that it’s very likely that he feels that the only way for him to like what he likes is to become a girl. And frankly, the kid has a point: How many boys do you see wearing pink sparkly dresses or playing with Barbie dolls? Our world is strictly divided between “guy stuff” and “gal stuff,” and we start enforcing this division before kids are even born, with baby showers full of pink clothes for girls and blue for boys. X is crying foul on this silly, arbitrary, restrictive system. Smart kid!
I’ve told X that we’re all “a little bit girl” and “a little bit boy.” All girls like some “boy stuff” (wearing pants, playing sports, trains, trucks, etc.), and all boys like some “girl stuff,” like he does. I told him that he gets to decide, each day, how much “boy” he is, and how much “girl.” He does love to rough-house and have sword-fights with his cousins, after all. Most days, X tells me, he’s “mostly girl” or “ALL girl.” I tell him that I’m mostly girl too, but that I have some boy in me too, partly because I wear pants and boy colors (as defined by X, my favored colors of black and grey are NOT girl colors. The poor child despairs of my fashion choices. “Why don’t you wear flowery dresses, Mama?”). I’m hoping that these kinds of conversations will help him see gender in a more complex, open-ended light, and give him more power and more options in defining himself.
What I have told X is this:
He gets to decide who he is, what he likes, what he wears, who he identifies with.
He will be loved no matter who he is and no matter what he likes, be it “boy stuff” or “girl stuff.”
He will be loved and supported whether he decides he’s a boy or a girl – or some of both.
X really doesn’t like being referred to as a “boy” right now. He gets VERY UPSET when I do this. He doesn’t seem to mind the male pronouns, so I continue to use those, but referring to him as a boy, or correcting someone who mistakes him for a girl, makes him extremely upset. I’ve stopped correcting strangers who mistake him for a girl, as I don’t think it really matters (and, given X’s fashion choices, EVERYONE assumes he’s a girl). I call him “my kiddo” or “my princess” (he loves being called a princess) instead of saying “boy” or “girl.” This seems to be OK with him.
In general, I’m trying to keep things light and easy-going, letting him play around with his identity each day, while helping him expand his thinking about the possibilities of maleness and femaleness. And, when you think about it, that’s a pretty good way for all of us to live, isn’t it?
It’s possible (though statistically unlikely, I gather) that X is transgender. It’s possible that he’s gay – but he’s WAY too young to think about that. It’s possible that he’s simply a guy with a very well-developed feminine side and phenomenal fashion sense. Only one thing is for sure: X doesn’t seem to be on course to be a stereotypical, run-of-the-mill boy. He’s going to march to a slightly (or VERY) different drum, and that is not always going to be easy (in fact, he’s ALREADY finding that it’s not easy to be different).
The other thing that I know for sure: He’s a wonderful person, and I’ll support him NO MATTER WHAT, along WHATEVER path he’s destined to walk. And I invite you to join me on what promises to be a delightful journey for everyone who knows him.
Thanks for listening. And if you have questions about any of this, I hope you will ask me. I know this is new territory for most of us, but I suppose X is just doing what all children do: Challenge us to see the world in new and wondrous ways we never considered before. I’m always happy to talk about this with anyone who wants to better support and understand X – and his mom!