It was the day before an event for which I was speaking. I had just finished up work and was heading out for the day when I realized this would be the last opportunity to run some last minute errands before my speaking event. I had my ten-year-old son with me since he attends school where I work. Our first stop was going to be at a women’s clothing store to pick up some accessories that matched my dress. I had just been in there to purchase my new dress. The store was nice, but not fancy, with a huge display of bright and colorful spring ensembles and dresses in the latest trending patterns and fabrics. I knew that my son would be in complete awe.
As I’ve written about before, my youngest child is gender creative. This means that he does not want to change his anatomy or be a girl (at least not at this point in his life). He simply prefers all the things that are marketed to girls, and tends to bond better with girls than with boys. He has a real appreciation for fabrics, textures, and dresses. He has been this way all of his life – it’s just who he is.
I told my son where I had to go. He had not been inside a women’s clothing store with me before – at least not in recent years, because I actually hate shopping and hardly ever shop for new clothes. As we were driving there, my son asked if he would be able to browse the dresses while I looked at accessories. I knew the store was small enough that I could keep my eye on him, so I said yes. He then expressed interest in looking at dresses in his size if there were any. He had grown out of all his princess costumes, which are mostly made for girls ages 2-6. Plus, he had been wanting an actual, “real” dress. Not just a princess dress-up costume. Then he asked if he could maybe even try one on. I said, “Sure, why not?!” My son was suddenly super excited.
But then I realized, “oh, wait a second… I guess he actually can’t do that, because this is North Carolina – the state that passed HB2″ (a.k.a. “the bathroom bill,” a.k.a. the “public facilities privacy & security act”), which states in no unclear terms that a person can only use the public restroom/changing room/locker room/shower facility, etc., as the gender assigned to them on their birth certificate. Unless, of course, they have proof that they’ve actually undergone gender affirming or reassignment surgery, and have changed their birth certificate to align with this. (I still can’t type this without shuddering in disbelief and dismay). In 2016, our local government still does not understand that gender is totally separate from sex.
Whereas a person’s sex is biological and refers to physical attributes such as external genitalia, sex chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, and internal reproductive structures, a person’s gender refers to a state of mind that is something much more complex. The Gender Spectrum online provides by far the best, most simple explanation of gender: Gender is the interrelationship between an individual’s sex (gender biology), one’s internal sense of self as male, female, both or neither (gender identity) as well as one’s outward presentations and behaviors (gender expression) related to that perception, including their gender role. Together, the intersection of these three dimensions produces one’s authentic sense of gender, both in how people experience their own gender as well as how others perceive it.
Because we would be entering a girls/misses/women’s clothing shop, and boys aren’t legally allowed to enter the women’s restroom or locker rooms, I had to assume that applies to fitting rooms as well. I began running through my mind all the possible outcomes of asking a sales clerk, “Can we get a dressing room?” My son wouldn’t want me in there watching him change; he’s ten now and very modest and aware of his body. How would I explain that a little boy wanted to go in alone to try on a dress? You know, because he wants a dress in his size, and boys/mens departments don’t sell dresses to boys around here.
So, it seemed the choice was either order online in the privacy of your own home and hope that it arrives intact and fits true to size, or don’t try it on in the store’s dressing room – just buy it and hope it fits. Those seemed to be the only options, anyway. With this new law in place, I figured the store clerks would certainly have the right to refuse letting my son into the dressing room since his biological sex is listed as male on his birth certificate, and he obviously looks like a boy. I didn’t think I could even pretend that I wanted to try on the dress, because it would be in his size and obviously not for me. And even if I did go in, I don’t think the law allows me to bring a boy over the age of 7 into any type of a “women’s room.”
