Made by God in Rainbow Hues: On Raising a Gender Nonconforming Child

Yesterday my son came down in one of his more glittery, fabulous shirts—a shirt purchased in the girls’ section of the Gap. I didn’t think anything of it. My son has a number of clothing items that are meant for girls, and this shirt, with a big, shiny, spangly musical note on the chest, is one of his favorites. But he told me he picked the shirt on purpose for this particular day. There was going to be a new student joining his class for the first time yesterday, and he wanted the new student to understand from the get go what kind of kid he is.

In the lingo that I am rapidly learning, my son is the kind of kid who can be labeled “gender nonconforming” or “gender variable.” Part of me hates that he needs a label at all. My oldest daughter preferred Thomas the Tank Engine to baby dolls when she was four, and no one looked askance at her (if anything, they thought it was awesome—there is a distinct double standard when it comes to whether it is okay for children to prefer things normally associated with the other gender). Certainly no one, least of all me, felt a need to label her as “gender nonconforming.” But there’s also some comfort in knowing that enough other kids (although it seems they’re almost all little boys) are like my kid that someone has come up with a label. The label says that there is something going on here that needs naming. The label says we’re not alone.

The Barbies in our house get a little crazy sometimes. Note poor Snow White, who apparently lost her grip and plummeted from the lamp shade.

I am reading Lori Duron’s new book Raising My Rainbow, a memoir based on her blog of the same name about her gender nonconforming son, C.J. I see a lot of my son in C.J., and a lot of our story in theirs. The Barbie obsession. The constant judgment calls about what to allow my son to wear to school—not because I care that he likes sparkly clothes, but because other kids are not always kind about a child who doesn’t do and look as they expect. The adoration of rainbow-colored clothing. The exasperating comments from bystanders who figure my son’s abiding love of dolls and glitter is just a “phase” (or, in our case, is due entirely to his having older sisters; C.J. only has an older brother).

But so far (I’m still reading the book), there is one subject Duron writes about that is not familiar to me—the ending of friendships with other children and parents who could not accept either how C.J. is or his parents’ willingness to let him be that way. So while I am reading Raising My Rainbow with both curiosity and relief, the primary emotion I am feeling is gratitude. Sure, we’ve had a few incidents with acquaintances. There was the macho dad of one of my daughter’s preschool friends who would raise his eyebrows and cock his head to give a clear “What the heck is going on?” message every time he saw Benjamin clutching a Dora doll or wearing a pink raincoat. There were the two moms in the pool locker room whom I heard talking about my son’s pink flowered goggles (not in a good way). There are the many, many strangers who have said one thing or another, like the toy store clerk who tried to steer Benjamin away from the Dora toy I told him he could have as a reward for learning to use the potty at not quite 3 years old. (Before the Barbie obsession came the Dora obsession. Now we’ve moved on to American Girl dolls.)

But when it has counted, the people who are important to us have accepted Benjamin as he is. My parents bought him a load of Dora stuff for his third birthday. His friends’ moms have willingly bought him Barbie stuff for his birthday when their kids insisted that Barbie stuff is really what Benjamin would want. Every single one of the fellow moms whom I consider close friends have absolutely accepted both my son and our sometimes uncertain (we don’t always know what is best for him) but unfailing acceptance for who he is. It’s clear to us that who Benjamin is, including his love of dolls and glitter and show tunes and bright colors, abides in some fundamental core that has nothing to do with his having sisters (especially given that one of his sisters has never wanted to play with a Barbie or baby doll or wear sparkly clothes in her entire life). We are grateful that our friends, our family, and our church have shown such radical hospitality for our son.

So I am grateful, although I am also afraid. Duron, in addition to her blog and Raising My Rainbow, has written blog posts for large news outlets. Many comments to these posts are ugly, hateful things, accusing Duron of forcing her own “agenda” on C.J. and insisting that setting strict boundaries on his choices is the only possible good parenting move. And as I learned when writing about “Toemageddon” several years ago for Christianity Today, some negative and inaccurate rhetoric about gender nonconforming children comes straight from prominent Christian voices who seem to think that God declared “blue is for boys, pink is for girls” at creation. Meanwhile, the rector at our church told Benjamin, in all seriousness, that he too would wear sparkly striped Toms shoes if they made them in grown-up sizes. And while Benjamin’s ultimate choices about gender and sexuality remain to be seen, we are raising him in a congregation in which two out of three assistant rectors in the past 10 years have been lesbian or gay. I know which vision of God’s creation and God’s people I want Benjamin to see and embrace.

Truth be told, I was a little bit sad that Benjamin has to be so concerned about how others perceive him that he strategized what to wear on the day he would meet a new classmate. But mostly I am just grateful that he knows who he is, and is not afraid to show it. I read this from Psalm 100 today:

Know this: the Lord himself is God; he himself has made us, and we are his.

That goes for a little boy in a spangly music-note shirt with American Girl accessories on his Christmas wish list too. All Benjamin wants to do is be the person God made him to be.

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About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.


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