“He’s Wearing What?!” and Other Frequent Responses to Gender Variance

Purple Sherbert Photography
Purple Sherbet Photography

By Tasha Sanders, Intern 2014

It’s another blazing hot summer day as my 7-year-old son and I careen down the highway. The first day of school is mere days away, and we are on our way to one last hurrah—ice cream at our favorite shop. I glance at him in the rearview mirror and notice him brush his gorgeous red hair from his eyes. “Looks like we need a trim, huh?” His eyes widen, and his smile turns downward. “I want to grow my hair out!” I nod and tell him, “But you need a trim, honey.” He burst into tears. “Okay, okay, we’ll just talk about it later,” I say, hoping I can skirt the issue for a little longer.

For most boys, a trim is just a walk in the park. But for Emery, it’s treading dangerous waters. He says he wants to grow his hair out “long and beautiful” like mine, since I am a girl. Emery says in his heart he is a girl. He has felt this way for as long as I can remember, and I truly believe it’s possible Emery was born in the wrong body. He covets the latest Monster High dolls and, in the security of his own home, dances to Katy Perry while wearing Disney Princess high heels. He drapes beaded necklaces around his neck and fiercely walks up and down the hallway pretending to be a fashion model. “I’m so fashionable. I’m so in fashion!” he says enthusiastically.

Emery is gender variant, which means he doesn’t conform to stereotypical gender roles. Gender variance and trans* identity occurs in about 1% of the population, and its rarity means not a lot is known about it. (Trans* identity is a little broader than gender variant, and refers to people whose gender identity, expression, or behavior is different from those assigned to their sex at birth.) What we do know is that gender variant/trans* children experience higher risks for anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideations. They are also more prone to bullying, something my son has already become acquainted with.

When he leaves the house, insecurity grips him and he becomes uneasy about expressing himself fully. He still excitedly tells everyone his favorite color is “glitter pink” and that he loves Lady Gaga, but he is aware of judgments that are made against him and is always slightly reserved, especially around acquaintances or strangers. At parent-teacher conferences, I’m made aware of teasing that is already happening—and he’s only in 2nd grade. They call him a girl and taunt him for preferring to play with “girl” toys.

It amazes me that at only seven and eight years old, children are already conscious of the gender roles society expects of them. And when someone steps out of line, they are sure to let them know. Emery handles it bravely; he is always quick to ignore bullies, but I worry how he will internalize these taunts and the teasing that is sure to come his way as he gets older.

It’s not just children who pass judgments on him. I have also experienced adults showing apprehension. Even I struggled with acceptance at first. Many tears were shed as I tried to imagine what his future holds. But this is who he is, and I would never try to change that. I’m always sure to let him know that his uniqueness is what makes him so special. He is my quintessential “special snowflake.” I tell him that I embrace him wholly for who he is, and that he should never pretend to be anyone he isn’t. Emery is sure to have bullies throughout his life, and I want to make it clear that his mother will not be one of them. He needs to know he is safe with me and loved so much.

Raising a gender-variant child has taught me so many things, and I really owe him a great deal of gratitude. When Emery first showed signs of preferring “girl” toys, I was hesitant. But… but… these are meant for girls… I would think to myself. Why would he want to play with these? And I’d offer up some action figures. When I finally let go of the idea of putting my own child in a box, his happiness soared, all because of the option to play with toys that are traditionally meant for girls. Looking back, it seems so silly to make him play with toys he didn’t even want to play with.

Emery embraces his individuality so boldly and does the best job of not letting people get him down. He’s passionate about the things he cares about and there’s no talking him out of anything. Once he has made up his mind about something, that’s it. He doesn’t like those shoes? He doesn’t have to wear them. Have you seen the pitiful choices for boys’ shoes, anyway?

I’ve become more open-minded and entirely less judgmental since Emery has graced my life. He has changed my life for the better and I know he has touched other people as well. There are thousands of children just like Emery who are gender-variant, as well as trans* children who may feel like they were born in the wrong body. Advocating for them and educating other people has given me a great sense of purpose. Life would be so boring if we didn’t have people like Emery to brighten our lives!

As our society becomes more progressive and accepting, I look forward to the day when Emery doesn’t feel the need to dull his shine. Until then, onward we march.

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