Challenges of Having a Gender-bending Son

Having a child who naturally, innately side steps gender norms is both inspiring and terrifying. I am equal parts amazed by his self-assurance and self-awareness, and jittering with fear at the onslaught of “what ifs?” And, nearly 7-years into this journey, we’ve begun facing some new challenges.

My middle son is sparkly. He adores unicorns, rainbows, mermaids, and princesses. He enjoys styling hair, putting on colorful drag performances, figure skating, and is absolutely enamored with ballet. He is unapologetically himself. He knows who he is, what he likes, and that it’s not worth hiding any of that and unhappily living a lie all because of some fearmongering maybe-possibly-could-be hypothetical scenarios. (Can I have a little bit of that bravery and wisdom, please?)

Still, as unwaveringly supportive of him as I am, I worry. A lot. I’m his mom; I worry because I love. Also, as his mom and #1 supporter, I’ve become increasingly aware of some challenges creeping up on us.

Bathrooms. I grew up as an able-bodied sibling to a younger brother who had highly involved special needs. From feeding to bathing, dressing to toileting, I was heavily involved in his daily care during my formative years. That said, I learned early on that there was no one checking anatomy at restroom doorways. My brother came into the women’s room out of necessity through his teen years. Even in adulthood, if there’s no unisex/family bathroom and his caretaker is a female, my brother gets wheeled into the women’s room. That’s just the reality of things.

That said, I’ve brought my three children into the bathroom with me all of their lives. At 8-, 6-, and 4-years-old, we are nearing the time when some restroom users may question the presence of my two boys (4 and 6) in the ladies room.

The problem: my sparkly 6-year-old is often mistaken for a girl. Would you send your 6-year-old daughter into a public men’s room unattended?

At school — where he dons a uniform — my sparkly son uses the boy’s bathroom without issue. However, when we’re out and about outside of school, I have to think twice about how we handle restroom situations. My son’s aesthetic generally resting somewhere between “human disco ball” and “Prince in pastels”, makes standard sex-deliniated bathrooms tricky. And I know this matter will only worsen with age. All I can hope for is a significant upsurge in the number of unisex and family restrooms at public facilities.

Passing. Right now, my diminutive sparkly boy often passes as a girl. His name sounding unisex has proven to be an unexpected blessing, especially in areas where gender nonconformity is less than accepted. Right now, there is no reason any unfamiliar passersby would even question my son’s sex assigned at birth; they would undoubtedly (but incorrectly) assume he was female. This works for us. Most of the time.

Occasionally, my son’s ability to “pass” does put us in uncomfortable scenarios, though. Just this weekend, we were taking a family trip on the Metro and ran into a bit of an issue with the Metro card. While talking to the helpful Metro employee, I used my children’s pronouns: two “he”s and a “she.” “‘He’?” The employee questioned me, looking at my sparkly son. As is usually the case in these situations, butterflies erupted in my belly and I took a deep breath to repress my defensiveness and encourage kindness.

“Yep,” I replied. She wasn’t convinced. My mouth spoke words I didn’t know to say: “He just loves sparkles.” The woman gave a pensive slow nod then, after an uncomfortably long (for me… as I was unknowingly holding my breath) pause, she threw up her hands and declared, “There’s nothing wrong with that. I like sparkles too.” Then she offered the kids some candy and I tried to mask my efforts to recuperate my breath.

As much as my slight son can fly under the intolerance radar given his enormous blue eyes, exceptionally lush eyelashes, elfin features, soprano voice, and spritely form, I know this too shall pass. In too-short time, puberty will culminate in a muscular, broadened, masculine form. This will, inevitably, complicate things. The ability to “pass” will be less likely opening my son and us to judgment from the same passersby who currently glaze right over him. I try not to think too much about it.

Friends. I have learned to lead with my son’s sparkliness. It is an easy way for me to assess whether someone is an individual who would be accepting or not. It’s better to find out right away than to be sorely disappointed after facilitating a connection.

Still, I have recently been disappointed in the lurking intolerance in communities in which I had felt safe. Hearing that people consider my sparkly son — who has absolutely no behavior issues in school at all (despite being a spunky, mischievous, at times melodramatic middle child at home) — to be a negative influence or an unwelcome community member who represents unwholesome values is heartbreaking. Truly.

As a person who believes that humans are, for the most part, innately good with predominantly good (though sometimes misguided) intentions, it wounds me to uncover the unfeeling intolerance of others. As someone who fights — to my own detriment — for the safe and intentional inclusion of ALL children, it disappoints me greatly to witness the exclusionary tendencies of those who take comfort in judgmental divisions of fellow humans. Still, these are lessons for me to learn. I know my son will have to bear witness to this too as he bravely chooses to be true-to-self instead of betraying himself for the sake of maybe avoiding some bullies.

Loneliness. I’ve given voice to this very real sentiment before. This journey of parenting a child who rests outside of the norm is lonely. Few bravely and openly walk this path. It makes the inevitable battles feel larger when, leading the charge is my sparkly son and there I stand behind him, armed to the teeth, shivering with equal parts anger and fear, trying to lead with kindness but knowing confrontation is going to be a necessity. And I stand there alone. No one beside me. No one even immediately behind me but for a solid mile. There, in the recesses of the battlefield, is a loving hoard clapping and cheering for my victory. Supporting me in words and sentiment but unscathed by inevitable war wounds.

Then there’s the loneliness of knowing some dear friends cannot fully comprehend or accept my plight. The loneliness of having no partner with whom to link arms and walk in lockstep into each storm. The loneliness of knowing my experience is so unrelatable that it is abundantly easy for outsiders to judge.

Still, despite all of these challenges I would never dream of shrouding my child, hiding who he is from the world, insinuating to him in any way that he is wrong or broken, communicating that pretending to be that which he is not is wise because living in a shame- and fear-based lie may possibly help him avoid some of the potential intolerance of others. I will not do that. Not ever.

In my truest heart, I know he will be fine. He’s resilient and determined, courageous and clear-headed, confident and amiable. His is a smart kid and will do just fine. He manages to find friends and supporters no matter where he goes.

My son is sparkly. My son is beautiful. My son is who he is and that is for no one to judge. My son is perfectly imperfect just as he is. No matter the challenges ahead, granting him the strength, space, and ability to live his most authentic life offers him the greatest chance at happiness. And that is the greatest gift I can provide.