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.