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My five-year-old son, C.J., is ready for school. He’s wearing his favorite pink-and-white striped polo shirt and khaki shorts. His teeth are brushed and so is his short auburn hair. He’s standing in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom, where he feels close to me, as I get dressed for work. I brush my brown hair, create a side part, and pull it back into a low ponytail. He pretend-braids his imaginary long blonde hair and ties a bow at the end. I slip on silver hoop earrings and fasten them. He pretends to do the same. I zip up the back of my dress as he slides on a few revolutions of imaginary lipstick. I put on my black high heels and he straightens his imaginary tiara. I give myself a spritz of perfume as he arrives beside me and puffs out his chest. I give him a pretend spray or two. I grab my computer bag, he grabs his Monster High lunch box, and we head out the door--he to kindergarten and I to the office.
As we part ways for the day, I say to him, “I love you no matter what.” It’s the absolute truth. There are no conditions or expectations. I love him no matter what.
Hours later, I load my smiling son into the car. As I drive home, he pulls papers out of his folder to show me. He holds up a worksheet on which he has been practicing writing the letter B. “B is for Bear,” the worksheet says. C.J. colored his bear pink and purple with long blonde hair, hoop earrings, red lipstick, and long pink fingernails.
“Look, Mommy, my bear’s fingernails match my fingernails!” he squeals in giddy delight, kicking his feet, which dangle down from his booster seat, his pink polka-dot Minnie Mouse socks peeking out from his mint green tennis shoes.
“They sure do,” I say as I stop at a traffic light and turn to smile at my special boy. His pink glitter fingernails sparkle in the sun as he holds them next to his bear’s fingernails for me to compare and admire.
“I picked the color special. My teacher said we could color the bear any colors we wanted. I made sure I asked. I didn’t want to color mine brown like real bears. Brown is boring,” he says. I will learn later that all of the other kids colored their bears traditional colors like white, brown, and black. My son has always shied away from the traditional, the “boring.”
When we get home, C.J. dashes up the stairs to his Monster High–themed bedroom to change out of his school clothes and into his pink Hello Kitty skirt and white lace tank top. Every day I can almost hear and feel him exhale when he changes out of his “school clothes” and into his “dress‑up clothes.” It’s as if, for the first time all day, he is truly comfortable. He clips on his pink rhinestone butterfly earrings and, as he flits down the stairs holding a Barbie doll, I catch a glimpse of his Superman boxer briefs.
As I cook dinner, he helps himself to a fresh piece of white paper and sketches what looks like a girl with long red hair, full pink lips in the shape of a puffy heart, a blue dress, rainbow tights, red shoes, a purple tiara, hazel green eyes, and a dozen freckles that rest on the bridge of her feminine nose. I don’t have to ask who the girl in the picture is; I know that it is my son. I’d recognize him anywhere.
C.J. is gender nonconforming, gender creative, gender fluid, gender independent, gender variant, has gender identity disorder, or whatever you prefer to call it. For more than half of his life, my son hasn’t conformed to traditional gender norms. As C.J. explains it, he’s “a boy who likes girl stuff and wants to be treated like a girl.”
My firstborn son, Chase, arrives home from flag football practice, bounding through the door, dropping his backpack in the middle of the kitchen floor as he moves toward the fridge for a snack. As I tell him that dinner is almost ready and snacking is not an option, I kiss the top of his head. He is sweaty and smells like elementary school and pigskin practice--a mix of playground, lunch, number-two pencils, leather, and wet grass.
Chase is all boy and always has been. He’s like his dad in that respect. My husband, Matt, is my high-school sweetheart and has been for more than eighteen years. He’s an Irishman with a heart of gold hidden underneath his tough-guy facade and ever-present scowl. He has delicious strawberry blonde hair, light blue eyes, and broad, strong shoulders. He’s a guy’s guy with a motorcycle, oversized truck, classic car, pool table, dartboard, and kegerator.
Matt and I thought, when we had a second boy, that we would just get more of the same, that when Chase finished a particular phase or stage, C.J. would enter it and we’d do it all over again. We thought wrong.
