“My son, who is gender nonconforming, tends to push boundaries when it comes to clothes, makeup, and hair. I personally don’t mind, but I worry that it makes him a target for bullying. Should I talk to him about it or not? I don’t want him to think I’m ashamed of him, although I admit there have been times that I’ve gone places with him and wished he would have dressed more traditionally because I knew the people we were meeting were fairly conservative. Does that make me a bad mom?”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Julie Tarney
Both of your sincerely honest questions here are so important that I had a difficult time deciding which to answer first here. But I want to address the last one upfront, because the doubt you’ve cast on yourself being a good mom doesn’t benefit you or your son. From your lead-in description of him, I can tell the anxieties you’re feeling are grounded in love, respect, and a desire to protect him from adults resistant to cultural change as well any unaccepting peers. To recognize that gender nonconformity is synonymous with pushing boundaries tells me that you are most certainly a champion mom.
You understand your son’s gender expression as a means of self-exploration and discovery, and I’m sure he knows that. In fact, your lead-in statement recognizing and validating his creativity is all you need to remind yourself of when meeting with the “fairly conservative.” The people with conventional views and raised eyebrows over how a boy dresses, styles their hair, or what they apply to their face are the ones whose beliefs need to be challenged. And please know, too, that your son’s boundary pushing in the name of fashion, self-confidence, and personal power will eventually create positive change for others like him.
I can relate, though, to the secret feeling of letting him down by wishing at times that he would dress differently. I had a strong twinge of guilty embarrassment too when my now-27-year-old son, Harry, informed me he’d be accepting his high school diploma wearing five-inch, red stiletto heels to match his cap and gown. I begged him to re-consider. I worried he’d be judged by the conservative parents in the auditorium for pushing the personal expression envelope a bit too far. I was also concerned that his graduation outfit would somehow reflect poorly on my parenting skills.
However, the cheers and applause that broke out as Harry sashayed across the stage at his commencement in killer heels filled me with a mixture of relief and pride. My son was being celebrated for having the confidence and personal power to simply be himself! While his dad sat next to me taking photos, I joined the hands clapping their approval for our son. I also realized that Harry’s graduation ceremony was all about him, not about me. It was his focus on freedom of expression and the accompanying joy that mattered most, not the social comfort of his parents or anyone else.
Like your son, my kid Harry’s strong sense of self, creativity, and elements of surprise had no doubt pushed our society’s comfort zone of “sameness,” and very likely made people think differently about established gender norms. The real lesson for us moms of gender nonconforming children is something they already decided for themselves: what other people think doesn’t matter.
As for your son’s school life, I think it’s natural for the mom of a transgender or gender nonconforming child to fear for their safety. I used to worry, too, that my son would be bullied for his gender expression, and that was long before a Human Rights Campaign survey found that LGBT youth are twice as likely as their peers to say they’ve been physically assaulted, kicked, or shoved. We now know that today’s widespread cyber bullying can also be just as devastating as being bullied in real life. So yes, it’s important for you to check in with your son about bullying, and I do think there are ways to ask about it without projecting your fears onto him. For example, without asking a direct question about the possible bullying behavior of others, you could tell him you’ve been wondering how the other students have reacted to his personal style, or ask how the fashion sense of others holds up to his.
I assure you chances are good that your son isn’t the only breaker of gender norms at his school. GLAAD’s 2017 Accelerating Acceptance report that found 12% of millennials identify as transgender or gender nonconforming. This is the same generation familiar with the “beauty boys” of YouTube and Instagram, who have anywhere from hundreds of thousands to more than a million followers.
I admit I used to worry, too, about how my son would be treated at school. I wanted him to fit in, but I quickly learned another important lesson: fitting in means being accepted for who you are. In addition to helping keep your two-way line of communication open, your interest in reactions to his gender expression assures him that you’re proud of him, there for him, and will always have his back.
As the good mom that you are, continue to examine your feelings of worry for the lessons that reside there. Celebrate your child for the amazing human he is. Finally, repeat often: my gender nonconforming son tends to push boundaries when it comes to clothes, makeup, and hair. He’s really on the leading edge of thought, and that bodes well for the future of all kids.
Julie Tarney is an advocate for LGBTQIA youth, speaker and author. Her award-winning memoir, My Son Wears Heels: One Mom’s Journey from Clueless to Kickass (University of Wisconsin Press 2016) and blog of the same name are about her experiences raising a gender nonconforming child in the Midwest in the 1990s and what she learned from him along the way about gender identity, gender expression and self-acceptance. Julie is a board member for the It Gets Better Project, blogs for HuffPost Queer Voices and is an active member of PFLAG NYC’s Safe Schools program. Her book won Bronze in the 2016 INDIES Book of the Year Awards. A longtime resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Julie now lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she can often be found cheering in the audience at her creative director and sometimes-drag-artist son Harry’s performances.