Why isn’t he dressed like a boy?

Shortly after my last post, I took my kids off on a trip to eastern Tennessee — our ultimate destination was a homecoming service at a church where my mother had been a child. But I didn’t figure I could get away with taking a six year-old and a four year-old on a seven-hour car trip in order to go to a two-hour church service. So we left a few days early and worked our way westward, staying in the cheapest hotels I could find with indoor pools and stopping at various places.

One of the coolest places we went was to the Oak Ridge Children’s Museum. The kids loved the two-level space ship, the castle with a built-in slide, and the life-size doll house. I loved all the historical information about everything from early mountain life to coal mining to Oak Ridge’s role in World War II. It was feeling almost like a personalized museum for me, considering my folklorist’s love for traditions (the videos of horse-shoeing, basket weaving, and plank cutting were mesmerizing), and my family’s Appalachian roots, including coal miners and workers at Oak Ridge. So I laughed out loud when I came across this little display in the “At Home in Appalachia” exhibit:

Much of the territory we were traveling is family stomping grounds on both my mother’s and father’s side — I tried the best I could to transmit the sense of connection and amazement I feel when I see a house my mother lived in as a girl, or when we see historic photos of the town my father lived in as a boy. At one point I told the kids, “You’re too young to appreciate this now, I know. But someday you’re going to be really grateful that you were here and saw this.” My son responded, “You know, Mom, you’re right . . . . We are too young to appreciate it.”

It was an odd combination — while we were in places very connected and personal to our family, we were also anonymous. Until church on Sunday, unless we stopped at a relative’s house, no one there knew us. When I was packing I had asked the kids if there was anything particular they wanted me to include, and my son said, “Lots of dresses.” His little sister delights in telling strangers who mistake his gender, “He’s my BROTHER!” or “Girl AND boy!” Here in Liberal Bubbleland that’s one thing, but I was just imagining the responses from waitstaff and hotel clerks in Newport, TN. It reminded me of the evening I spent with a friend who was getting ready to drive himself to college in the Midwest for the first time. His family wanted my help figuring out how to get from NC to Iowa in the safest possible way for a young black man traveling alone. (Hmmm, would you pick Kentucky or West Virginia?) He and I  jokingly decided that Google Maps needs a “driving while black” feature where you can input variables — age, hairstyle, car make — and it will plan the safest route.

We were in an area that wasn’t our turf, outside a major city in a more rural environment, and among folks we perceived as intolerant of gender-queer folks (whether that perception is deserved or not), and I had the instinct to lay low. So on the way to a Cracker Barrel for breakfast, I announced that it was his decision whether to correct people, and that since no one here knew us, frankly I would advise letting them think whatever they want. He agreed, and so, for the first time that I know of, our son intentionally passed as female. All weekend kind clerks and ticket-takers said, “Hello, girls,” and “This way, ladies,” and “You have beautiful daughters.” And the three of us just smiled, or said thanks and went on our way. I have yet to hear any feedback from him about that experience. I just felt relieved that he could be who he wanted to be without me feeling like I had to gird myself for battle.

When Sunday morning dawned, it was time to get back to boy-land. We had already negotiated that he could wear his gold gladiator shoes if he wore a suit to church. So he got his hair brushed, put on his snazzy suit, red shirt, tie and matching pocket square. (The pocket square was super-important to this deal!) And zipped up the backs of his sandals. The kids – my two and my cousin’s child – were angels, making it through a two-hour service and even singing along occasionally. Afterwards, we headed over for the dinner on the grounds, table after table groaning with more dishes than there were members of the church. We counted nine different kinds of deviled eggs! And after we ate, the children of the church invited ours to play. One girl was very friendly, chatting up my kids and encouraging them to come outside. She took my son in stride immediately, saying, “Oh yeah, my brother is seventeen and he has hair even longer than yours.” But some of the other girls just could not puzzle it out. I heard the first girl telling a younger one repeatedly, “No, he’s a BOY,” and “it’s HE, not she.”

Finally, the younger girl came up to me and asked, “Excuse me, is she a boy?”
“Yes, he is,” I replied.
“Then why isn’t he dressed like a boy?” she asked.
“Well,” I pointed out, “he’s wearing a suit and a tie.”
She turned and looked at him, clearly puzzled, for some time. It was as though she was slowly processing what I had said — yes, in fact, he is wearing a suit and a tie. But she just couldn’t get her eyes and her mind to align to see him as a boy. Finally, she gave up, and ran off to rejoin tag.

He says he doesn’t want to be considered a boy who likes girl things, because he doesn’t think there should be “boy” things and “girl” things to begin with. There should just be things, and people should get to like what they want.


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4 Responses to Why isn’t he dressed like a boy?

  1. “He says he doesn’t want to be considered a boy who likes girl things, because he doesn’t think there should be “boy” things and “girl” things to begin with. There should just be things, and people should get to like what they want.”

    I couldn’t agree more. Given that in today’s world there are scant few activities where only girls or only boys take part, this seems to be more of a reality rather than mere wishful thinking.

    As I write, I cannot think of an arena where there is not some degree of a female effort; many even mix in with the guys. Why then, aside from the obvious physical differences, should there be great differences in our clothing? Sure, some clothes may have more frills and features, but altogether different? Skirts, or anything else for that matter, can be worn by both sexes if we simply allow ourselves to “go there” so to speak. In many cases we already do wear the same clothes. While yes, there may need to be an amount of discretion, e.g. church, a job interview, first date(s), at least at first, the acceptance of differences, clothing or otherwise, is what is really being discusssed, isn’t it? If, as a society, we are to accept female astronauts, corporate executives and whatever else a woman chooses to take on, then surely we can accept a guy who chooses sartorially for himself rather than wear what others deem approrpriate. Isn’t he allowed to think for himself too? I don’t see this as a “liberal” idea. While, yes, I do see is as an open-minded one, I also see it as logical, consistent and dare I say—equal. Given that the acceptance of differences and the mixing of gender in all sorts of activities is already a reality, nothing else should be off limits either. Skirt/dress on, young lad!


  2. Angel says:

    I don’t have kids yet, but I love reading your blog. You mentioned in your last post this was going to be a southern baptist church and I got nervous for you. I’m from a southern baptist family. During those days all little girls wore white stockings/leggings and dresses to church; how I hated those stockings! I’m glad you made it out without too much of a scene!

  3. Paul Robertson says:

    Avidly reading your blog while my own son meanders down the gender highway. Had a skirt day on Sunday (he stuffs his waist through the neck of a t-shirt).

    Your boy looks great in that outfit, by the way. Sounds like you had a great time.


  4. Melissa T says:

    I love your blog. I you think it is interesting driving through those areas try living there with your ponytailed and pink wearing boi! I live in NC and have found that surprisingly many people are quite open minded to my lil one. Boys seem to have the hardest time with it. The girls usually just ask why he looks so girl and he will answer ” because I like it ” and that is usually enough for them. Kids are great. But we do have our issues here. I have one neighbor that refuses to let her girl play with him because she thinks it will ” confuse ” her…LOL Oh well her loss.

    Today is halloween planning day. It is between princess and pageant girl…soo cute!

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