We thought that our two boys might have slightly different interests. One might like baseball more, while the other preferred soccer. One might like LEGOs, while the other preferred Hot Wheels. We anticipated that their taste in “boy things” might differ slightly. What we didn’t anticipate was that one of our boys might like “girl toys,” “girl clothes,” and hanging out with girls in general. We never, in a million years, thought that we would have a boy who was a girl at heart.
On the gender-variation spectrum of super-macho-masculine on the left all the way to super-girly-feminine on the right, C.J. slides fluidly in the middle; he’s neither all pink nor all blue. He’s a muddled mess or a rainbow creation, depending on how you look at it. Matt and I have decided to see the rainbow, not the muddle. But we didn’t always see it that way.
Initially, the sight of our son playing with girl toys or wearing girl clothes made our chests tighten, forged a lump in our throats, and, at times, made us want to hide him. There was anger, anxiety, and fear. We’ve evolved as parents as our youngest son has evolved into a fascinating, vibrant person who is creative with gender. Sometimes, when I think of how we behaved as parents early in C.J.’s gender nonconformity, I’m ashamed and embarrassed.
It was like watching somebody come alive, watching a flower bloom, watching a rainbow cross the sky. It was the day that C.J. discovered Barbie. He was two and a half years old.
One late fall afternoon, as I was doing some cleaning, I found a boxed Barbie in the depths of my closet and tossed her on my bed.
I wobbled and nearly fell off my stepladder at C.J.’s shriek.
“It’s Barbie,” I said, regaining my balance.
This particular Barbie was pretty fabulous. It was Mattel’s 50th Anniversary Bathing Suit Barbie. She was a modernized version of the original 1959 doll, with a two-piece, black-and-white bikini trimmed with her signature color pink; pink hoop earrings; a long blonde ponytail; and a pink cell phone.
“I want to open she!” C.J. declared.
He held the box as he jumped up and down, up and down, up and down. I’m sure he gave Barbie a concussion. I hesitated. I had been trained well by my mother; you don’t open a boxed Barbie if you can at all help it. I was a little annoyed; I was going to open the box and take Barbie out, and my son was going to play with her for a few seconds and move on to something else bright and shiny. Then I’d be left with a depreciated piece of plastic. But his face, his sweet excited face could convince me to do worse things. We opened her.
In that instant, our lives changed forever in a way that we never expected. In our family’s history there is now B.B. (Before Barbie) and A.B. (After Barbie). Never underestimate the power of an eleven-and-a-half-inch woman.
Of course, at that exact moment, I wasn’t aware that our lives were changing. I couldn’t have predicted the magnitude of C.J.’s actions or mine. I figured that C.J. would play with Barbie for a day, maybe two, and lose interest--as he had with all of the other toys he had encountered in his short life. I was wrong; Barbie has been a constant in his life since that day. Oh, my son wasn’t dabbling; he was hard-core from the start. C.J. had found his life’s passion--and he wasn’t even three.
Matt arrived home from work at the police department to spy a big-busted blonde in his youngest son’s grip. He shot me a look that said, What the hell is that? I replied with a glance that whispered, Settle down. We’ll talk about it later.
Matt changed out of his uniform and sat on the living room floor next to C.J., who was sitting criss-cross-applesauce and trying his hardest to put clothes back on a naked Barbie.
“What do you got there, buddy?” Matt asked C.J.
C.J.’s eyes lit up and a huge grin crossed his face as he excitedly described the doll in great detail to his father. I smiled from my spot at the kitchen sink.
Later that night, after C.J. and Chase were asleep, Matt shared with me the unease he’d felt when he saw his son playing with a doll. Having grown up with no sisters, he’d never even had a Barbie in his house before and couldn’t remember ever touching one. It didn’t feel right to him, though it didn’t feel completely wrong either. After all, C.J. was just a child and Barbie was just a toy.
It was the first of thousands of conversations we’ve had in the privacy of our bedroom late at night as we’ve tried to figure out how best to parent a boy who, at times, is clearly more girl.
“My brother played with Barbies,” I reasoned with Matt, reminding myself and trying to squash the indescribable feelings of unease we were flirting with. “And he turned out fine.”
