“Hello, we are two moms with an 11-year-old son who is gay (even though he may not yet realize it). We are looking for parenting advice on how to support him. He recently started wearing eyeliner at home, but we are unclear as to how to navigate this since he attends a Catholic elementary school? Any advice?”

Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Julie Tarney

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Julie Says:
Brava, Mamas! You’re allowing your child the freedom to express and present himself however he likes at home. Letting him exert some independence when it comes to personal style can go a long way to build self esteem and boost self confidence. As for how that loving parental support will pave a safe path inside the walls of a Catholic elementary school, I think you have both immediate and long-term options to consider before you proceed.
Right out of the gate, private schools often have strictly enforced dress codes. And as a general rule, creative expression outside of traditional gender norms is not accepted. So my first suggestion is to check your son’s student handbook to see where his school stands on a dress code.
Beyond uniform standards for boys and girls, I imagine there will be guidelines regarding jewelry, hair color, make-up, and nail polish. I did a random search online for dress codes at Catholic elementary and middle schools and found that most had a “NO makeup is allowed” rule—but there are always exceptions. For example, one school stated, “At the discretion of the parent, a young woman may wear makeup and fingernail polish that is in modest taste and appropriate for a Catholic middle school student.” The same school discouraged students in grades K-5 from wearing makeup or colored fingernail polish to school. However, if parents allowed it, the makeup and polish was expected to be “minimal and modest.”
If your son decides he wants to wear eyeliner to school, you can suggest that the two of you take a look at the dress code policies. If it’s clear that makeup at school is not allowed, then case closed. If there’s no rule listed about boys wearing makeup, but it’s outlined as clearly forbidden in the dress code for girls, he may be able to draw his own conclusion. On the other hand, if he’s the gender rebel my son was at that age, he might want to push the boundaries. Even with your approval, chances are he’ll be asked to wash it off or be sent home. And I’m willing to bet that “no makeup” would quickly become the general rule.
One of the Catholic school dress codes I found online allowed both girls and boys to wear a limit of two bracelets. If your son’s school is also open to wrist jewelry for boys, maybe he could express his creativity at school with a unique friendship bracelet or two.
You’re nearing the end of the school year now, so you two have some time to observe how important your son’s gender expression is to his well being going forward. While the administrators at his school may not know that CoverGirl cosmetics hired a teenage cover boy last fall, I bet your son knows. And if he has an Instagram account, your child is probably well aware that boys wearing makeup is a thing.
So the question you might soon be considering is: Can our son stay happy and focused on learning if he feels like his personality and creative expression is being quashed?
While a new GLAAD and Harris Poll study found that 20% of millennials identified outside the traditional binaries of “gay/straight” and “ man/woman,” I wonder how the teachers at his Catholic school will respond to a kid who doesn’t fit the binaries they believe are God’s rules. I raise these points because I worry about your son’s self-esteem beyond elementary school. I don’t know what they teach about sexuality in middle school religion classes these days, or if there’s even any mention of gender identity. But I do know the nuns at the school my son’s dad attended taught him that being attracted to someone of the same sex was more than wrong; it was an “abomination,” and something to be feared, ashamed of, and fixed.
I’m also concerned for your son’s wellbeing because of the wrath my own son had to face as a 15-year-old foreign exchange student in Spain. How he ended up at a Catholic high school is a story all on its own. But one of the girls in his class asked him if he was gay. When it got back to the Mother Superior that my son was attracted to boys, she called him into her office and told him he needed psychological help. As loving and supportive parents, I can’t imagine you two putting up with anyone in a position of authority bullying your child like that at any age. You have every right to ask the principal about the school’s policies regarding the rights of LGBTQ+ students.
Based on how things go for your son for the remainder of this semester, you may want to think ahead to the prospect of Catholic middle school. My advice is to think like mama bears and consider what will be the best learning environment for his sense of self to thrive.
Lastly, I want to circle around to the belief that your son is gay. Until he tells you he has a crush on another boy, or comes out and says he’s gay, try to reserve judgment. Maybe he is gay. Maybe his gender expression led you to that conclusion. There’s also the possibility that his desire to wear eyeliner is an exploration of his gender identity, or may simply be about gender expression. But just maybe he’ll wind up telling you he’s bisexual, pansexual, asexual, or straight. You really won’t know until he tells you, so let observation and time be your guides. I remember thinking my kid was gay before I understood the terms gender nonconforming, transgender, genderqueer, and nonbinary. I encourage you to let your son go through his own process of figuring out what identity words feel right for him.
Whatever your son’s sexual orientation or gender identity, I’d like to suggest you continue your navigation to ensure his schools are as encouraging and accepting of him as you are in the happy and safe place he calls home.

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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.

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