My son is a cross-dresser. Most mornings he gets up, puts on a hand-me-down dress, wraps an old pillowcase around his head with a ribbon (to create his “long blond hair”), and prances around singing “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” My son is 3 years old.
At the toy store, he does not want a Batman doll. “I want Batgirl,” he cries. When he begs to play with his friend Margo, it is because she has an extensive collection of Barbie dolls and outfits in which he can dress them.
He loves preschool for the teachers, but also for the wonderful selection of tutus, party shoes, and costume jewelry. His grandmother received the shock of her life when she went to pick him up at school one day and he was wearing a blue tutu with beaded gold slippers. His teacher tells us that he is “highly in touch with his feminine side.”
Not everyone is so empathetic. “Boys should be playing baseball, not Barbie,” my mother-in-law exclaims. “He keeps taking my daughter’s Cinderella slippers!” my neighbor tells my other neighbor, who then tells me. Strangers ask, “So when do you think he will grow out of it?” and “How does your husband feel?”
I’ve tried to explain to these people that my son approaches life with a unique flair. He loves soccer, and he often plays in a silk cape that flutters in the wind when he runs. My husband can’t wait for Little League to start because our son can already hit the ball out of the backyard. Our son can’t wait for baseball, either, but for a different reason: He says the cleats are “just like tap shoes.”
No one seems to be the least bit disturbed about my son’s friend Gillian. At the age of 5, she refuses to wear dresses, plays T-ball and soccer, and is skilled at climbing trees and collecting bruises. Gillian is a tomboy. “Isn’t she cute?” a friend exclaims to me. But my son, I remind myself, is not cute when he dresses up and re-enacts the glass slipper scene from Cinderella.
If Gillian is a tomboy because she likes to do boylike things, does that make my son a janegirl? As far as I can tell, there isn’t an equivalent word in the English language. More importantly, while it’s OK–even cute–for a girl to “behave like a boy,” my son’s “girlish” behavior is viewed as less than acceptable. Watching my son grow up, I have begun to ask myself: What is normal? My son also loves trucks, cars, and trains. Last fall, during his 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 just 12 months?
While our sex-role stereotypes have expanded for girls, they have contracted for boys. We’re doing research to help ensure that girls will excel in math, overcome the repression of adolescence, and get elected to corporate boards. I’m thrilled. Trust me: I have a 1-year-old daughter. But what about my son? It is not just in my house that the days of “boys will be boys” seem to be over. Prescriptions for Ritalin are at an all-time high, and, increasingly, boys are expected to be less rambunctious and more docile–that is, be more like girls. My mind reels: Is society saying that a 3-year-old boy should be more like a man, but a 12-year-old should be more like a girl?
Sometimes, I have to admit, even I am embarrassed by my son’s behavior. His recent 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 that blue tutu–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 pink lipstick to a birthday party–“Mom, you wear lipstick when you dress up!” he reminds me–but how do I protect him from the taunting that inevitably will occur as he ages?
I come back to my original question: What is normal? My husband and I are learning all too early in our son’s life that the boundaries of normalcy are narrow. On the other hand, my son, who at the moment is pretending to be Belle from Beauty and the Beast, complete with pearl-drop earrings, doesn’t know this yet. With luck and a little parental intervention, he won’t for a long time. Until then, Beauty, at least in our household, will reign.
From Mothering (March/April 1999). Subscriptions: $18.95/yr. (6 issues) from Box 1690, Santa Fe, NM 87504.