My daughter likes being a boy

At age 6, she goes topless at the pool -- and it makes certain men "uncomfortable"

Cary Tennis
September 7, 2011 4:20AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I have three children, ages 16, 7 and 6. Two years ago, my youngest child, let's call her "Sue," found a box of her teenage brother's old clothes. She started wearing them, told me she was a boy, and even gave herself a boy's name. This was soon followed by haircuts á la Fiskars.


I took her to get her hair properly cut short and she was very happy.

Over the past two years, she has gone back and forth between being a girl and being a boy. She is very imaginative and creative and often engages in role playing using a wide variety of characters. But she has consistently revisited her boy character and she is currently a boy now.

I want to be supportive, but not push her in any direction. She asked to get a new short haircut, so I took her. She tried to throw out all her girl clothes, but I had her keep them in her closet in case she changes her mind again. Finding a balance is a bit of a struggle.


Sue has never encountered any problems with being a boy until recently. She went to a swimming pool with her grandmother, wearing a pair of blue swim trunks. Everyone thought she was a boy until some neighbors of ours showed up. The father and 12-year-old son tattled to the lifeguard that Sue was a girl and that they thought it was inappropriate that she wasn't wearing a top. They said it was making them "uncomfortable." Sue is just a scrawny little 6-year-old. There isn't anything to be uncomfortable about.

The lifeguard came over to my mother-in-law and told her that Sue needed to wear a shirt. My daughter was absolutely hurt and embarrassed. My husband was very angry with me because I have told Sue that she doesn't need to wear a rash guard with her trunks if she doesn't want to wear it.

These neighbors later gossiped about this incident with some other neighbors. One mother said it was "disgusting" and has now prohibited her daughter from playing with Sue. (This daughter still wants to play with Sue.) Our next-door neighbors have forbidden their children from calling Sue by her boy name.


I don't know what to do.

We have told her there is nothing wrong with what she is doing and that these neighbors are being bigots. Her big brother, whom she idolizes, has told her these neighbors are being "stupid" and she shouldn't pay any attention to them. Her older sister has been especially wonderful, calling Sue her "other brother" and being very careful about the pronouns she uses. My husband, despite being upset about the rash guard, is also supportive of Sue. His mother is gay, so he had to deal with similar problems growing up.


But I have so much anger now and I hate feeling this way.

I want to yell and curse these neighbors out. I am so angry that adults would treat a little kid this way but I worry I will make the situation worse for her and draw even more unwanted attention to her. I have never been a violent person, but I just want slap them upside their heads for treating my little girl this way.

The ideal solution, of course, would be moving my family to a more progressive neighborhood, where Sue would be treated with more kindness. It is not financially possible at this time.


I am doing things I know are unhealthy. I picture myself giving these neighbors a real dressing down -- telling them that they should stop being busybodies and focus on raising their own children. I picture telling them how sick it is that they allow their sons to catch field mice and kill them. Or how some of their daughters are well on their way to being "mean girls" -- already pushing, slapping and excluding other little girls in the neighborhood.

But the worst part is that I am now hoping that she will just outgrow wanting to be a boy. It will only get worse over the next 10 to 15 years. She could become the victim of a hate crime, she will have trouble dating, and she will teased and possibly bullied by peers and adults.

But right now, there is a more immediate problem. What is the best way to approach this ostracizing behavior from the neighbors toward Sue? Support her and just ignore those particular neighbors? Go head on and confront them on their bigotry?


You should probably know that this exclusionary behavior from these particular neighbors is not new. Other neighbors, who have all since moved, have borne the brunt of this hurtful gossip and ostracism.

But I for now I am stuck -- stuck in this neighborhood and stuck in my anger. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Stuck in Tea Party Suburbia

Dear Stuck,


You are giving Sue a priceless opportunity to become who she is.

These neighbors can't stop the infinite variety of humanity from unfolding. They may insist that Sue wear a shirt at the pool, but they cannot stop the miracle of her existence.

Sure, of course you want to knock these people around. But fighting with them would draw your attention away from what is important, which is giving Sue the opportunity to become who she is.

So keep doing what you're doing. It will be hard sometimes. When it gets hard, read this column again and remind yourself: You're doing the right thing. You can't solve all the problems that are going to come up. But you can keep doing the right thing, and that's all you have to do. That's all anybody requires of you.


So keep looking for ways that Sue can quietly assert the freedom to be herself. Look for ways to quietly hold your ground. Try not to get drawn into emotional moments in public. Rather, quietly obey the rules and make Sue feel safe.

Most public spaces have rules and many of them seem arbitrary. Children can handle that. They know that many rules don't make sense. They know the world of adults is sort of ridiculous. If you can arrange for Sue to be able to abide by the rules, she will probably appreciate it. She doesn't need to know that the reason she has to wear a shirt is that certain people are really freaked out by the fact of her existence.

If certain children's parents won't let them play with Sue, that's their problem. You don't need to get involved with that. Children are aware of the many crazy and arbitrary ways that their friends' parents interfere with their lives.

Just keep doing what you're doing.


No one would blame you for acting in a less than dignified way when faced with these neighbors' behavior. But my wish for you is that you will be able to handle these moments with grace. My wish for you is that you will be able to deal with these neighbors with a full heart, a heart full of joy about who your child is.

You can model the kind of behavior you would like to see. So be proud. And enjoy this. It is a supreme moment of fun.

Education can help. You can make learning about transgender children part of the family dialogue, without making it expressly about Sue. If your child was interested in gems and minerals, for instance, you might become interested in it yourself so you could share. It wouldn't have to be such a big deal.

Wouldn't it be great if Sue could just tell people, "I might be transgender and I might not. I'm not sure yet." Or imagine this snippet of actual conversation from an article in the Atlantic about a transgender boy named Brandon:

"... nothing can do more to normalize the face of transgender America than the sight of a 7-year-old (boy or girl?) with pink cheeks and a red balloon puppy in hand saying to Brandon, as one did at the conference:
'Are you transgender?'
'What’s that?' Brandon asked.
'A boy who wants to be a girl.'
'Yeah. Can I see your balloon?'"

Dealing with small-minded neighbors is a bother, but there is something much bigger going on here. As I sat in the fog this morning thinking about this, the wonder of it hit me. What this indicates is the degree to which we as tiny little beings already know who we are and are ready to dedicate our lives to fulfilling the promise of who we are. Isn't that amazing?

Creative Getaway

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary TennisFOLLOW @carytennisLIKE Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Since You Asked

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •