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Raising a Gender Nonconforming Child in the '90s

Julie Tarney

I stretched out on the couch, propped up two cow-print pillows behind my head, and instantly lost myself in Alice Hoffman’s latest book, The River King. I didn’t look up from the page until Harry, now ten years old, entered the living room.

I felt my brows arch to their highest setting. “Harry!” I laughed.

He was wearing the plain pale pink gathered-waist dress he’d found at Goodwill for his lunch-lady Halloween costume. A string of pink plastic beads hung around his neck. His eyes batted at me from behind red plaid frames. I recognized the black and gold deco Monet earrings I’d worn for a work portrait the year he was born.

“What?” he asked, putting his hand to his hip as if nothing about his appearance had changed. Then he flashed a huge grin outlined in thick magenta lipstick. “I’m Linda Schneider.”

I stretched a broad smile. The name Linda Schneider was somehow funny. “So you want to record something now?”

“Well, if I’m getting all my hair cut off tomorrow, I have to film Linda Schneider’s farewell.”

I had no idea what prompted Harry’s desire for short hair. His thick shoulder-length head of hair had always seemed such a big part of his identity, a feature he’d been so proud of. But as I’d learned with Harry, it was best to just go with the flow and let him keep expressing himself.

“Okay, Linda,” I said, sitting up. “Where do you want to be?”

“In the dining room,” he said, voice trailing as he ran to the kitchen for the video camera he’d brought home from Ken’s.
He had me stand at one end of the dining room table with my back to the windows. He sat at the head of the table opposite me.

“Tell me when you’re ready,” he said.

I checked the 8mm videotape. I was surprised to see more than half of the sixty-minute cassette had already been used up. I centered his image on the view screen and pressed the red button.

“Action,” I said.

“I have some very bad news,” Linda began quietly, her face somber. “Me and Texas Jake will not be on the ‘Five O’Clock News at Six’ or the ‘Seven O’Clock News at Eight’ anymore.”

I steadied the camera with both hands to silence an uncontrollable shoulder laugh.

“We’ve been transferred to the London News,” Linda said, lowering her head with a loud sigh. “Well, to all of my fans out there . . . to all of those girls I’ve been a role model for, please!” She threw her right hand into the air. “Still watch me on the news. I’ll be there, just on a different channel . . . It’s sad for me to leave . . .

Now I believe Texas Jake would like to say something. I’ll go get him.”

Linda got up from the table and I switched off the camera.

“That was really good, Harry. And I love the ‘Five O’Clock News at Six’ show.”

“I’ll be right back,” he said, bounding up the stairs.

I shook my head. I was impressed with Harry’s impromptu on-air monologue. I remembered him play-acting in the wig department at Boston Store and his grand entrance at the family barbeque. Harry was no longer just a little boy in a dress; he was a funny boy in a dress who had finally worked his act to the screen.

Harry returned to the dining room table news desk a few minutes later wearing a tan Panama hat, black wire-rim sunglasses, and a red zip-up shirt with black stripes down the sleeves. I stared at Harry and lost myself for a minute in his concentrated attention to this new character. Every bit of his demeanor had changed. He was definitely no longer Linda Schneider.


“Sorry, honey.” I took my position with the camera and started rolling.

“Hi, y’all. Texas Jake here,” he said with a southern drawl. “As Linda probably told ya, me and her are gettin’ transferred. And after I just got me a new pair of sunglasses so I could impress y’all! Well the world’s a circle, and we’ve gotta keep on movin’.”

I stuck my tongue between my teeth to keep quiet.

“We’re probably going to be replaced by some snooty people who don’t know what they’re talking about,” he continued. “Y’all know what I’m sayin’? That sucks. Well, I guess this is goodbye.”

Harry nodded and I shut off the camera. It was hard to fathom how easily he’d shifted from Linda to Jake.

“Great job on the accent, Harry. And, to be honest, I’m kind of sorry to see Linda and Jake go, too.”

“Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll have new characters for when my hair is short.”

Two days later, lugging a two-and-a-half gallon plastic jug of Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water in one gloved hand, with several uncooperative bags of dry cleaning sliding on my parka sleeve, I turned my key and pushed open the front door. I heard Harry and two of his friends in the dining room as I slipped off my black Uggs in the tiny vestibule. Two steps inside, I stopped and stared into the dining room.

Harry and Max sat next to each other, in the same spot Linda Schneider and Texas Jake had said their goodbyes. I gulped when I saw Harry. I wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be a boy or a girl. His Army-issue haircut was now the color of a neon lime, accomplished surely with a can of spray dye he had talked me into buying at Bartz’s Party Store. In addition to lipstick and eyeliner, he was wearing my retro-styled Harley-Davidson motorcycle jacket. His black boots were crossed on the table, and he was filing his nails with an emery board. Max was dressed in Harry’s Nerd Squad t-shirt, and a pair of no-lens glasses with masking tape wrapped around the bridge rested on his nose. Ian held the camera and tape was rolling. I tiptoed past them into the kitchen. I couldn’t help but overhear.

“What?!” Harry asked, sounding edgy and tough. “I’m filing my nails. Oh, yeah. I’m supposed to talk.”

I heard his feet drop to the floor.

“This show is bogus! I just want to say that right off. We’re the new news members, and this geek . . .”

He shoved Max as I walked past for my boots and another trip to the car.

“Hey, Rita!” Sam countered.

He’s Rita! Or, she’s Rita. I wasn’t sure how to refer to Harry in character. Linda was so obviously a girl, but Rita seemed more androgynous. Now that I knew her name, it struck me that Harry had created a very believable butch-girl character. I was in awe of his ability to transform from his ultra-feminine Linda Schneider into someone so markedly different in manner, expression, and tone. It was as if Harry’s haircut had given him a new kind of gender freedom that allowed other personalities to emerge.

The movie-making continued into sixth grade. Other comical characters Harry paraded in front of the camera included crystal ball fortune-teller Madame Fondue and blond Valley girl Kelly, host of the weekly talk show “Totally Kelly.” A live news report that cracked me up described Harry, shrouded in a gray towel and lying on the powder room floor with an empty bottle at his lips, as a nun who had died of alcoholism in Central Park. It struck me that some of the kids’ movie scenes were similar to Harry’s earlier Barbie doll dramas of broken hearts and untimely deaths. At least the kids were no longer sending Barbie cars careening down our wooden staircase into a deadly whirlpool.

I was impressed by Harry’s aptitude for creating and developing so many different characters. While he was still quite the comedian and was comfortable in front of the camera, I couldn’t get over how fluidly he moved from one persona to the other. I wondered if his creative range meant he was perhaps a naturally gifted actor. Or maybe these new characters were just the next incarnation of Harry’s imaginative play, dolls no longer required.

A few weeks after Harry’s thirteenth birthday, he came home from a weekend at his Dad’s flat all excited about a new movie he wanted to see.

“It’s called The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Mom. Can I please go? Please, please, please, please, please?”

To see the transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania?! Are you kidding me? You’re a kid! I’d been to a midnight showing at the Oriental Theatre soon after the movie opened in the mid-seventies. It was campy, outrageous, and fun. People in the audience took props. I’d shaken rice from my hair after the opening wedding scene and laughed when slices of toasted bread flew overhead during the champagne toast. I’d also learned to duck when squirt gun sprinkles accompanied the onscreen rainstorm. I had loved it. I flashed on an image of my crush Tim Curry dressed in a sparkly black lace-up corset, fishnets, and spiked heels doing “The Time Warp” dance.

“Please, Mom, please?” Harry pleaded with his hands held in prayer.

I did a quick inventory of the facts. Rocky was a musical, but the content included bisexual lovemaking. It had actually been an educational movie for me back then. There hadn’t been any full nudity or explicit sex scenes, but I did vaguely remember Dr. Frank N. Furter hopping from Janet’s bed to Brad’s and back again to Janet’s. But I was out of college then, and Harry had just turned thirteen. He still wore braces.

“What’s so special about Rocky Horror?” I asked.

“I don’t know that much about it,” Harry replied. “Katharine said it was about a couple who gets lost, but she couldn’t really explain it. I went to the Oriental with her and Dad, and when we came out I saw all these people dressed in crazy costumes waiting in line to see it. And I want to go so bad! Please, please, please can I?”

My gut instinct was to say no. The movie was rated R. It started at midnight and didn’t get out until after 2 a.m. Even though his dad lived four blocks from the theater I didn’t want him walking home alone so late. But the exhilaration that swept Harry’s face describing the people in costume had softened me from giving him a hard “no.” I didn’t think he really cared about the movie. It was the wildly costumed fringe characters he wanted to experience.

“I’ll have to think about it, Harry. I’m not saying no, but I need some time to mull it over.”

Still apprehensive, I pulled my car up on Farewell Avenue across the street from the Oriental Theatre at 11:45 p.m. What was I doing dropping Harry off this late by himself? I eyed the older teenagers and twenty-somethings in line under the lit marquee that read “Rocky Horror Tonight!” They all looked so old compared to Harry, who looked like a kid. I spotted a woman with a gold glitter jacket and top hat, another in a strapless red satin dress with a huge tattoo on her back and a young man wearing a long turquoise cape. I stayed where I was until Harry entered the theater, just in case he got turned away for a ticket. Then I reluctantly pulled away from the curb and turned the corner, headed for home.

