Scott’s five-year-old son chooses to wear skirts. Here is how people react, and what dad has learned in the process.
“From the moment his son was born, Scott Sharplin has tried to avoid gender categorization. Five years into this experiment, the results are surprising but inspiring.”
Three years is an eternity in toddler time. Back when my son J turned 2, he had some basic skills, but nothing resembling higher reasoning, socialization, inhibitions, or even interests to speak of. His personality was a mirror, not a window to his inner world. Last month, he turned 5, and somewhere along the line, everything changed.
Well, almost everything. He still wears dresses.
At two, he didn’t know the difference between clothes traditionally associated with boys and girls, and as parents, we didn’t differentiate. Like many kids of either gender, he inclined towards all things bright, shiny, and texture-rich. Infant boys and girls alike are encouraged to fawn over iridescent and bedazzling objects, but at some point, boys get steered away from that world, while girls get locked inside. We kept both worlds accessible; it was as easy as ignoring the “boys” and “girls” signs in Value Village.
When J was old enough to realize he had a choice, he kept choosing the shiny, despite knowing it was “meant” for girls. He occasionally went overboard, flaunting layers of chiffon and taffeta bedecked with stars and hearts. He owned several tutus, including one made of mesh and stuffed with pom-poms. He wore bracelets and necklaces, and preferred bright scrunchies to hold back his long hair. All this was visible to the outside world; meanwhile, indoors at bathtime, we were having franker and franker discussions about sexual dimorphism and gender.
He took it all in stride. He declared he was a boy, even though strangers automatically categorized him as female. It didn’t bug him, especially once we’d given him some talking points. By four, he could explain (in his lisping sotto voce), “I am a boy who likes bright colours,” or, if pressed: “Clothes are a custom, not a rule.” Yet it didn’t come up often. Usually, when someone discovered our little princess was in fact a prince, they’d stumble through a quick apology and move on.
A few members of our family had reservations, mostly owing to a fear that J would get bullied. It’s a fear I share. Closest to home was J’s godmother, a sweet old lady who’d worked as our nanny before J had learned the ropes of sleeping and volume modulation. Her objections to his wardrobe initially had a religious tenor, but eventually she confessed she was simply of a generation where boys wore pants, and so it made her uncomfortable. Fair enough.
For her sake, we cajoled J into wearing shirts and pants on trips to Nanny’s house, but he resisted more and more, until one day (he was 3½) we found him tearfully packing all his “boy” clothes into boxes. “I want them out of the house!” He cried. So out they went, for a year or so. We decided that, since Nanny was the grownup in that conflict, she was in the best position to be flexible and understanding. And she has been, to her credit.
Our parenting choices became inflected with (not governed by) a growing awareness that we might be raising a trans child. We chose the preschool with the most understanding staff. We learned to spot the warning signs of gender dysphoria. And we kept on bracing ourselves for the bullying, but it didn’t come. Maybe the most potentially hurtful comment I’ve fielded yet came from a fellow preschooler, who asked me, “Why didn’t God make J a girl?” That question made me realize that kids were taking J’s genderqueerness home to their parents, where they could receive all sorts of ill-informed explanations. But that’s beyond my control—except in the broadest sense of increasing awareness of non-traditional gender identities across the board.
And so I’ve done what I can. I’ve written and adapted plays that tackle trans issues, and I’ve ensured equity and representation in my casting choices. I’ve taught myself to speak to kids and university students alike in gender-ecumenical terms. I’ve gone out of my way to expose myself and J to media with positive portrayals of genderbent characters.
All the while, J was quietly choosing less gender-specific outfits, which in his case meant swinging back towards masculine clothing. Finally, I realized his visual boy/girl ratio was about even; half the time, he still got mistaken for a girl, but the other half, he presented as a long-haired boy. If this trend continued, I realized, then in another year or two, the tutus could be a memory, a phase. But none of my time or effort feels wasted; at the least, I’ll still be raising a sensitive and tolerant cis male, and God knows, the world needs more of those.
In general, I try not to engage in internet arguments, but I sometimes lurk to see how transphobia manifests itself, especially among nominally liberal-minded folks. It comes down to a fear of the unknown, pure and simple. Straight moms oppose gender tolerance in public restrooms because they aren’t sure what their children will be exposed to. “I refuse to take my daughter into women’s washrooms filled with urinals,” wrote one mother on Facebook. And we’ve all encountered variations on the fear that some (hetero, cis male) perverts will pose as trans women so they can infiltrate these private spaces. These are all unsubstantiated fears. Most people have no visible representation of trans identity, so they insert their own social bogeymen into the void.
I’m pleased to see that changing. Increased media representation of nontraditional gendered characters, while sometimes problematic, is better than the unknown. In the meantime, if I encounter somebody who radiates uncertainty about the gradual, inevitable changes to social perceptions of gender, I try to show empathy, and I offer my own kid as a template: bright, sensitive, loves Spider-Man and Pokémon and flowery skirts and math.
“The math thing,” I’ll add, “is really weird.”
Photo: Flickr/Kim Love