One Friday a few weeks ago, Alex dressed himself in a pink striped sundress over his jeans and t-shirt. As he was slipping his feet into his shoes, I broached the topic carefully.
“Are you sure you want to wear that?”
“Yeah,” he replied dismissively.
“Ok. Well, you know some kids may not understand what to think, and they may tease you. I know you know this but if you wear that, you should be prepared for it.”
My words were only thinly masking my nervousness about the situation. After all, it was the first time he had ever worn a dress on the outside of his clothes.
“I know, I know!” he said sounding exasperated.
“Well, do you have an idea about what you can do if kids tease you?” I wanted to be sure he knew that he had an out. He had to be prepared.
“Yeah, I’ll just tell them to stop and if they don’t I’ll tell a teacher.” His answer, although sounding rehearsed, satisfied me, so I backed down and let him lead this one.
I silently watched him finish getting his jacket and backpack on while my mind reeled at the possibilities of how the day could play out. Wearing a dress was a blatant display of gender non-conformity—a show that even he had dared not present to his peers up until now. All his other clothes—the headbands, the skinny jeans, the sparkly peace sign shirts—those could be loosely accepted. They made people wonder, but there was still an element of doubt. The dress, however, removed all doubt. The bold statement he was making by wearing it, at the time, meant to me that he was ready to really tell the world who he is and what he was about.
Hey Mom, I’m ready to do this really risky thing and you can’t stop me. I’m gonna be me for once. These clothes make me feel proud. I imagined him thinking.
As I watched him skip across the playground (and swim into shark-infested waters), my heart ached. Why is it so painful to be different? My eyes welled up, but before they could spill over, the pride I had for this child whose courage to express himself in the way that makes him feel good reigned me back in. I reminded myself that he was no one to feel sorry for, rather someone to rejoice in! Look at how wonderfully unique he is!
Still, I worried throughout the day. I wondered if he was having to beat back any teasing, whether his ego and esteem would be intact at the end of the day.
When I arrived to pick him up at 4:30, the first thing I noticed was that he was still wearing his dress. That was a good sign. He got through his day. If he was still wearing it, that surely meant that his day was free of incident, right?
“How’d it go,” I said initializing the interrogation.
“Fine.” That’s it? That’s all I get?! I wanted more! I wanted to know what Tania—his BFF—said. I wanted to know what he heard kids saying. Where they whispering? Did they say anything complimentary? Anything hurtful? Please, tell me!
Of course I didn’t take the conversation much further. The friendly “hellos” from passing parents of other kids suggested to me that no one seemed to take any overt issue with his statement. In fact, people actually seemed friendlier to him than I had noticed before.
In retrospect, I recognize that it never crossed my mind then that perhaps there was more to his wearing the dress than I originally thought. Maybe his dress-wearing wasn’t for them, or even himself, at all, but for me—that supporting his choice of expression unconditionally was more important than the decision to wear the dress itself. In a sense, it may have been a test for him to take the pulse of how much I really trusted him.
This evening we had an episode that was a stark reminder that just beneath the surface lurks some demons of self-doubt, hurt, anguish, and frustration. Pissed off because he was not allowed to go on my computer as he had apparently thought I had promised, Alex reacted by promptly running into his room, turning around red-faced, screaming on the top of his lungs “FUCKIN’ DAMMIT!” and slamming the door as hard as he could.
In a former life, I would have reacted with anger. But I caught myself after realizing that this was no longer considered a “normal” reaction Alex was having to something. In fact, I had not seen this behavior for many, many months. The time away has provided me insight into what the behavior actually means. For instance, I now know that this reaction means anxiety. Something was going on, but I had to be patient and wait for him to share what it was with me if I ever wanted to find out what was eating at him. Reacting or pressing him would only render him entirely inaccessible.
Somehow he managed to calm down within two or so minutes (which is a HUGE accomplishment, by the way!). As he had been administered his medication an hour before, he was deliriously tired and crawled quite willingly into bed. I turned out the lights and snuggled next to him, as is our nightly routine. Once he was quiet and a few minutes had passed, I started to hear sniffling. And then, sobbing. And then, wailing.
“What’s the matter? Why are you crying?”
“I can’t tell you. You wouldn’t understand. I don’t even understand.”
Ok, now I had to understand.
“Please, try me. I want to know what’s going on,” I said.
“Well…” he started, “you know that day I wore the dress to school?”
“Well, some kids teased me about it.” He went on to tell me all about how two third grade boys teased him and said some words that he “couldn’t remember” but they were hurtful. He shared that it made him feel angry and sad, and he did, in fact, tell the teachers, and while they were sympathetic, it was clear that the boys were not reprimanded for the behavior.
Part of me sympathized with the daycare staff. In truth, I don’t know what I would have or should have done in that same situation. Another part of me felt compassion for the boys, who clearly didn’t understand Alex and felt threatened in some way so felt the need to tease.
Confused about what is truly acceptable in a situation like this, I turned to chapter 7 in my “bible”—The Transgender Child (by Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper) for guidance. Every passage, every line in this book speaks to me, but with this one particular passage, I find renewed motivation to follow up on a teachable moment and force the school to provide my child a safe place, both emotionally and physically, while he is in their charge:
“Personal beliefs or philosophies should not factor into public education. All children have the right to learn in a safe environment, free of bullying [and teasing]. To ensure this security for a gender variant child, the teacher has to be proactive and set the tone for the entire class, and both for the students and their parents.” --page 156.
Another passage in the book suggests that children of color are not expected to paint their skin white, so why should gender non-conforming kids be made to wear something that doesn’t express their inner selves?
What I realized this evening is that NO, my child is NOT emotionally safe from bullying and teasing because of the way he expresses himself. And while the teachers may have been sympathetic and recognized “rude” behavior, they were NOT willing to enforce a no-teasing (i.e. SAFE) environment, which is just simply unacceptable.