As early as the fall three years ago (we'd adopted midsummer), L was wearing dress-ups as often as he could. Sure, sometimes it would be a pirate or a magician, and we would take heart. More often than not though, it was a princess or fashion model. We kept hoping he'd grow out of it, that living in the women's dorm in the orphanage had swayed him, and that living with three brother's would swing the pendulum in the other direction.
At first I was pretty uptight. The twins' friends would come over and L would waltz by in a dress. "Not in front of others!" I hissed, "Only family!" Little did I realize L would take this to mean that when our extended family gathered he should put on a fashion show. Both at his grandparents' and at home, a holiday would come and he'd march up and down the stairs changing his outfits. Without any "girl" dress-ups in the house he'd always improvise, using clown make-up, say, in a pinch . He'd even dress up his seven year-old brother as a girl, who donned his outfits much more goofily. Sometimes I felt I had to expain on short notice to distant relatives his penchant for the feminine side.
Eventually, when he'd be overwhelmed with grief, missing China, or feeling rejected by his new siblings, I'd take him upstairs to my room and he'd try on my dresses. He'd strut and pose and be thrillled. The next day he'd ask to go upstairs again and I'd be full of chagrin. I'd hoped that it was an occasional diversion not a daily activity. Ever creative he began to hand sew sleeveless tops and skirts out of t-shirts.
Two different therapists had suggested limiting his choices or insisting on an even balance of traditionally male and female products. I found myself in ridiculous circumstances. At the book store he'd pick up a selection from a series of fairy books. "Get a boy book too!" I'd command crankily, squirming inside. It frankly, felt dumb. Moreover I was sure I was handling it poorly.
It was my aunt who prompted the first major shopping trip. When her check for $100 came in celebration of his adoption I felt freed. I wasn't buying things for him, influencing his choices, he would. It was straight to the mall, specifically to the Disney store. He ran about excitedly picking out princess items. In the clothing section I held up a dress and raised my eyebrows. Wide-eyed he looked up at me uncertainly. He ended up picking a nightgown with Ariel printed on the front, plain on the back with long bell sleeves..
Back at home we hadn't decided, was this to be nightly wear? He put it on and asked tentatively, "Will Daddy mind?" "Why don't you go ask him," I suggested. He skipped down to the basement where Dad was practicing guitar. Dad agreed, despite his strong misgivings and so it was. Every night thereafter L wore that nightgown for months. Later that evening my husband confessed he'd had a visceral reaction. He literally wanted to vomit. Being a scientist with a liberal bent he understood L's penchant for girls' clothing as best he could intellectually. He couldn't explain why from the gut this all was anathema to him. His journey to acceptance ended up heartfelt and long, but that's another post.
The next step was wearing clothing outside, which felt like another hurdle altogether. Since we were still bonding as a family I wanted his brothers--especially his older brothers--to feel like they benefited from L's presence. In China birthdays are not a big deal, instead they all gained a year at Chinese New Year, that's when the big celebration happened. New clothes were the expected gift and three of the boys wanted Eagles football jerseys. L asked for the same version in pink. Ted, the youngest, and L's advocate, asked L, "Why don't you ask for a dress? That's what you want!" Well. I bought a 12 pack of panties and a dress.
L was so excited! At first we weren't sure he'd wear it out to our celebratory meal in Chinatown. Then, one of the twin brothers said, "Why can't he wear the dress, we're wearing our new football jerseys?" They continually amaze me. My husband was not thrilled when I suggested we use a female name/pronoun at least for the evening to keep him safe. So we stuck with L, but nobody noticed. In Chinatown while waiting for our meal, L and I kept on running outside. He'd twirl around on the sidewalk then skip back into the restaurant. His movements, expressions just looked more normal when he appeared as a girl. The dress had sparkles which kept falling off onto L's face; he was shining!