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My son is a cross-dresser. Most mornings he gets up, puts on a hand-me-down dress stolen from his sister, wraps an old white pillowcase around his head with a ribbon (his “long blond hair”) and prances around singing, “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” My son is 3 and a half years old.
At the toy store, he does not want Batman. “I want a Batgirl doll,” he cries. When he begs to play with his friend Margo, it is not because he likes her better than his best friends Billy and Andrew; she just has more to offer — like an extensive collection of Barbie dolls and a whole wardrobe of little clothes he can dress them in.
He loves preschool — partly for the teachers, somewhat for the other children, but mostly for its wonderful selection of tutus, fancy party shoes and pretend jewelry. His grandmother (my mother) received the shock of her life when she went to pick him up one day and he was wearing a blue tutu with beaded gold slippers. The other mothers laugh and tell me he is such a thespian. The teacher tells my husband and me that he is “highly in touch with his feminine side.”
If we only had to worry about preschool, life would be fine — but his grandparents (on both sides), his aunts and uncles, his baby sitter and just about everybody else are up in arms. “Boys should be playing baseball, not Barbie,” my mother-in-law exclaims. “I was so embarrassed,” complains my mother after the harrowing tutu incident. “He keeps taking my daughter’s Cinderella slippers!” my neighbor told my other neighbor who told me. The older siblings of his friends have called him an oddball, a weirdo and generally not normal. Adults tend to be more subtle with questions like: “So when do you think he will grow out of it?” or “How does your husband feel about it?”
I have tried to explain to each of them that my son approaches life with a unique flair. While he loves soccer, he often plays it wearing a silk cape that flutters in the wind when he runs. Playing with his cars takes on new dimensions when he acts out both the “damsel in distress” and the “sheriff to the rescue” role, alternating hats to represent each character. My husband can’t wait for Little League to start because he sees a little slugger in our son who can already hit the ball out of our relatively large backyard. Our son also can’t wait to play baseball, but for a different reason: He says that cleats “are just like tap shoes.”
Thankfully his preschool teacher has assured us that he is simply “evolved.” “I wish all of my children were as well-balanced as your little boy,” she told us at our first parent-teacher conference. “I love the way he plays cowboys and Indians wearing his favorite ballet slippers.” She credits our “nonjudgmental and accepting parenting” for his creative expression. Frankly, I was a little relieved. So he is not a weirdo — he is “evolved.” I wish I could take credit for this, but it is all of his own creation.
Interestingly, no one seems the least bit disturbed about our friend (I will call her Gillian). At 5 and a half years old, she refuses to wear dresses, plays T-ball and soccer and is proving quite skilled at climbing trees. She has more cuts and bruises as a result of roughhousing with her older brothers than my husband claims he ever received playing varsity college football. Gillian, I am told, is a tomboy. “Isn’t she cute,” a friend exclaimed to me when we were at Gillian’s house for a Sunday barbecue. (My son was inside watching “Pocahontas” with two girls.) And my son is not cute when he dresses up and reenacts the glass slipper scene from “Cinderella”?
If Gillian is a tomboy because she likes to do boylike things, what then is my son who likes to do girl-like things — a janegirl? As far as I can tell there is no equivalent in the English language (at least there is not one in my Webster’s Dictionary). More important, there is no acceptable behavioral equivalent.
I have begun to ask myself what is normal? My son loves trucks, cars and trains. He plays for hours with his Brio train set while wearing his sister’s striped dress. He is very affectionate and will frequently tell his friends he loves them with a hug. Last fall, during those terrible twos, he was accused of being a bully because he bit a girl at the playground. How can a child go from bully to sissy in a mere nine months?
I am coming to realize that while our sex-role stereotypes have expanded for girls, they have not for boys; there seems to be no acceptable cross-gender equivalent. A gay friend of mine claims all of the uproar is a homophobic response to my son’s actions. “I remember loving to dress up and put on makeup, too,” my friend tells me with a knowing glance. He is only 3 and a half years old, I remind my friend — a little early to be defining his sexual preferences.
The feminist revolution appears to have successfully helped foster an environment that makes it “cool” to be a girl. Much research is being done to ensure that girls are encouraged to excel in math and science, overcome the repression of adolescence and, with luck, one day be more than tokens on boards of directors across the land. I am thrilled. Trust me; I have a 1-year-old daughter. I want her to understand and respect her power, her opportunity, her femaleness. But what about my son? I would like him to be able to respect his power, his opportunity and his maleness even as he explores his feminine side.
It’s not just in my house that the days of “boys will be boys” are over. A few months ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an article that claimed prescriptions for Ritalin were at an all-time high and increasingly, boys are expected to be less rambunctious and more docile (that is, more girl-like). And a guest commentator on an NPR program about youth violence expressed concern that the rise in the births of boys would result in a coming “deluge of testosterone-laden young men” creating havoc in our society. My mind reels: Is the conclusion that a 3-and-a-half-year-old should be more like a boy but a 12-year-old should be more like a girl?
I have to admit, sometimes I am embarrassed by my son’s behavior. His declaration to my father-in-law that he wants to be a ballet dancer when he grows up almost created a family feud. When the father of one of his preschool classmates unintentionally called him a girl (he was wearing the favorite blue tutu, mind you), I cringed just a little. And I am often confused about the messages I’m sending him. I don’t mind if he wants to wear lipstick to a birthday party — “Mom, you wear lipstick when you dress up!” he reminds me — but how do I protect him from the inevitable taunting that will occur as he ages?
I come back to my original question: what is normal? Sadly, my husband and I are learning all too early that the constraints of normality are very narrow indeed. Happily, my son, who at the moment is pretending to be Belle from “Beauty and the Beast,” adorned with his favorite pearl necklace and earring ensemble I gave him for his birthday, does not yet know this. With luck and a little parental intervention, he won’t for a very long time.
Lisen Stromberg lives in the Bay Area.More Lisen Stromberg.