Dress Blues: Gay Moms Learn a Lesson On Gender Norms

Filed under: Gay Parenting

"You have got to support me on this one," Em* told me in no uncertain terms. "She has to wear the dress."

Em doesn't put her foot down very often, so when she tells me something is important to her, I listen. Problem was, my other easy-going girl was putting her foot down, as well.

"Mom, you've got to tell them," Ann* begged tearfully during one of our bedtime talks. "You've got to tell them I can't wear a dress."

So there I was, between a rock and a hard place, with the line drawn in the sand. Over a dress, of all things.

Of course, this wasn't just any dress. This was THE dress, one of the dresses a girl is supposed to fantasize about, one that would take its place in the pantheon of dream dresses, along with the Sweet Sixteen dress, the prom dress and the Big Kahuna of dresses, the wedding gown. This was the First Communion dress, the first of a girl's Big Fancy Dresses.

And Ann was having none of it.

This was a kid who hadn't worn a dress since she was 5 years old -- and even that was a negotiated dress, for her moms' wedding. Her well-established disdain for anything frilly was certainly fine with us –- Em and I are not the lipstick variety of lesbian, and you're more likely to find us in jeans or khakis than skirts or dresses. If Ann were more comfortable in pants, who cared?

But sometimes a dress is not just a dress. We've known for a couple of years now that Ann's no-frill clothing choices are a part of something bigger than just her wardrobe. There was no sudden shock -- it was more of a growing awareness -- that there was something different about her.

In pretend games with her sister or with her friends, we could hear Ann choosing a male persona for herself ("I'm the dad" or "I'm the big brother"). When we played the game of Life, Ann chose a little blue stick figure, not a pink one, to represent her.

Ann plays Little League baseball, where she's always the only girl on her team, but she disdains the very concept of girls' softball. She quit gymnastics rather than accede to the coach's demand that she stop running and vaulting and tumbling with the boys' group, and instead take her place with the girls on the balance beam -- in a leotard and tights.

We haven't shopped in the girls' department for two or three years now; the three-piece suit I once agreed to buy her for dress-up has turned into a full-blown boy's wardrobe. Ann wears her hair chin length, in a vague style that could pass for either a boy's long cut or a girl's short one. With her unisex hair and boy's clothes, she's routinely mistaken for a boy -- and she likes it.

We've negotiated every step of the way: Yes to the boy's parka, no to the buzz cut. Yes to wearing the suit to Easter dinner, no to wearing it to the school play. We're in uncharted waters here, and we're doing the best we can to avoid the rocks under the surface.

One family member opined that it was psychological, that Ann was trying to fill in for the man who was missing in our lives. A friend and neighbor -- a smart guy, a Ph.D -- saw her in her suit and wisecracked, "You guys are starting her a little early, don't you think?"

Both comments stung, and badly, although I know they're both wrong. This is who Ann is, it's not about Em and me, or about a "missing" man. And I love my child, no matter who she is. Of course, I worry about other kids teasing her, but I don't particularly care one way or the other what clothes she wears, or how she wears her hair. Except ...

Except that every time she'd put on a suit, I felt myself wanting to explain it to people. Nobody ever asked about it, and Ann didn't bring it up, so why did I always need to mention it? I told myself I was giving people permission to ask about it, to make it clear that we broad-minded moms had no problem with this. But was this mom protesting too much? Was I falling victim to what lots of other parents have worried about -- that something I'd done is "making" Ann this way?

I think I wanted it to be clear that my being gay doesn't have anything to do with what's going on here -- this is about Ann. I know from the very depths of my soul that this child is who she is, and that Em and I are not driving her to be something she isn't. So why did I care what people thought?

I never thought I'd have sympathy for Angelina Jolie, but I do. I really feel for the public criticism she's taken for letting her child be her own person. I feel for any moms as they confront public pressure against their kids, even as they must do whatever they can to help their children emerge into a fully realized adulthood.

I'd spent so much time thinking about what was going on with Ann, it was time to confront what was going on with me. I certainly wasn't nursing any grief over the loss of some fantasy girl-child. I hadn't spent my life dreaming of dressing up my baby girl like the dolls of my own childhood. I absolutely believed what I told Ann, that there were lots of ways to be a girl and that I loved her no matter what kind of girl she was. So why did this bother me so much? Was it possible I was projecting my own insecurities onto Ann?

Here's what I concluded: It's much easier now than it was 20 years ago to be gay, but easier doesn't mean easy. There's awkwardness and embarrassment and, yes, sometimes even pain. We gay folk listen to the radio and read those online comments, you know. We hear and see how some people talk about us. We know they're ignorant and unworthy of our attention, but, I assure you, it still hurts. And if those goons can still hurt me, can still prick at my own sense of self-worth, what will they do to this beautiful child of mine?

To be a parent is to love another human being so much that you can hardly stand it. The thought of anyone hurting my girl is simply unbearable. But being gay has taught me that failure to conform to social expectations is a surefire way to bring on scorn, and I know what may be in store for Ann. She'll march to her own beat, and the world just might make her pay for that.

I know my job is to help her build the confidence she'll need to withstand the pressure to conform. The world will always want her to get on the balance beam, to play girls' softball instead of Little League, and to say yes to the dress. I so want her to withstand it, because the only thing more painful than the thought of anyone hurting her is the thought of anyone making her change. She's fabulous just the way she is.

If "the boy thing" turns out to be a passing phase, I'll be right there beside her as she changes and grows. I'd be delighted to help her pick out her prom dress (although I can't offer much in terms of fashion sense). But I want her changes to come from within, not from any outside pressure to conform. And if she doesn't change, if she continues down her gender-noncompliant path, well, that's OK, too. I can help her choose a tux if that's what she wants.

So, we worked out a compromise for the Communion, with the help of the director of religious education. Say what you want about the Catholic Church (and I've said a few things, myself), but we could not have scripted this woman a better answer if we'd written it ourselves.

"This is about a sacrament," she said, "not about clothes. Be respectful of the setting, but let her wear what she wants."

I'm not about to convert back or anything, but I'll be forever grateful to our little island of progressive Catholicism.

Ann took her place in the girls' line for the ceremony, wearing white pants and a little white tank top covered by a short white girls' bolero jacket, with a simple headband topping it all off. For her party, she changed into her dress shirt, bow tie and suit jacket the first minute she could. She looked adorable in both outfits and nobody fainted, the church walls did not collapse. If the neighbors (or our families) talked about it behind our backs, well, at least Ann didn't hear it.

After it was all over, Ann and I had another one of our bedtime talks. I reminded her that for more than a year those talks had been difficult, sometimes teary. They always seemed to be negotiations about her hair, her clothes or The Dress. But ever since we settled the Communion question, bedtime had been less stressed. These days, we mostly talked about baseball or Pokémon or our upcoming trip to the beach to celebrate the end of school. Did that mean everything was better now?

She nodded happily and snuggled down next to me. "I'm fine, Mom," she said.

And nobody knows that better than I do.

*All names have been changed to protect my family's privacy

Veronica Rhodes writes about gay parenting under this pen name; read her blog on RedRoom. She and David Valdes Greenwood alternate weeks writing the Family Gaytriarchs. Look for them on ParentDish every Wednesday.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.