Matt gave me a look that expanded on my last sentence. Fine and gay.
Of course C.J.’s zeal for Barbie reminded me of my brother, Michael.
My brother and I had a bad Barbie habit as kids. While other kids we knew were committed to karate, baseball, piano, and dance, we were committed to playing with Barbies. We did it all the time, just as I assumed all brothers and sisters did. I didn’t realize until much later in life that my family’s definition of “normal” was different from other families’.
On any given weekend Michael and I would convert the entire floor of the front family room into a fabulous world for our Barbies. There was a wardrobe area and a styling area for accessories, hair, and makeup. We arranged the miniature furniture to create a spacious four-bedroom, one-story, ranch-style home, since we weren’t fortunate enough to possess the Dream House or even the Malibu Beach House. We convinced ourselves that ours was way better anyway, because it was custom-built, our lot size was bigger, and we could keep our brown plastic horse in our backyard.
Sometimes we’d create a mall, and our Barbies, Kens, Skippers, and Midges would all go shopping and eat in the food court, where some one-off Barbie who had suffered some sort of disfigurement (such as a bad haircut, a lost limb, or general disrepair) would take their order and serve them lunch from Hot Dog on a Stick.
I called my brother.
“Guess what C.J. found when I was cleaning out my closet?” I asked.
“No, you idiot, he found one of my Barbies.”
“You still have Barbies?! How come you never get them out when I come over?” he said, his feelings genuinely hurt, as if I sat my thirtysomething-year-old ass around playing Barbies all day every day and then hid them when he visited.
“It’s one Barbie. Mom just gave it to me. It’s the fiftieth-anniversary Barbie,” I said, trying to get to the point.
“How come she didn’t get me one? This is just like when we were kids; you always got the Barbies and I didn’t. I got footballs. I hate footballs.”
“This isn’t about you. C.J. found the Barbie and loves her. He’s obsessed,” I explained.
“Oh,” my brother said quietly. “What do you think it means?”
“I don’t know,” I said, although I knew exactly what I thought it meant: my two-and-a-half-year-old son was gay.
For days after C.J. discovered her, Barbie never left his side. When I’d do a final bed check at night before I retired for the evening to watch reality television and sneak chocolate when no one was looking, I’d see his full head of auburn hair sticking out above his covers. Next to him there would be a tiny tuft of blonde hair sticking out as well.
The next time we were at Target and near the toy aisle--which I’ve always tried to pass at warp speed so the kids don’t notice and beg me to buy them something--C.J. wanted to see “Barbie stuff.” I led him to the appropriate aisle and he stood there transfixed, not touching a thing, just taking it all in. He was so overwhelmed that he didn’t ask to buy a single thing. He finally walked away from the aisle speechless, as if he had just seen something so magical and majestic that he needed time to process it.
He had, that day, discovered the pink aisles of the toy department. We had never been down those aisles; we had only frequented the blue aisles, when we ventured down the toy aisles at all. As far as C.J. was concerned, I had been hiding half of the world from him.
I felt bad about that, like I had deprived him because of my assumptions and expectations that he was a boy and boys liked boy things. Matt and I had noticed that C.J. didn’t really like any of the toys we provided for him, which were all handed down from his brother. We noticed that C.J. didn’t go through the normal boy toy addictions that Chase had gone through: he couldn’t care less about balls, cars, dinosaurs, superheroes, The Wiggles, Bob the Builder, or Thomas the Tank Engine. What did he like to play with? We didn’t worry ourselves much about finding the answer (a case of the second-born child not getting fussed over quite like the firstborn); we trusted that in time something would draw him in. Which it did. It just wasn’t at all what we were expecting.
At about the eighteen to twenty-four-month mark of a child’s life, the gender-neutral toys disappear and toys that are marketed specifically to boys or to girls take over. We didn’t realize it until later, but that divide in the toy world and our house being filled with only boy toys left C.J. a little lost at playtime. We and the rest of society had been pushing masculine stuff on him and enforcing traditional gender norms, when all he wanted was to brush long blonde hair and dress, undress, and re-dress Barbie, occasionally rubbing her boobs for comfort as some rub a rabbit’s foot for good luck.