Republished under the title ‘Why I Worry When I Take My Gender Creative Son to the Park’ on Scary Mommy, and also at The Huffington Post
I have been sitting here at the local community park for over an hour, on this bustling, crisp October afternoon. I have counted at least forty-five children running, playing, shouting, and swinging. Two young girls skip right beside me, sweetly singing and holding hands. I feel the fresh air penetrate my pores in their swirling aftermath of sand and dust. A brother and sister team of around four years old are blowing loud raspberries at each other on a perpetual loop and fist-fighting. Dad looks up from his smartphone once and says, “please stop.” They don’t. He looks back down at his phone. I immediately recognize and empathize with the feeling of defeat.
I am entertained by the juxtaposition of images around me: to my right, an unattended toddler with a snotty green web of mucous encasing his nostrils, and a coach’s whistle gripped firmly between his teeth like a pacifier. He is alternating between blowing the whistle with unbelievable lung capacity, and screaming, “I not going home. I not going home.” “Where is his parent?” I think to myself, “and why is he protesting going home? I don’t see anyone trying to get in his way or stop him.” Then, to my left, a small-framed woman about mid-thirties uses her hands to support a baby papoose strapped to her chest. She is carrying a sleeping toddler, rivaling her own weight. I’m not quite sure I’ve ever seen a giant toddler in one of those things before. Usually it’s an infant. “And how in the world is this kid sleeping? Must be utterly exhausted,” I think to myself, and then I recognize and empathize with the feeling of doing whatever it takes on God’s earth to let a sleeping toddler sleep.
As I’m getting lost in these mental distractions and images, I look over and catch a glimpse of my son, and I am suddenly jarred back to reality – the reason why we’re here in the first place. My 10-year-old son wanted to enjoy a day at the park, as he frequently does. A day full of possibilities. An unfolded day full of potential new playmates, made-up games, and imaginative adventures. I see my son, decked out in hot pink Justice sweatpants, a neon hearts & emojis “girls” t-shirt, and pink & purple Twinkle Toe Sketchers. He is perched delicately atop the hard, steel yellow monkey bars, alone, watching the other kids who seemingly never have to worry with finding a playmate. The story goes the same way every time we come here, which is several times a month, and it always goes like this:
I watch my gender creative son bravely approach at least four different kids over the course of an hour, who are all about his age or maybe a bit younger, and ask them to play. Regardless of what he’s wearing, his personality can come off a little confounding, because he looks like a boy, but has the occasional voice and frequent mannerisms of a girl. He seeks out other kids who are alone and approaches with a confident, “Hi, I’m Charlie. What’s your name?” Sometimes they answer, sometimes they just walk away. If they answer, his next question is always, “Do you want to play?” Sometimes, he gets lucky. But usually not.
This late afternoon, I have watched him get rejected four times already. Each of these four times, the kid Charlie asked has looked him up and down, and then responded with either 1.) walking away without even the courtesy of a reply, or 2.) saying, “no” very curtly, and then walking away. Not even, “No thanks.” What has happened to basic manners? I have watched my son pick himself up each time, and play alone for a while before trying again with another kid.
Finally, after the fourth attempt, he just sort of joins in with a group of girls his age who are singing Michael Jackson’s “ABC, easy as 1-2-3,” and doing a hand jive. Charlie immerses himself into the group and blends in for a bit. I hear him giggling and contributing to the conversation a few times. I go back to my people-watching, trying to find some inspiration for the next topic I might write about. But my thoughts are once again interrupted by waves of laughter and screaming.
I jerk my head back to see the group of girls my son is hanging out with, just in time to hear one of them say, “CHARLIE? Your name is Charlie? Are you a BOY?!” They have a boisterous laugh just now, which eventually trails off into the breeze as they resume singing. But the damage is done. “Where are their parents?” I think to myself. “Why don’t they pay attention and hear how their children are treating others?” It takes all my might not to walk over there and fend for him. But I’m trying not to. He has to learn to advocate for himself. “If it happens again, though, I will intervene,” I reassure myself.
Charlie walks away and finds another group, but this time he doesn’t join in. He just sort of casually observes. I can tell that at one point those kids are saying something to him, but I can’t hear what. It looks like Charlie is not responding. He suddenly runs off pretending to be a Minecraft Wither Storm, and then loops his way back over towards me, where he whispers, “I’m having fun and all, but I just hate it when they ask the question.”
“You mean, ‘Are you a boy or a girl?'” I ask, knowing that’s exactly what he means.
“Yes,” he answers, contemplating the ground beneath his shoes.
“What did you say?” I wonder out loud, knowing full well that I just saw him not reply with anything at all. I guess it is wishful thinking on my part. I so badly want him to respond with one of the many, many answers to this question that we’ve role-played before.
He doesn’t answer me. He just keeps staring at the ground.
“You could say, ‘does it matter? I’m a kid who likes to have fun, that’s who I am,'” I suggest.
Charlie responds, “I’ve said before ‘does it matter?’ but they always say ‘yes.'” And with that, he runs off with a steely resilience, and tries to integrate himself into play mode again.
I sit here watching him, feeling my heart sink lower. With my older two (cisgender) kids, I could release them at the park and only have to glance up occasionally, just to make sure nobody was gushing blood or being abducted. I didn’t give a flying flip who they were playing with, as long as everyone was having a good time, using good judgment, and being safe.
With Charlie, though, I don’t have the luxury of relaxing like that. I find myself watching him almost the whole time. Watching the kids he approaches, holding my breath as I watch how they respond to him. Watching the looks they give him when he turns around and walks away. Watching the way they reject him, paying careful attention to hear which words they decide to use this time.
Sometimes, watching that one kid who doesn’t bat an eyelash and is nice and just plays with Charlie, no questions asked. Those are the times I look away. Not because I feel like he’s finally safe, but because if I keep watching, I will cry. I will cry because seeing that type of accepting reaction is not the norm. I want to go over to the sweet kids who naturally do that, kneel down, look them in the eye, and just say, “Thank you. Thank you for being such a beautiful human being. Don’t ever change.” But I never do, because I’d be balling by that point, and I guess that would be creepy.
It would be so nice if kids could just see a friendly, sweet kid, who looks interesting and fun to play with, without having to decipher their gender first. What would the world look like without “expected” stereotypical gender expression? What would the world look like, if after a woman has a baby, the first question is automatically, “How are the mother and baby doing?” as opposed to, “Is it a boy or a girl?” Why are we so preoccupied with such a boring, bland binary world?
As I am thinking about this boring, bland, binary world of ours, I look over at Charlie one last time. I think about what excuse I’ll use to say that “time is up.” But this time, I look over and see that he is swinging, way up high, in perfect tandem with a little African American girl who looks about the same age. She is looking right at him, with a relaxed face and kind smile, not batting an eyelash, as they happily discuss the finer points of Minecraft one command block. Suddenly I feel warm and relaxed. I smile and exhale a long, slow, happy sigh of relief.
It’s going to be a good afternoon at the park, after all.
6 thoughts on “Alone in a Crowded Park”
Reading this made my heart ache and i must admit made me cry. You have a beautiful child in Charlie. I have been following your story only for a short while and i want you to know i think you are amazing for letting your child be who they want to be. I am finding it hard to articulate myself properly but basically if i was a child Charlie’s age i would be proud to have him as a friend. Charlie you are a bright star!
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This makes me ache. It’s a familiar story. Too familiar. I had trouble making friends too at that age. I had one real-life friend, ever. Then I moved states and never saw him again. I started to struggle after that, never recovered.
I also echo the comment above, if I were still that age, I’d gladly be Charlie’s friend. It’s a lot easier to have friends who are just like you, I’ve come to find out as I’ve gotten older. Similar people relate to each other better, of course.
I wish more people just understood us. A little understanding can go a long way.
