Sadly, this is a question that my MIL asked us less than a month ago. When we saw the direction that K was going, we had asked her to read Raising my Rainbow in order to get a better view into our lives. We thought that this book was a great introduction to the world of parenting a gender-creative child. Knowing that she is an avid audiobook listener (pretty much listening to them constantly even at meal times), we even bought her the audiobook version. There was no excuse for her not to read it.
Three months after purchasing this for her, she had a conversation with my husband. Naturally Ben wanted to know if she had taken the time to listen to the book. The answer was no. I took this as a huge blow since in that span of time, I imagine she easily listened to as least 50 audiobooks. A book that would help her understand her grandchild did not make the priority list; Nora Roberts was a better use of her time. She said that she tried to read the first chapter, but it was “too painful” and she couldn’t go on. It was in this conversation that she asked us, “Why didn’t you closet him?” Notice the wrong pronoun usage? Just another way to let us know that she was not an ally for K.
Closet people. Really? This isn’t the 1950’s. I loved Ben’s response, “You mean, why didn’t we raise her to be ashamed of herself? To hide who she is? To teach her that there is something wrong with being like her?” Grandma immediately began backtracking. Framing “closeting” in that perspective really shows how negative it really is, and how harmful it can be to a person. What I think she meant was, why did we allow K to wear dresses? Why didn’t we push K into more “masculine” activities? Tell her that she couldn’t play with the dollhouse? Tell her that she had to have short hair? Why didn’t we choose to do these things to our child?
The shock answer is transgender children are 9 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. More than 40% of transgender people attempt suicide. Scary, right? It has me terrified for my child. I don’t know any parent that wouldn’t be scared to hear a statistic like that. There is a single factor that studies have found turn that around though… parental support. It turns out that children who come from a supportive family have a suicide attempt rate indistinguishable from the general population. Pretty amazing. Those kids still have a higher than normal level of anxiety, but it is far below clinical levels. It makes sense that anxiety would still be elevated when we start talking about bathrooms and locker rooms. With time, hopefully that becomes indistinguishable as well. A lot more studies still need to be done, but this is a huge finding so far. This generation of children will be the first generation that has been allowed to openly transition at a young age, so I imagine that a lot more research will be coming our way. For now, I will take the little that we have and find solace in the fact that by supporting K, I have cut her chances of suicide attempt significantly.
The counter argument to this is, what if K changes her mind? For that I respond, there is no harm to allow a child to experiment with their gender. Studies are not showing any negative effects caused by having parents allow their children to transition for a time and go back. So do I risk K de-transitioning one day where the only downside is having to come out to family yet again, or do I risk my child being significantly more likely to commit suicide? Not really a question.
That’s the shock answer. To be honest though, we didn’t know those statistics two years ago when we started on our gender creative journey so I can’t genuinely use them as justification for our actions. Here’s my honest answer: it doesn’t fucking matter. Who ever said that boys weren’t supposed to wear dresses? If girls are allowed to wear pants and dresses, why aren’t boys? I hate the hypocrisy. They are just clothes and clothing trends change like the wind. Men used to be expected to wear top hats and coats. Women didn’t use to wear pants. Clothing styles are defined by the media. What are the Gap models currently wearing? What hair style is in style for men? Long? Short? Man bun? I was more than happy to let my children choose the clothes that made them happy rather than the clothes that magazines showed they should be wearing. I was never one to follow the crowds and I wasn’t about to force my children into a society-defined mold either. Be yourself. Be unique. Be happy. That’s all I ever wanted for my kids and all I ever pushed.
We made sure that the kids always had options growing up. Big sister A always had both stereotypically “girl toys” and “boy toys” available to play with. She had blue jeans, t-shirts, dresses, hand-me-downs from my nephew, you name it. With K, I actually didn’t give as many options. She had hand-me-downs from my nephew, and a bunch of bow ties and things that I had found for her. I did always give her control of her hair though. When K started asking to wear big sisters dresses, I was fine with it. Why not? They used to just do it for dress up. Around 3, K started asking for big sister’s hand-me-downs and we had a healthy mix of “girl clothes” for her to choose from, and the “boy clothes” that we received from my nephew. By 4, she didn’t want to shop in the boy section in stores any more. These were all her decisions though, and all her journey. Clothes are just clothes, they don’t define who you are. When K was identifying as a boy and wearing dresses in public, we got looks from people who realized K was a boy, but we got looks over a dress. More important to me were the compliments we received about how happy and well-behaved my children were. Having a happy, well adjusted, self-confident child, is so much more important to me than having a child who wears the “right” clothes. That’s why I didn’t closet her; she was so happy to express herself, why did it matter how she did it?
One of my favorite quotes from Raising my Rainbow is this: “How come when girls play with gender it’s a sign of strength, and when boys play with gender it’s a sign of weakness?” Think about it. If big sister wanted to cut her hair short, wear pants all the time, and play soccer instead of doing dance, would grandma have thought we needed to closet her? Would you? Now if a little boy wanted to do gymnastics, wear a tutu, and have long hair, would you be as accepting? Like many of us, I imagine that you have been programmed to view those two situations completely differently and that is a discrepancy that needs to be changed.