I couldn’t fall asleep that night. I was sure Harry was fine inside the theater, but I felt my heart accelerate at the thought of him getting home safely after two in the morning. I waited until nine o’clock to call Ken’s. Katharine answered and confirmed that Harry was sound asleep in his bed. I hung up the phone and exhaled an audible sigh with relief. Harry was growing up and there was nothing I could do about that.

By the end of eighth grade Harry had a regular posse who accompanied him to the Oriental on Rocky Horror nights. He now dressed in elaborate costumes and encouraged his friends to do the same. Because Ken lived so close to the theater, they got ready at his house. And after only one pre-Rocky episode left my upstairs sink filled with open pots of iridescent eye shadows and the bathroom rug covered with enough glitter to look like Aladdin’s magic carpet, I had insisted they get dressed at Ken’s.

That summer, the items Harry bought shopping at Goodwill, Closet Classics, and the vintage shops on Brady Street expanded to include costume-worthy garments and whatever inexpensive high heels he could find in his size. I was amazed by his taste and style, as well as his resourcefulness in putting outfits together. I thought about asking him to be my personal shopper.

Harry burst through the back door one August afternoon flushed from the heat and wearing a super-sized grin. “Look what I found!” he said, reaching into a white plastic bag.

I shut off the kitchen tap and set down a colander of fresh-rinsed blueberries. When I turned around I was surprised to see him holding up a small cream-colored women’s cardigan. It didn’t look like something Harry would wear, but I held back from commenting. Harry’s fashion sense was still a notch up from my own.

“That looks tiny, honey.”

“I know, Mom. It’s supposed to. I’m going to be Janet at the next Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’m going to enter my first costume contest this time.”

“You are?” I asked, my heart fluttering a little.

“Yeah, the next show has a beach theme.” Then his eyes widened like a kid who’d just been given his own pony. “Wait till you see the really cute floral-print bikini I found at Yellow Jacket!”

Oh my God. You’re going to be wearing a bikini?

“Let’s see it,” I said, infusing a dash of upbeat inflection in my voice to counter the scary visual in my head of Harry wearing a bikini to the Oriental. This wasn’t just the dress-up box anymore, or creating costumed characters for his funny home movies, this was my son making a costumed stage debut in the outside world. He would be up there in front of a packed theater of strangers.

Then I realized Harry was going to be competing, and I wouldn’t be there to see him. I thought about asking him if I could go, but the last thing he needed was to know his mother was in the audience.

Harry cinched first place for his Janet portrayal and won two tickets to see the Skylight Music Theatre’s local production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. “Huh,” I’d thought. Harry’s education about transsexuals was about to be furthered by another rock musical. Ken and I had seen John Cameron Mitchell’s movie version of his off-Broadway show when it was first released in 2001, but never the play. I was eager to know what Harry would make of a story about a so-called botched sex-change operation.

“So, what did you think?” I asked him after he’d seen the show with a girlfriend from school.

“It changed my life,” he said.

I was taken aback by his answer. Harry’s clothes, hair, makeup, and attitude had all changed already in real life. I tried to imagine what it was about the play that had moved him so deeply. Was it the character of Hedwig who so defiantly didn’t care what anyone else thought? I wanted to know more.

“Really, how so?” I asked.

“Well, first, the music was so good.”

I remembered the “Origin of Love” about the world being filled with sets of children of three sexes before the gods broke them apart. It was a sad and beautiful song about how love in the world was meant to be. My eyes had watered when that song played in the movie and I’d thought of Harry. “What else?” I wanted to know.

“Oh, the hair and makeup. And Hedwig was a rock star!”

Harry didn’t say anything about the sex change or why Hedwig attempted it. Still, I couldn’t help but think he’d identified with a character so liberated and immensely free to be her authentic self. Then it dawned on me that both Hedwig and Frank N. Furter were male performers who had openly celebrated their female identities. They had connected Harry to the world in ways I never could, and he was embracing that world. I liked the image of Harry with his arms wrapped around the globe. I felt like I learned from him all the time about confidence and self-esteem. He was so different from the awkward, insecure kid I had been the summer before high school.

That night, as I put on mascara in front of the bathroom mirror, I imagined Harry doing the same thing over at Ken’s. And I realized that if I hadn’t let him go to Rocky Horror in the first place he might not be feeling the joy he did right now. I felt one corner of my mouth turn up; I had done something good for Harry. A year and a half earlier I’d made a decision that most parents probably wouldn’t have made, one that was now helping my self-esteem soar a little bit, too. I winked at my reflection, proud that I’d come so far.

Cover Julie Tarney X750d
From My Son Wears Heels: One Mom's Journey from Clueless to Kickass by Julie Tarney. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2016 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. 

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