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I just read about Charlie for the first time about an hour ago, which lead to me looking at the comments and then clicking on the profile pictures of the people who reached out. Curious about these people who were filled with kindness and support; briefly scanning the posts or pictures of said people and ending up on your profile. I saw a picture you posted that had your children and husband tagged in it and I read: Charlie, the gender creative kid, (I believe). I paused and reflected on that title. Then stopped to wonder if that’s what Charlie considers himself. Then I wondered if Charlie just considers himself Charlie; without the need for any labels at all. It’s the constant need to classify ourselves, and categorize, and compartmentalize that I think is at the true root of why Charlie struggles at the playground, just being accepted as himself. The concept of “others”, the ‘US’ -vs- ‘THEM’ ideology that has reigned supreme since the beginning of time. It’s what fuels wars and resistance. It doesn’t stop with gender, or shade of skin color, or race, or religion or political affiliation or sexual preference or age… it doesn’t stop anywhere. There has never been a line that blurs; an accepted term for inclusion of everyone. It has always been US versus THEM. Just as you’re wanting your son to be included on the playground by other kids that will just see him as a kid, you’re supporting labels, a categorizing system, without even realizing it. These new terms and words being made up, like cisgender, don’t INCLUDE anyone. They further a system of labels. A need to categorize, make sense of, put THAT person into THIS place. I despise the need for everyone and everything to have a damn serial number, coding system. We are born HUMANS; but before even being detached from the womb that carried us we’re labeled, boy or girl. Black, white, Asian, other. . . American, Canadian, Mexican, citizen. We have social security numbers, health record numbers, a driver’s license number, fishing license number, telephone number, home address. We are a good student, musician, cheerleader, athlete, geek, blonde, brunette, tall, chubby, fit, obese, a genius. We are good at mathematics, drawing…. we could like to kiss boys, like to kiss girls, be vegan, pescatarian, vegetarian, kosher, lacto-ovo vegetarian. We may date men but only fall in love with women, be an addict, asexual, virgin, slut, a prude, socially inept, autistic, old, beautiful, homely, strong, narcissistic, shy, chronically ill, disabled, able-bodied, gay, lesbian, straight, bi-sexual, transgender, polyamorous, monogamous, partnered, widowed, veteran, college educated, mentally ill, bi-polar, bi-curious, a parent, infertile, married or a spinster……
Honestly, who the hell cares? Why do we have to care about any of it? Why do we have to make up labels and words and acronyms no one even knows or can remember? Why do people actually believe that some new way to categorize and define a human being somehow now makes them feel accepted or included or loved? What you do, who you do, or how you do, doesn’t change the fact that we all do….. I do me. That’s it. Just me. When I was a little girl my GI Joe’s rode on the backs of My Little Ponies to attack the Barbie Village. I climbed trees in frilly dresses with shorts underneath. I caught frogs and loved watching their life-cycle after letting them go in my back yard pond. I played chess. I was a terrible musician, and an excellent reader, and a great friend. I went to a Foursquare church, a Southern Baptist church, a Catholic church, a Buddhist temple, a Mormon church and a Unitarian Universalist church. Some of my favorite humans are nuns. They love me, even though I’m not Catholic. I was a girl scout, but wished I could have gone to boy scouts too. I sold my clarinet and used the money to buy hiking boots that I wore for 16 years. I make jewelry, and I love photography and writing and reading. I’ve dated men, and women, and been left by a woman who actually asked me after our first kiss if I realized I was kissing a girl. She broke up with me because she was worried I’d wake up one day and realize I wasn’t a lesbian, even though I never said I was. I’ve been told, by a very self-identified lesbian, that life is easier straight, and if I have the choice, pick the simpler road and just be with men. I was abandoned by all my lesbian friends when I dated a man. I’ve been hated for dating women, and hated by gay women for dating men. I’ve been hated for being a white woman and dating a black man. I’ve been hated for not ending a relationship after I was cheated on and I chose forgiveness. I’ve been hated for disliking pet name ‘labels’. I’ve been hated for not eating meat. I’ve even been hated for not being a ‘good enough’ vegetarian.
I’ve been hated for just wanting to be myself. Without wanting to be limited to a collection of labels and ideals that I’m supposed to fit into. I wish we didn’t have to make up titles like ‘Gender Creative’, to somehow make sense of someone who doesn’t fit in society’s imaginary box; inside the slightly larger box; that then sits on the pretty alphabetized shelf. I’m not a book with a dewey-decimal number printed on my ribcage. I wish we didn’t have to play alone at the park; or play alone at life. I wish we didn’t have to fake nice or sit still and smile pretty. . . Or even be told to smile for that matter. Sometimes, I don’t feel like smiling, and conforming, and being labeled and classified down to every last preference I have so that someone else can decide if I’m US or THEM. I wish we were all just free to be humans. Like and love and choose whatever brings us joy, knowledge, faith, happiness and more humanity. I don’t feel like anyone should have to define themselves at all. Humanity is a fluid experience. Ever changing, always evolving; like that lonely see-saw on the playground.
