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.

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 for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Shatter

    As always, very touched by your writing. As a gay man who has never had gender identity issues, always liked the appropriate boy things because it was my nature, I am very proud of you as a mom allowing your son to be what his nature tells him to be. Life is a long road, knowing he has your support will be his greatest strength.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Thank you. I know I’m doing right by my son but it doesn’t hurt to have others confirm that! Thanks so much.

  • Tim

    This is touching and encouraging and informative and all kinds of good writing, Ellen. it’s the type of post that can help parents of every sort, no matter whether they’re dealing with gender or any of the other myriad things parents deal with.

  • skyblue

    What a beautiful article – sounds like your son is growing up in a great environment with your family, friends, and church. Kudos to all the supportive adults in his life!

    Your descriptions of cruel comments made to children and parents by other adults brings to mind something that I often think of, when I hear people opposing gay rights and saying “what will I tell my children??”. I wonder if they give any thought to the many families who have to discuss with their children the sad fact that not everyone will accept them as they are and some will be downright hateful.

  • Y. A. Warren

    My beautiful son always enjoyed “girl” things. I gave him a baby doll to parent when he was a baby. He is now the grown up father of two beautiful children, a boy and a girl. He married two gorgeous women. His present wife is his real live Barbi doll for whom he loves choosing the most enticing outfits. He still loves to cross dress for Halloween (his birthday).

    I often told him as he was growing up that people are attracted to beauty, both male and female. I also taught him to be on the “buddy system” with his sister and female friends. I told him that he did not have to choose a sexuality label until it was time for him to choose a permanent lifestyle, like parenting.

    Perhaps it would be good for him to have photos of some of the flashy male stars to see that he is simply flamboyant at this time. Many of the most flamboyant men are in family relationships with women.

    Of course, the priesthood is a great career for flashy dressing and theatrical talent.

  • Marta L.

    Ellen, this was so beautiful. I grew up, and still am, a true tomboy – to the point that the idea of gender nonconformity is an encouraging concept. I survived and even flourished, butbi think things would have been even better had I had that kind of radical hospitality. (Great phrase!) God bless you as you continue to support that special son of yours.

  • Katherine Harms

    I suppose I am a bad person, but I see the child rearing the parents here. God made us the parents in order to teach our children how to live. I’m not saying a parent should tell a child that he doesn’t like what he likes, but I am saying that a parent should make sure that a boy knows that he is a boy. Not a girl. Not in the girls’ restroom today and the boys’ restroom tomorrow. Parents are tasked with teaching their children right and wrong. They are tasked with guiding children in the way they should go. I don’t think that includes encouraging confusion about their gender. I do think that it is a parental obligation to teach children the plan God revealed by creating people in two genders. Our two genders and their relationships are part of God’s revelation of his relationship with the church, and it is brought to a magnificent exposition in the marriage supper of the Lamb portrayed in Revelation.
    I repeat, it is fine to let girls play with bulldozers and let boys play with Dora. But don’t let the child be the one who tells the parents which way to go. We have way too much of this in our society. Children are not born knowing how to choose rightly for their own well-being. Parents have the job of helping them learn. Parents abdicate their responsibilities when they let children tell them what to think.

    • Sterling Ericsson

      Then maybe you should go and talk to God and let him know that he needs to fix up his gender making machine, because it seems to be creating more than two genders, such as hermaphrodites and males and females that have the brains and brain chemistry of the opposite sex.

    • James_Jarvis

      I don’t think you are a bad person, but you are mistaken about the child rearing the parents here. I am sure Benjamin knows he is a boy and knows which bathroom to use. I don’t known Ellen but I have read enough of her columns to convince me that she is teaching her children right from wrong. I think she is raising her son to a loving and compassionate man. Ellen has not abdicated her responsibilities as parent, she is doing what any good Christian parent does, raising her son to be who God made him.

    • UWIR

      Your post is just a mess of confusion. For instance, there are three main uses of the word “gender”. The first, original meaning, was to refer to the grammatical classification of words, not people. Then it was re-purposed to refer to socially constructed categories. There’s also a third category of people who think that “sex” is a dirty word and use the word “gender” instead. Your posts is full of equivocation between the latter two meanings. If you’re going to discuss a subject, you need to be clear on what your terms mean, rather than jumping back and forth between two meanings. Your post appears to consist of asserting that parents should teach children the “right” way of living, but presenting little but platitudes, equivocation, and tautologies in discussing what that actually consists of.

      Another point in your post that doesn’t make any sense is your discussion of “child rearing the parents”. If Ellen’s son were telling her what to wear, this would make sense, but as it stands, it looks to me like you are fixated on a hierarchical paradigm in which all events must be viewed through someone dominating another; any time a parent fails to dominate a child, that is interpreted as the child dominating the parent. This is a quite pathological way to view the world, and seems to crop up quite frequently in matters involving religion; for instance, Christians often refer to not being allowed to impose their religion on others through the government as a form of oppression.

