I don’t know if he’s* gay, or straight. I’ve never sat down at the breakfast table, my hands warming on my coffee cup and asked, “Do you feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body?” I’ve never asked him, but after reading Leelah Alcorn’s suicide story, I’m damn sure working it in to a conversation.
He knows the mechanics behind sex and reproduction. He knows about his body and puberty, what sex is, and how it happens. He knows that human babies require a meeting between a sperm and an egg. He knows that this meeting can happen without the introduction of the penis into the vagina. He knew enough about sexual reproduction that when he made a friend with two mothers, a friend with one mother and no father, that he asked how. So we told him.
He knows that love, not law, should define a person’s family. He’s carried signs at rallies, used his kilt-wearing, Scottish heritage to fight for his right to wear the princess dress in preschool. He scoffed at the idea of a girlfriend, announcing that he intended to marry a cat and his (male) best friend to a homophobic state senator. He wears his hair long. He hates wearing athletic pants, or anything else he considers sloppy clothes. He nurtures his stuffed animals and squishy plastic reptiles with a mama-bear’s ferocity.
My husband, Joel, and I met in a Gender and Equality class during our senior year of college, as we circled the drain of graduation, critically sorting through the innumerable job offers that accompany an undergraduate degree in sociology. Thirteen years and two Valentine’s Day influenced pregnancies later, Joel and I find ourselves a part of a parenting generation with increasingly flexible, yet simultaneously intransigent definitions for normative gender roles.
Can a woman on her seventh year as a stay-at-home mom actually model the need for flexibility in gender role definition despite being the pictorial stereotype of a gendered role? The short answer is, yes.
Joel and I came from quintessentially gender normative households. We grew up in dual-parent homes, with stay-at-home moms and sole-income-providing fathers. Joel and his two brothers lived in a small city in eastern NC, while I grew up an only child, Army Brat near Fort Bragg. Neither the strong conservative Christian smell of Southern small town, nor the spicy aggressive macho flavor of US Military Base provides much opportunity to savor more subtle gender differences.
What would our childhood experiences teach us about how to be parents? Would we default to the authoritarianism with which we’d both been raised? Ironically our very different background managed to overlap in several significant ways which narrowed down to one immutable shared fact: small children can capably deceive anyone, even their parents, when they don’t feel safe telling the truth. As such, inspiring truth from our children requires that we, their parents listen to them, even when they don’t have the words for what they need to say.
He, the child, has verbalized and demonstrated so many truths for his adults.
I remember checking on him during an afternoon nap, smiling at the delicious picture of that tiny body curled protectively around a blue, wood train. It was only as I turned to sneak away that I noticed half of a doll’s foot peeking out from a closed dresser drawer. He had buried poor Annabella Ingrid from the Cabbage Patch face down under a pile of old clothes and shut the drawer on her with a serial killer’s finality. Some might use this rejection of a doll as early proof of definitive masculinity; boys don’t play with dolls. Yet he had carefully placed the train so that its head rested on the pillow, had then covered it with a blanket. Since the train had a name, a face, and was fictionalized to both talk and think, wasn’t the train technically a doll? He might have rejected Annabella Ingrid, but he didn’t reject the lesson. He did learn to be empathetic, and to nurture and care for things gently. He just learned it on a train and a stuffed kitty.
Everything we teach him is challenged by the people he meets independent of our influence, and that is beyond our control. He knows that hearing you throw “like a girl” is not a compliment. He knows that tomboys receive an obscene amount of positive attention when they wear a skirt. He knows that some girls want him as a boyfriend, and that some boys his age actually want a girlfriend. He knows that some pretty girls, and most assertive boys, make him feel uncharacteristically shy. He knows that he can always find a girl that will play kitty-friend with him, but it’s usually only boys that want to wrestle. He knows that it makes him feel bad when the boys won’t let the girls play with them, and vice versa. He knows that loving horses isn’t enough of a reason to play with My Little Pony. He knows what he has to do to fit in with people that he doesn’t trust enough to be himself.
I don’t remember a pivotal moment in childhood when I recognized that I was heterosexual. There wasn’t an “I like boys!” epiphany in the middle of Red Rover. I never felt like a boy trapped in a girl’s body.
“I’ve known I was different since I was four.” I don’t know if he’s gay. But he knows.
He’s years past four, he knows. He’s at school right now, sitting at a desk learning something as I write and he knows. If he’s different from society’s subjective definition of normal, he already knows. What I do—or did—as a parent will not influence what he already knows about his place on the sexuality spectrum.
He knows that many people vehemently, and often violently, oppose members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. He knows that same-sex, by-choice-single, divorced, and male-female adults can be parents, sometimes even good parents.
What else does he know? He knows he is loved. He knows he can paint his fingernails. He knows he can wear his hair long, or trimmed short. He knows he can wear pants, or, if he wanted, a skirt. He knows that his parents accept him gay, bisexual, or straight. He will soon know what it means to be transgender, and that this acceptance includes that as well. He knows that both of his parents, without condition or restriction, will always love and accept him.
He knows he is safe in his family to be, feel, and express his most authentic self, even when he’s disagreeing or angry with his parents. He knows this is safe place to practice challenging authority, even as he learns these challenges aren’t always consequence-free. He knows he is safe.
He will soon know that his home can be a safe place for others, should he have a friend that needs it.
I don’t know if he’s gay, bisexual, or transgender, and he knows that it doesn’t matter.
*Both of the infants I birthed came with a penis, thus my use of “he” in this essay. I purposely blended examples of characteristics from each child to create an anonymous “he” for this piece. One, I really don’t know if either of my children has identified themselves as gay or transgender. For me, logic defies assigning a person into a concrete sexual preference because of hair length, clothing style, or toy preference; many people struggle with the logic.
Secondly, my choice to over-emphasize the “he” pronoun is symbolic, not defining. The pressure of acting he- or she-enough can be life-altering to those in the LGBT community. Life-altering to the point of life-ending. I gave my children life, with that I give them the freedom to define how they live it.