Mothering My “Gender-Bender”*Daughter

When my daughter M— was four years old, she suddenly refused to wear dresses. She said that an older girl in our neighborhood had told her that when tigers come to our part of the United States, they eat little girls but not little boys.

She was not going to wear a dress again, and despite our involvement in RC family work I wasn’t adept at giving her sessions on this. I ended up bribing her into wearing a dress when she was five and was a flower girl in a friend’s wedding, but she didn’t wear a dress or skirt again until she was thirteen. Here is the story of the intervening years.

M— was surrounded by boys in our neighborhood. At age six, she was the only girl permitted by the boys to be on a special boys’ team during recess at school. When she was seven, she began asking to wear boys’ clothing. Her first request came when we were shopping for clothes. I was taken off guard [was surprised], but I agreed to let her try out boys’ pants and shirts. This led to future requests to wear boys’ underwear and get a boys’ haircut. I felt utterly unprepared for her insistence and sought advice and had many sessions.

Some Co-Counselors and friends thought I should allow M— to dress like a boy, have a boys’ haircut, and wear boys’ underwear. I felt extremely uncomfortable allowing her to do so. Since her friends in the neighborhood were mostly boys, it looked to me like M— was compromising herself as a girl in order to be one of the guys. Most girls her age were no longer playing together with boys. She was an exception because she was dressing and acting like a boy.

M— was incredibly persistent and insistent. When I wouldn’t buy her boys’ underwear, she refused to wear any underwear at all for a couple of months. I finally bought her boys’ underwear. At the hairdresser’s she wouldn’t consider a girls’ haircut. I finally let her shave off all her hair except for a tuft at her forehead.

Over time, M— began to walk and talk like a boy. People who didn’t know her assumed she was a boy, and she smiled every time someone called her “Bud.” My husband and I gave her a few playful sessions on gender, with lots of laughter, by having my husband dress up like a woman and polish his nails.

I did not hide my disapproval of M— for her insistence on dressing like a boy, but my opinion seemed to matter very little to her. When we talked about what wearing boys’ clothing meant to her, she was clear that she didn’t want to have a penis. But when she was nine, she asked Santa Claus to turn her into a boy. Then she grinned from ear to ear when she opened a box with a note from Santa Claus that stated that he would never turn her into a boy because she was perfect as a girl and that someday she would understand how great it is to be female.

M— decided that she liked being a girl who dressed like a boy. When she was nine or ten, she attempted to reassure me by explaining that first she was a “girly girl,” then she was a “regular girl,” then she was a “tomboy,” and now she was an “extreme tomboy,” and—not to worry—someday she would be a “regular girl” again. (These were her words.)

People began to tell me that M— was probably Transgender and that I should consider sending her to special camps. The school counselor wondered if she needed a special bathroom. My husband’s and my middle-class Catholic family were extremely disapproving of M—’s choices and our parenting. Going to RC LGBQT People and Allies Workshops and being counseled by “Jeanne D’Arc” (the RC International Liberation Reference Person for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer, and Transgender People) were essential in helping me think better about M— and navigate the community around us.

I offered M— a variety of sessions. One of the boys in our neighborhood liked dressing like a girl, so I brought him clothes shopping with us. He enjoyed modeling a few dresses, and we all laughed hard together. When I insisted that M— try on a dress, she cried hard in the dressing room. Then she cried again when I bought the dress and hung it in her closet (it was a cheap dress). She also cried when, after many years of her wearing a boys’ bathing suit, I insisted that she wear a girls’ bathing suit because some pools didn’t allow long shorts.

When she was twelve, I explained that it was time to wear girls’ underwear again, as soon she would be reaching puberty and would need girls’ underwear for using menstrual pads. When I refused to buy her more boys’ underwear, she continued to wear boys’ boxers that were so small on her that they were ripping at the seams. We finally found girls’ boxers that were tight fitting and appropriate for menstrual pads.

At her annual physical exam soon after she reached puberty, her doctor had her leave the room and then told me that if M— wanted to be a boy, it was time to start hormone treatment. I hid my utter shock at this, but I let the doctor know that M— did not want to be a boy; she simply liked dressing like a boy.

When we saw her doctor the following year, the doctor asked me to leave the room and then asked M— if she wanted to be a boy. M— let her know, in her humorous way, that she was “not about that life” [not interested in that life].

At age thirteen, M— slowly began to wear girls’ clothes again—girls’ sweat pants and shirts and then clothes that were distinctly girls’ clothing. Without any arguments, she wore a skirt at my mom’s funeral.

M—’s change coincided with a teenage female exchange student, S—, joining our family. M— has talked about how lonely she was before S— joined us and how she was going to insist that we adopt another child. Although she was never able to say it when she was dressing as a boy, she now acknowledges that dressing that way enabled her to be close with the boys in the neighborhood and at school. M— is now close to S— and has many girl and boy friends at high school.

I am pleased that I was able to give M— room to experience dressing like a boy while at the same time trying to help her discharge by holding out that it is great to be female.

As a sixteen-year-old, M— is able to use sessions more and more. I look forward to ongoing opportunities for both of us to learn about her experience of dressing like a boy.

Here is M—’s response after reading my post:

I was just being me. I always knew I would go back to wearing a wider variety of clothing and embracing more fully being a girl. When I dressed like a boy, I wondered how I would think back on it. When I thought about it, I thought, I am not trying to pretend to be anyone different—I am just being me. Now this is me. I am still me.

I never told you (Mom) about this, but the summer when I went through puberty, I heard about Transgender. I was curious about it but didn’t ask you. I searched on the Internet and found out about a boy who had transitioned to be a girl. He had thrown tantrums at age four about not wanting to wear boys’ clothes, and his mom had walked in on him in the bathroom and found him trying to cut off his penis with a nail clipper. I realized I wasn’t Transgender but that I had some of the attributes of Transgender.

I wish I could have talked to you about it more. Now that I have moved past that place, I can talk more. When I was trying out being a boy, I was more closed off. Then I got to explore being a girl again.

I think you did the right thing in letting me dress like a boy. I do think I would have lost my dude [male] friends if I had dressed like a girl. And maybe I wanted to be a quirky person or not labeled. I like to do weird things for entertainment.

I was much less close to you when I dressed like a boy, and I didn’t even realize I was being distant. I am so glad that I now finally like being a girl. I still have so many guy friends, as well as girlfriends. I like the “me” I have become. I am so glad I can be close to you now.



Reprinted from the RC e-mail discussion listsfor leaders of women and for leaders of parents

(Present Time 191, April 2018)

* Gender-Challenging

Last modified: 2018-07-29 12:16:36+00