    • radiofreerome

      I’ve read your other posts. You are a bad person. You can criticize a little boy for dressing like a girl when you start dressing like a girl, madam.

  • MassManny

    Sounds like a mom who wants attention herself. Is the son picking the clothing and toys, or is she leading him to them for some reason of her own?

    • Gina Fowler

      MassManny my first inclination was to tell you that you couldn’t be more wrong. However, I saw a documentary on this very subject before having children of my own and guess what I thought? That poor child; with parents that indulge his every whim. I have 2 boys now. My oldest is gender nonconforming & wants to be a princess. My youngest has an insane interest in trucks, cars, trains and all things “boy”. I have not changed the way I parent my two sons. I only hope you never have to agonize over protecting your child and squashing their very being at the same time. It is a position I could never imagine someone trying to put themselves into on purpose, but, again, it took me to experience it for myself to realize how hard this really is.

  • Sterling Ericsson

    The most ridiculous part of the “blue is for boys, pink is for girls” rhetoric is that it used to be the exact opposite several decades ago. Pink collared shirts were the norm for college age men.

    So anyone who tries to argue that the current color and gender conformations are a universal norm is completely ignorant. They are variable and always have been and have never actually meant anything.

  • Karen

    Ellen, thank you for a beautiful reflection on accepting and helping our children thrive as they are created! My 2nd grade son is a wonder and brings many challenges to our lives. Most days when I feel like I’ve failed him in my parenting it was because I didn’t listen deeply enough to who he is to figure out how to bring to the foreground what he needs to be a success.

  • Thomas Clabaugh

    Your position on this matter is your choice. However, associating all of this with Christianity is simply not possible. There are far too many places in Scripture that flat out condemn homosexuality. I would name the Scriptures, but I doubt it would have an impact, since you are obviously very confused about what the Bible says, or you do not care (or agree). The Bible calls homosexuality a sin, and when a person genuinely becomes a new creation in Christ through repentance and faith, they are to deny themselves and are given help from the Holy Spirit to do that. You are to deny whatever the Bible tells you to, even if it hurts. All of this business with your child is really unnecessary and probably damaging, since you seem so fixed on changing what has been for a long time, and starting some kind of new trend so people will notice your unbiblical idea. Anyway, disassociate this with Biblical Christianity and do what you will, but I assure you that this is not the narrow way (hence the word narrow). I know you think I just want to cramp your lifestyle, but I assure you that I just want to help you understand that this is not what the Bible, in its’ full context, would conclude as a godly practice.

  • Susan_G1

    I don’t know you, Ellen, but from what I’m reading here, you are a wonderful, loving, nurturing mother, and your son is so very blessed. Loving and respecting your child for who he is, and surrounding him and your family with people who do the same is a kind of courage I can hardly imagine. Don’t let the opinion of others get you down. Jesus is all about love, the spirit of the Law, what’s in our hearts. Blessings on you and yours.

  • A. Kjell

    This was an encouraging article to read. I have identified as male since I was a little kid. Perhaps it is as you say, that society is more accepting of transgender boys vs girls, but I think it was pretty bad for me growing up. My parents were fundamentalist xtians like the people leaving the negative comments and I was forced into dresses and humiliating frilly socks. My parents favorite insult to me was to say “she’s just being a girl.” then they would snicker about how red faced and angry I would get.
    It’s good that you swing toward the more liberal side of religion, 100 times better than the other way, but religion will always be the enemy of transgender and gay people. If you truly believe the bible is the inspired ‘word of god’ like so many do, then you, by default, must abhor rainbow behavior. The ugly, finger wagging comments here (which are very tame for what is out there) criticizing your parenting methods and reducing children to the status of blank-slate-that-needs-filling are just good, white fluffy little christian-bots baa-baaing their precious way into heaven.
    I’m a product of private conservative xtian schools and college… took me 26 years of abandonment, anguish and self-loathing to begin the true deprogramming.
    Please let your kids be who they are, like it sounds like the author of this article is doing. I am 32 now with my own children and I will never stop resenting my parents who have hurt me in immeasurable ways and disowned me. The same people wagging their heads off about forcing your kids into a gender mold, are usually the same ones abusing their own kids with leather straps and wooden sticks.
    And to the Bible-thumpers, go get a graduate degree… take some classes or something. The majority of you stay ignorant and the rest have just become good at filtering. I know, I’ve personally known hundreds of you… my family is just like you… and I used to BE one of you as I was programmed to be from birth!
    Also learn that trans is different from gay. My gender is male, but I am biologically female and attracted to men.