I thought about how to put this to him. He knows about HB2. In his words, “it’s the stupidest thing. Ever.” Even though he gets the gist of it, though, he doesn’t get ALL that it entails. I tried explaining to my son that I had thought about it for a minute, and realized that because of this new law, it would be fine for him to look at or even buy a dress, but he would not be able to try it on in the store, unless he did so out in the open, and on top of his pants and shirt. He did not like that idea. “How would I know that it really fits if I put it on over my clothes?” he asked. I gave him our other options of searching online for a dress in his size, or just guessing in the store which size might fit best (shouldn’t be too hard, I would think). He was very confused over this.
He then started talking about how “stupid” it is that stores have to identify as “girls only,” or “boys only” in the first place. Perfect example he gave me: The young girl & tween’s clothing store Justice: Just for Girls. Sure, they made an attempt to launch the in-store boy’s version called “Brothers,” but it doesn’t sound like it ever really took off. There was a time when my daughter shopped at Justice, but now at age 14 wouldn’t be caught dead in there. They market to girls around my youngest son’s age – the “tweens.” Their offerings are sparkly, shiny, puffy, neon, and every other adjective that my son finds appealing.
The only “girls clothes” he has really worn have been his sister’s hand-me-downs. He told me how sad it makes him because he has always wanted to shop for his own clothes at Justice, but said that he doesn’t “feel welcome there,” because it’s exclusively for girls. Even if the short-lived Brothers branch of Justice had lasted, he wouldn’t have wanted to shop there anyway, because it’s the sparkly things and dresses that he likes, not the superhero shirts. Seems to me a bit of a double standard that society accepts it as perfectly normal for girls clothing stores to sell pants, suits, button-downs, and blazers, but it wouldn’t be normal for boys clothing stores to sell options of skirts or dresses. But that’s the way it is right now.
We arrived at the store, and as I looked at jewelry I watched him in the store admiring the dresses. I was thinking only two things: I hope there’s something he likes, and I hope it fits. Fortunately my boy knows a good deal when he sees one; he actually found something on the clearance rack that was under $20. It was an adorable A-Line navy blue dress, with a navy blue lace overlay. He ran over to me with it still on the hanger, asking, “Can I have it? It’s SO pretty!” With the good price that it was, I decided to buy it. I hadn’t bought him new clothes in a while. Why not get him something he wanted? He could wear it at home every single day, as far as I was concerned.
We checked out, made our way through the humid jungle of pouring rain, and got back into the car. No sooner than I turned on the defogger for the humidified, fogged-up windshield had he scurried to the very back row of seats in the car, practically tearing his shirt and pants off to get into that dress. I had to remind him to slow down so he wouldn’t rip the fabric. He finally got it on and put his socks and sneakers back on.
I still had one more stop to make at the gift shop. I told him he’d have to go in with me, and I asked if he minded going into a public place with the dress on. I told him he could change back. He said emphatically, “No! Of course I don’t mind! I’m so excited to finally have a real dress! I want to wear it every day!” I explained that I was happy for him, and although I’m okay with him wearing a dress, people out in public might not understand, and might look at him oddly, or even say or do something not very nice. I said, “What’s your plan if someone thinks you’re a girl?” He said, “That’s a no-brainer. I’ll tell them, ‘I’m not a girl. I’m gender creative.” I thought for a second, and then high-fived him, realizing that the answer really was that simple, and I didn’t need to overthink it or stress over it, because he was comfortable.
We went into the gift shop, and my son was full of confidence. He picked up several things and admired them. He was totally himself, totally comfortable, totally happy. We were in there for a while, because I had a few cards and small gifts to pick out. My son was having a ball looking at the Mother’s Day decor. Then I began noticing something. For the 3rd time, a different store clerk was approaching us with a smile, saying, “Can I help you find something today?” I smiled back and replied a 3rd time, “No thanks, I’m just browsing for some gifts.” When she walked away, I moved to a different aisle, but my eyes followed her back to the area behind the cash register where she huddled with 2 other young girls whispering to each other, looking back in Charlie’s direction, and laughing a bit. I felt slightly sick as I realized what was happening. Maybe they just thought he was cute. Maybe they were happy to see a kid just being so happy and carefree. That’s what I’d like to believe, but we’ve been down this road too many times before in other situations (toy stores, arts & crafts stores, fabric stores), and I was sure my unspoken hunch was correct. They weren’t laughing because they thought he was cute.
I tried to just let it roll off my back. My son didn’t even seem aware. He was still chattering away about a cute mini rubber alarm clock he had found on clearance. After a few more minutes passed, while I was looking on the card aisle, more and more people began crowding the aisle – the only aisle containing Mother’s Day cards. Everyone on that aisle was looking for the same thing. No one there was paying my son any attention. We were all on a mission to stay out of each other’s way and find the perfect Mother’s Day card. Yet for some reason, my son suddenly did a 180.
He walked carefully over to me and whispered, “I want to go put my pants back on.” I said, “Ok, well, let me finish picking out these cards, and then we’ll leave.” Then I asked him, “Are you ok?” He shook his head “no.” I got down at his level and said, “What happened? Did somebody say something to you?” Again, he shook his head “no.” He was holding back tears. I said, “Did someone look at you weird?” He still shook his head no. “Are you just feeling self-conscious?” To that, he nodded “yes.” I stood back up, and with haste tried to hurry up picking the cards. My son said, “I’ll be over there,” and he went to hide behind a different card aisle where nobody else was.
I felt horrible. What had I just let my son do? How could I have been so stupid? Why didn’t I protect him? Why did I allow him to do something that would certainly end up embarrassing him? I rushed to pick out the next card I could get my hands on, hurried to the counter, paid, got my son and left. Once we got back in the car, he felt better. I still don’t know what happened to make him go from being completely confident to completely embarrassed, and I didn’t press with questions that might make him even more uncomfortable. He ended up keeping the dress on, but just putting his long pants on underneath. Then he said, “Ok, that feels better. I was feeling weird because it was just my underwear underneath the dress.” That brought a little relief. Maybe that’s all it was.
Back at home, he kept the dress and pants on all evening, through dinner, homework, and up until bedtime. Around bedtime, I was talking to my husband when our son appeared with a very neatly and perfectly folded something, saying, “guess what this is?” I couldn’t tell at first because it was kind of dark in the room, but when I looked closer I saw that it was the dress, folded into crisp, clean lines that formed a perfect square. (This, from a child who has never willingly folded a piece of his own laundry his entire life.) That simple action spoke volumes of how much he valued and loved this dress, and intended to take care of it so he could wear it again and again. He didn’t crumple it up and throw it on the floor like all his other clothes.
While I was thankful for the way the day ended, I was confused. I obsessed over it all night and on the way to work. After arriving at work, I received an e-mail from my husband, who apparently had been sorting it out in his mind, too. It said this:
I know how he feels. Naked, exposed, scared, nervous. Most people don’t know how to accept something that goes against the norm. It is weird. Different. Easier to laugh at it than embrace the bravery of a kid trying to be his true self. He was on top of the world when he saw that dress, fell in love with it, and wanted the world to know how he felt. But when the reality set in, and he thought about it, it is possible he felt the weighted stares, judgment, heard snickers, (even if they were just in his head) and felt very self conscious all of a sudden. He is brave, strong, and confident in the moment, but not strong enough yet to carry it through to the end (like yesterday – he hid when he realized he was self-conscious).
There is nothing wrong with his reaction – in my opinion, it is normal (or as you would say, “age appropriate” in the sense that he is a toddler in expressing his gender creativity). He will gain strength, but he will continue to have episodes of embarrassment throughout his childhood and young adulthood. He is breaking new ground, and so are you. This is a tough road to walk, but I am here to walk it with you and provide strength for both of you. I love you.
Gosh, I love that man of mine. His message was spot on. Always the voice of reason, always making sense of the chaos in my head. From this whole event, I suppose I learned that I still have a lot of growing to do. And so does my son.
Onward and upward.
S.E.A.R.CH. (Safe Environment for the Acceptance of Rainbow CHildren)