Hi Autumn, I appreciate your comment, and your overall theme/question is one I get often: “Why the need to label?” I did actually address this in a separate blog post a while back, and also on my Facebook Live Series, “Gender Creative 101.” I know how easy it is for a stranger to look at one snapshot in time of our family experience and judge it as “supporting labels without even realizing it.” The thing is, Charlie self-identified himself as gender creative (which is a real word with a definition, and no more “made-up” than any other word in the English language, which is constantly evolving to reflect the times). He self-identified in 4th grade as gender creative, and it brought him tremendous comfort.
Charlie had actually been struggling with intense temper tantrums, fits of anger, fits of frustration, and even health issues such as encopresis from age 2 1/2 years old until 8 years old. We now know it was because of his gender identity. He was trying to live more like a female in a world that was telling him with no uncertainty, “you are a male.” When I began allowing him to dress like a “girl” at home and elsewhere, all of his anger issues went away. Whenever he’s in “girl” clothes, he’s a completely different person: chatty, full of life, happy, his true self.
Because of his level of discomfort, we thought maybe he was transgender. But he had been stating firmly that he was not transgender. He was happy being a boy – he just liked a female gender identity and expression, and occasionally gender neutral expression. You’re right that it can be something very fluid. Charlie struggled up until 4th grade with “feeling different” and not understanding why, when he realized there was a label he could identify with. When he learned the term gender creative, there was a HUGE weight lifted off his shoulders. He now had a term he could use when people questioned him about “why do you wear girl’s clothes?” or to refute the oft repeated phrase, “you’re gay.” (He’s not yet sexually identifying, so it’s unfair and rude for others to identify him with an inaccurate label.) The label of gender creative also allows him the opportunity to educate others on the gender spectrum – people who might have had no clue before now what it is.
And lastly, when you are dealing with gender creative or transgender children, labels are not only helpful, but medically necessary to get the treatment they need, whether it’s mental health, hormone blockers (which are completely reversible), or other life-saving medical interventions later in life, with “closeted” transgender people having the highest suicide rates. Additionally, labels are legally necessary to get a child the services and accommodations they need in a public school setting.
I am happy to report that children who were once making fun of Charlie at school have now done a complete 180 degree turn. One of his biggest taunters last year has become his advocate this year, seeking Charlie out regularly to give him genuine compliments on his “girls” footwear and outfits. I work in his school, so I see the tide changing because of enlightenment and understanding that wasn’t previously there. This is all a result of us being public and open and transparent about who we are. Kids are going home and having dialogues with their parents. This is a huge leap forward.
I know the gut reaction is anger that we have to label. I hate that we have to label, too. Ideally, the world would be an accepting place for all regardless of any differences. Unfortunately, the first thing that happens when we are born is a label – boy or girl. The doctor doesn’t deliver a baby and say, “it’s a baby that will be fluid and determine its own gender.” For those of us whose gender identity matches our biological sex, we have a privilege. The stars don’t align perfectly for all kids, though. So about labels – if they are something that can give a kid confidence, medical and psychological treatment, legal accommodations, and more, I’m all for them.
Sure, there will be times of loneliness like at the playground when no one wants to play because of the way Charlie is dressed. Some people still think it is weird. That’s just life. But again, that’s why we do what we do – live an authentic, transparent life in order to enlighten others. Labels are helpful for others who are trying to understand, and others who are looking to gain acceptance. And I’m happy to say that it’s working.
Oh – and to address why he has a Facebook page called “Charlie, the Gender Creative Kid,” I decided to create it for the over 1000 people who contacted me after our story went viral, with friend requests and/or positive comments, or wanting to keep up with his story. So many people wanted to give Charlie kind messages. I created the fan page on Facebook for him so he could receive the messages all in one place rather than spread out across social media, e-mail, and internet comments. He’s not yet old enough to have his own Facebook account, so this is one way I can further advocate for him, and he can be involved in the process.