It finally happened. My son was publicly shamed for wearing a dress. And my fatherly instincts screamed with leonine ferocity inside my head, but the diplomacy of a damn Israeli-Palestinian negotiator without.
I took my kids to France, again, for a few weeks, this summer. I figured the cost of the trip was less than paying for 2 kids’ camp in New York City; plus, I used the last of my AmEx miles to pay for the flights.
My gender non-conforming son wore a dress every single day, except when he squeezed himself into his 4yo cousin’s pink bathing-suit-with-attached-tutu. And it was all fine. His new short haircut (see here) drew some double-takes, but, overall, it was fine.
Until one night toward the end of our trip.
I went to a restaurant with another dad and his son, and my kiddo was decked out in his Trolls “t-shirt-attached-to-flouncy-dress”. We were along the banks of a EuroDisney movie set replete with medieval castle backdrop and window boxes exploding with flowers.
My kid saw the quai (is there an English equivalent of “quai?”…or just the stone walkway along the river?) as a stage, so he began his fake tap-dancing.
My other son even played along as the conductor. It was cute.
Until two girls around 9 and 12 years old arrived.
Then they started conferring with each other.
Then they started laughing overtly.
My son stopped dancing, and I could see his confidence wane as he insecurely tried to talk with them.
From my vantage point, 20 feet away, I think they asked his name and he tried to respond.
And the laughing continued.
My soul withered. But I found the opportunity to approach the group to chide my younger son for throwing too many rocks into the river. (Poor kid. I literally used him for criticism to find a way to protect his older brother.)
We spoke in English, then I asked my older son in French, “You OK?” and the girls right away turned to me asking in French:
“What are their names?”
I told them.
“And is that one a boy or a girl?”
I took a breath and said the first thing that came to mind: “Well, sometimes he feels like a boy, sometimes he feels like a girl.”
The younger girl pounced.
“Boys can’t wear dresses.”
“Why not?” I calmly countered. “Sometimes it just makes him feel good. Like you feel good in the dress you’re wearing.”
The older sister then chimed in, “Yeah, like girls get to wear boy clothes.”
The younger sister wasn’t having it. “But boys aren’t supposed to wear dresses.”
“Well, this one likes to, sometimes,” I responded.
Both girls contemplated this.
I looked back at my son. Despite my relief at having diffused the situation and starting a dialogue with these girls, my heart broke, again. I could see my son, normally exuberant and often annoyingly vivacious, sitting on the curb, his light extinguished. He’d crossed his legs and was doubled-up on himself and sat staring at the ground. He couldn’t exactly understand, and yet, he understood completely.
We’ve discussed his choices and potential reactions, and I’ve coached him in responding a hundred times. He knows his choices are “unconventional” and he knows to say, at the very least, “I’m a boy, I like dresses, what’s the big deal?”
But he doesn’t know how to say that in French, and til that moment (to my knowledge) he’d never faced overt mocking, before. Ever.
“You OK, buddy?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he responded.
Was he really? Was he, at the innocent age of five, already protecting his father from heartbreak? – so that I wouldn’t’ be able to use this as a teaching moment? Did he already want to avoid me having to say, “this is just what’s going to happen?” Was he already protecting my heart form his own heartbreak?
Or was he actually fine?
Listen, half-dozen readers, I assure you: he wasn’t fine. His body language was ten times more foreign than the language with which I was trying to imbue him during two weeks in France.
But I also know: it’s ok. It was a teachable moment, even if I didn’t get all lecture-y afterward. We let it go. He let it go. I let it go.
The younger sister did not let it go, though. She ran right into the restaurant and announced to her family “the little boy out there is wearing a dress!”
The family was already on their way out of the restaurant, and they avoided looking at me and (I think) avoided looking directly at my sons.
And even though I wanted to scream at the little girls (and their family), “MY SON MIGHT BE IN A DRESS BUT Y’ALL BRING SHAME TO THE FRENCH CULTURE BY…”
Aaaand that’s where I need to censor my judgment of this family that…well…didn’t embody the clichés of French sophistication.
