My son, the cross-dresser

Just because he plays soccer in ballet slippers, does that make him a weirdo?

Topics: NPR,

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.”

You Might Also Like

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 Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>