Return to School — Gender-bending During a Pademic

As the school year neared, most people pondered which option was the best — or least bad — for their child(ren)’s educational, emotional, and health needs. I examined this too. But I also carried another boulder into my mental juggling: how can I cause the least damage to my gender-expansive son?

The moment I should’ve known my one option: the day we tried on uniforms.

Anyone who has worn uniforms to school knows the irritation that accompanies this try-on task. The chore inevitably takes place on a hot, steamy day, making the stiff, autumnal fabric feel even more torturous against the summery skin. The last thing anyone wants to do in July is think of September, so this is a whiney, fussy, loathsome undertaking all around. But this year, it was even worse.

I looked up from the pile of stiffly starched khaki and woolen green to see my portly rising-kindergartener struggling to shimmy the khakis over his belly. I reached to help him and my daughter tossed a pile of outgrown gym uniforms at my feet. Then, I saw my sparkly son. Arms crossed in coverage over his bare chest, oversized khakis drooping about his narrow waist, his face was nothing short of crestfallen.

Annoyed. Agitated. Those are reactions I expected. This? This was not that. This was damage. This was mourning. This needed to be stopped.

I ended the try-on session then and there. It was clearly too much.

You see, with school having gone virtual in March, there was no uniform or dress code for months. My three kids reveled in the freedom, unofficially deeming every day “costume day.” As long as they each accomplished their academic goals, I didn’t care how they were dressed (just so long as neither regions were covered come outdoor play time.) Clothes were far from my greatest concern, especially in a near-global shutdown.

My “sparkly son”, as he prefers to be called, used this opportunity to delve deeper into his gender exploration. He went from unicorn t-shirts and pink leggings to daily tutus in what seemed like days (but in real time, as opposed to “Covid time”, it was really more likely a couple of weeks.) He found himself and couldn’t be happier . Nor could I, seeing him so unabashedly comfortable in his truth.

Isn’t that what all parents (who are worth their salt) want for their children? To witness their offspring fully, happily, brightly, proudly being the truest versions of themselves? Being strong, vibrant, kind, resilient, healthy, happy individuals? It’s certainly what I wanted. I just didn’t expect it to come during a pandemic, or entail so much tulle!

Well, my sparkly son found himself, but now I had to determine how that newly discovered self fit into school requirements. Yep, I was not just having to evaluate educational and health elements as I mulled over the method in which my children would return to school, but gender identity concerns abounded, as well.

You see, my children attended a Catholic school. That may sound odd given my sparkly son, but it came from great consideration and recurrent, open discussions with school administration. Located in one of the most conservative archdiocese (translation: regional sections of the Catholic Church) in the nation, which is fascinating since I grew up 45 minutes away and was raised in one of the most liberal archdiocese, it’s a challenge. However, the order of priests that runs the school is the “hippie” sect of priests, if you will. So it takes the conservativism down a notch and the social justice bend up a notch. It evens things out a touch. A touch.

Despite all of that, the school has a zero tolerance bullying policy that they are more capable of upholding than our local public schools, who are bound and gagged so fervently by red tape, that they cannot dependably act on bullying matters. So, after being assured by administration prior to enrolling my sparkly son that this was the school for him, this is where we were. The problem: uniforms and antiquated approaches to gender.

Even though the American Academy of Pediatrics has openly stated that gender expansive/nonconforming children should be supported and not pressured into or shamed out of any gender expression, the Catholic Church has leaders who are behind on the research. Yes — absolutely, positively, YES — there are priest and nuns and countless laypeople who loudly advocate against this dangerous behavior of forcing individuals into gender molds. Still, the school uniform demands that boys wear pants and girls, well, the girls can wear a jumper or the boys’ uniform. (Trying to explain this undeniable sexism and discrimination to my gender-expansive son was beyond challenging.)

We found ways to make it work, though… in the past. A sparkly belt buckle, rainbow and jewel embellished P.E. sneakers, a hairstyle that juuuuust slipped under the radar. We worked with the system while ensuring his developing gender identity was unscathed. (The lack of peer bullying was a major driver in striving to keep my sparkly son happily enrolled.)

However things had turned. In December, administration began singling out my son for not, “dressing like a typical boy”, at after school events that had no dress code. The PE teacher refused my son’s self-advocacy in requesting that the class no longer be divided by sex and given completely different gym experiences based on sex-based stereotypes. A parent who was highly involved in the school told me directly that she took issue with my sparkly son being at the school because him being himself spurred her own son to ask her questions. Another parent, who was miffed that my efforts towards inclusion instigated change, told me that we should just leave the school. Then, there were constant exclusionary and downright dangerous allergy-unfriendly practices, that people without firsthand experience with food allergies absolutely refused to amend for the sake of inclusion. Tides had turned. Though many families were supportive of us, there was a growing chill from the outside.

All the while, my sparkly son enjoyed attending mass at school or joining my father-in-law for services more than any of my three children. And I waited for the shoe to drop. I waited for him to realize that this church that spoke of love and acceptance, of kindness and humility, of inclusion and welcoming in the “other”, didn’t want him. Didn’t support him. Didn’t consider him worthy unless he fit the mold. This church contributed in ways small and large to the continued damage of beautiful humans like him. I waited for the moment he’d realize and be heartbroken.

Still, I held out hope.

When the school laid out a plan that allowed for in-person and virtual learning, I listened with an open heart and voracious ears to the virtual townhall presentation. For us, it was draconian. The plan would not be emotionally healthy for any of my three children. Not for my strong-willed yet sensitive daughter. Not for my fearlessly flamboyant and creative sparkly son. Not for my highly social and empathetic youngest son. It simply wouldn’t do. Then, I factored in the uniform try-on experience.

So we left.

The school. The church. The bigotry. The exclusionary insensitivity. The constant battles. We left it all.

And we couldn’t be happier.

We are homeschooling with a piecemeal curriculum and no screen usage. We take weekly field trips, spend hours outside, and are thriving.

Was it scary to take the leap? Hell yeah it was. Did we figure it out? We sure did and still are. Do we have rough moments and irksome days? Sure. Do we have more authenticity and a life that resonates more with who we are? Yep. Do I navigate my own personal struggles? Recovering conformist, Type-A mom who in recent years toiled to regain her autonomy… yes! But that’s life.

Sure, there are things we all miss. But we’ve welcomed in far more beauty than that which we lost. And, to be honest, many of the things we miss simply don’t exist these days. Who knows when and if they ever will again?

So, here I am. Homeschooling a kindergartener, second grader, and fourth grader during a pandemic. And it’s actually kinda working.

My children can be themselves and KNOW that they are loved unconditionally. No molds required.

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