I’d like to avoid total cyber disembowelment.
Suffice to say, that family had some superficial attributes worthy of public embarrassment beyond the merely tacky dresses those girls were pret-a-porting.
I kept my mouth shut and tried not to over-think it.
Which is my other takeaway from all these situations and my “advice” to everyone around me – try not to over think it. He’s a little boy who likes to wear dresses. What’s the big deal?
I try to say that to myself every single day.
Hate to “like” this because of what happened, and I’m sorry that happened. I hope he encounters so many lovely and accepting people in his life that these occasional ones are forgotten. love to you both x
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Thx for reading and responding. You know? It wasn’t really a ‘bad’ experience. We expect it. It was more a learning experience. And the more my son knows I have his back, the more off-color comments will roll off his back. But thank you!
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I have learned in my travels that as the kids get older, it gets way harder to be a parent. You are good at it. Also, how is your french so good? Je suis jalouse.
So true- the worries get bigger and more intellectual. Remember when we were merely exhausted and trying to get the kids to eat carrots? Sigh.
Vest. Tragique. Madame.
Damn it. I want society to change just a little bit faster to protect the hearts of your amazing children. I see the change coming. People are more accepting. High Schools and colleges are so much better about embracing the LBTQ+ community. But it’s not everywhere yet. I wish I could wave my wand and make everyone understand. But where would I begin? or end? People of different races should be treated equally. No religion is better than any other. People from different countries, people who speak different languages, are just people. People who want to wear dresses are choosing what to wear. People who want different colored hair, more piercings, tattoos, are choosing their appearance, why is it a big deal what we look like? WHY IS THIS SO HARD TO UNDERSTAND?!?!?
It’s so hard for us (Americans) to accept things outside of black and white delineation. We need definitions and boxes. But everyone wants to THINK they can embrace the gray area between. Hopefully, one day. Sigh.
Thank you so much! I’ve been reposting these to our Facebook page Raising Kids Without Sexual Shame. You are such a great example of a good parent! Everyone loves your posts.
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Thank you, so much, for reading. And the re-posting? Awesome. Glad to know we are part of a broader community.
You handled it better than I would have! Bravo to you – and to your son who, even though young, seems to have a better-developed sense of self than a lot of adults.
Thank you, so much, for reading and writing! Hearing from you helps us feel surrounded with strength.
I love the way you handle things. So heart breaking but it is really up to the adults raising these other kids as you know. Love you Gavin – you rock!
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Thx, mucho, susan. Ah, the surprising things we never expect as parents.
Oh I’m sorry that had to happen… but yes, it will indeed happen. You did great! Your son did great. I apologize for the narrow minded young French girl (who knows what she struggles with, even though we can’t see it at first?), and send love & rainbows from Australia 🌈
PS: my 50 yr old girlfriend loves wearing moustaches, but she didn’t discover that till she was over 30 & ‘coming out’, so who knows what journey that little girl will go on… 🌈❤
Thx for reading and replying, again! Always great to have your thoughts.
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You are such a wonderful writer and father, your lessons to your children and parenting perspective humble and inspire my own parenting.
I live in Sydney Australia and have a 3 year old boy and am trying to non gender stereotype him in a very macho culture and it’s damn hard! We have a number of non gender and transgender and same sex families as friends and I just want him to think it’s all normal.
You did everything you could do, it’s hard to only be able to be there to support your son and his choices and love him through it. I take my hat off and applaud you !
Wow! Thanks, readers, down under! Means a lot to have your theoughts and encouragement. And glad to know this movement of ours is international! Xoxo
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I’m so proud of you, Gavin. Just keep teaching him to be himself. So many children have to suppress their desires and are shamed at home. Remember how lucky he is to have you both. You will guide him through times of adversity and he will live his own truth.
Thx for reading and replying, jamie! Means a ton. Yeah, we are doing the best we can to just let him know we always have his back. Miss you!!!
You’re a great dad for this. Keep doing what you’re doing. I’m happy to follow you. x
Thanks, so much, for reading and commenting! Nice to feel part of the community!
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