My queer kid is 26, so "back to school" is no longer part of my active vocabulary. But I still enjoy watching the parents on my block escort little ones to their first day of kindergarten or elementary school. I flashed this year on the small percentage of those children who, like my child, will come out one day knowing themselves to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or agender. I imagined those kids headed to new classrooms, all feeling loved, valued, and supported for who they were in that moment.
I wanted to believe they were dressed in the outfits they chose for the special first day. I hoped they were carrying the backpack they had picked out and that their hair was styled how they wanted it, regardless of the gender expectations they'd been assigned at birth. Seeing those kids, I thought about how far I'd come from the years I took my son to first days of school wearing shorts when I knew he would have preferred a skirt. I also meet parents who think my experience raising a child who now identifies as queer might somehow make me an expert on their child.
An aquaintance asked me recently how to know if her 4-year-old boy who liked dresses and lipstick was struggling with gender issues or just engaging in imaginative gender play. I was struck by the phrase "struggling with gender issues" in connection with a kindergartner. I couldn't imagine the child being anxious over LGBTQ youth homelessness or transgender inequality. I figured the mom was referring to gender identity, a term I didn't learn until my son was in college. And I knew from my son's early years there was also a good chance the person struggling was the mom, not the child.
My son came out by telling me, "Inside my head I'm a girl." He was 2 years old. At the time, I had no idea what that meant. There were few resources in 1992, no internet, little knowledge, and a lot of misinformation and stereotyping. Terms like transgender, gender-nonconforming, gender-creative, and gender-expansive didn't exist. I struggled to understand my toddler, and I knew the mom questioning me was probably experiencing the same confusion and worry I felt when my then-6-year-old son took one of my lipsticks and hid it under his pillow.
Whenever I'm asked to weigh in on whether or not someone's child is transgender, gender-nonconforming, gay, or just going through a phase, I say I honestly don't know. And then I ask my own question: Is your child happy?
If the answer is yes, what that child wears, likes to play with, or wants to be called shouldn't really matter, I say. As long as they love their child unconditionally and listen carefully to what their little boy or girl tells them about himself or herself, their child will eventually help them answer the pressing question. And gender experts exist to help the parents understand what might lie ahead for their child and their family.
On the other hand, if I learn their little boy becomes withdrawn when told he's too old to play with his sister's dolls or a little girl stomps her feet when told she must wear a dress to a party or a child withdraws after being told they can only be a boy based on their anatomy, I feel a rush of sadness. Usually those parents are just worried, as I once was, that their child will be teased or bullied by other children when they get to school. While I understand the desire to protect gender-nonconforming and trans kids, I don't think any parent wants to be become their child's first bully.
In the time my gender-nonconforming child grew from toddler to adult, I learned it's never too late to learn from your child as much as you learn for your child. So here, for parents who want to better understand a child who may be different than they'd ever expected, are four things I've learned or unlearned:
1. Gender may not be what you think it is. Gender for me used to mean one of two boxes you checked on a driver's license application. But I now know that I was confusing sex and gender to mean the same thing, which I think a lot of people still do. Gender identity is about how you feel inside, who you know yourself to be. And it develops over time. We all discover ourselves as we grow, and finding our true gender selves is part of that discovery. The gender experts will tell you that if a child's sense of self is being denied, they will likely become distressed, low-spirited, or depressed. And for me, any one of those words connotes a child struggling not with their identity but with a search for freedom within their family.
2. There's no right way to be a boy or a girl. Transgender kids will tell you that a girl can have a penis and a boy can have a vagina. A gender-nonconforming, gender-creative, or gender-diverse child knows that boys can be happy wearing dresses, playing with Barbie dolls or liking the color pink. Kids are as unique as their fingerprints, so it follows that not every child will fit inside the boundaries of pink or blue that our historically rigid society has constructed as the norm.
3. Every child is a whole person. Each child -- and adult -- has traits that our society has deemed as either "masculine" or "feminine" but are in fact just the characteristics that make up a complete person. Some boys like to express the "feminine" side of their whole being, while the same can be said for girls and those traits labeled "masculine." I like to project how much kinder and more accepting our society would be if sensitivity and nurturing qualities in all kids were as valued as strength and assertiveness.
4. A gender-nonconforming or trans child is a thought leader. If your child is defying gender norms and stereotypes, they are re-shaping the way we think about gender. They are at the center of a sea change not only among families but in schools where diversity and fairness are key and among those legislators who want to ensure all children are treated equally under the law. I compare gender-nonconformity to handedness. Being right- or left-handed is just who you are. Right-handedness is more common, but that doesn't make it correct, more "normal," or the only way to be. Increased visibility of our less common trans and gender-nonconforming children is broadening awareness and expanding the national conversation about gender. I like to think they are among the leaders on progress to rework society's rules about gender identity, gender expression, and the expectations that follow an "M" or "F" stamped on a birth certificate.
JULIE TARNEY is the author of My Son Wears Heels: One Mom's Journey From Clueless to Kickass. For more information, please visit MySonWearsHeels.com.