When My 4th Grade Son Was Called “Gay”

“I naively thought if we loved him enough, and showed him how accepting we were, it would be enough. I’m learning it’s not.”

I guess it was the inevitable happening, but I was hoping it wouldn’t. In fourth grade, my 9-year-old gender creative son became acutely aware that most of society thinks a little boy owning stereotypical “girls’ stuff” is inappropriate. Though he boldly chose, and wore to school a backpack matching his personality that year: a glittery rainbow explosion of kittens, hearts, and cupcakes, in 4th grade, he was excluded by peers. Almost overnight he learned the ugly truth about gender stereotypes. In the bubble that was our home, we didn’t have “boy toys” or “girl toys.” The understanding for our family of five was that we just had “toys,” and everyone could play.

My son doesn’t look or act like most other boys his age. At nine, he self-identified as “gender creative.” This means that he does not want to change his anatomy, or be a girl; he simply prefers all things that are marketed to girls (such as clothing, pajamas, shoes, toys, games, movies, décor, dress-up, and accessories — to name a few), and he typically prefers hanging out with girls.

While we were fortunate that most of the people in my son’s school were pretty cool, and he received several compliments on his “girly” backpack and sparkly accessories, he was also, by some, ostracized. He had been the target of unkind words, nasty looks, assumptions, and cold shoulders. Not just because of the backpack, but what the backpack represented: my son’s whole persona.

It’s in the subtleties — the way he flinches when bugs fly near him, how he squeals with delight in high-pitched voice, cares for others with a tender, mother-like quality, wears knee-high rainbow striped toe socks with shorts, the way his voice sometimes goes all Valley Girl, circa 1985. It’s somehow ingrained on his DNA, and it makes him uniquely HIM.

Last spring, the phrase happened for the first time. During lunch, another 4th grade kid walked by my son in the lunch room, leaned in to him and scoffed, “You’re gay.” My son did not respond. He was in shock and didn’t know what to say.

When he recounted the story later to me, though, he was embarrassed beyond words, holding back tears. I did the only thing I knew how to do — held him, listened, and told him: 1.) There’s nothing wrong with “gay,” 2.) Other people’s words do not define you, and 3.) Please continue talking to me. You’ll always have my support. We brainstormed ideas of what to do if someone says this to him again, but it’s always easier to plan than to execute in the moment.

I was hastily preparing for that day, I’ll admit; the day that someone would cross that line and move from saying “you’re weird” to “you’re gay.” The day that someone would associate my son’s effeminate tendencies with being homosexual, when sexuality was not yet even on his radar. The day when someone would take the word “gay” and wield it as the ultimate male slander — as a means of intimidation, an effort to emasculate, humiliate, and crush another human being who doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes; a way to communicate one’s absolute disgust, intolerance, and outright bigotry.

This upset me on many levels, but mainly because my son knows that the word “gay” does not mean “stupid,” as so many kids tend to interchange the two. He knows what gay means because of the wonderful LGBTQ+ friends we have in our family’s life. He knows what it means to actually be gay.

He has heard of one of our gay friend’s middle school struggles. He has heard the stories of middle school gym class, when the steel door slammed shut, and the boys locker room morphed into Lord of the Flies — the hefty jocks pitted against the nerdy, scrawny, and especially, the effeminate boys.

He has heard the story of another friend who came out gay in high school in the ‘80’s, when the new threat of AIDS was fueling our nation’s ignorant paranoia, and gay teens were being kicked out of their homes. He knows how awful these people were treated, how they were verbally and physically abused by either family members or school peers, and sometimes both.

And a short time after the phrase happened, he learned about the Orlando massacre in Pulse Nightclub. Pulse Nightclub: a sanctuary and safe place for the LGBTQ+ community, located in the heart of Florida. Orlando, Florida — the place of Disney World and dreams, i.e., “the happiest place on earth.” Now Orlando is known for being the location of the deadliest mass shooting, and the worst LGBTQ+ hate crime in recent U.S. history.

My son knows that our family is liberal, and that we don’t share the outdated, prejudiced views about the LGBTQ+ community the way some others do. He knows that when he comes into his own sexuality, our family has only this request: that he’s happy and treated well. He knows we’re allies to the LGBTQ+ community. He knows, but knowing is unfortunately not enough.

I naively thought if we loved him enough, and showed him how accepting we were, it would be enough. I’m learning it’s not. Because no matter what his father and I tell him, no matter how much his older sister and brother tell him “it gets better,” he still has a world of politicians, radical religious zealots of all denominations, peers, adults, media, and more, all sending him the very clear message that as a gender non-conforming person, he’s not protected.

Now, because of a couple of carelessly spewed words that will likely be repeated in the future, my son will soon be forced to wonder if he is gay, because other kids are now saying it out loud. He may not have known what a self-fulfilling prophecy was, but I saw the confusion and anxiety on his face in 4th grade more than ever. Of course, adolescence and puberty were almost within hand’s reach. However, when going into the tumultuous years of adolescence (which is already hard enough for anyone) my son was now going in with the additional, excessive worry of, “am I gay?”

He knows that our family wouldn’t care, and that we will continue to love and support him no matter what. But I’m learning that just because we’re okay with it, that doesn’t mean it will be easy for him to go through — whether he’s trans or not, whether he’s gay, bi, asexual, or queer — if he’s basically anything that varies from cisgender, straight male, he’s not protected; he is subject to legal discrimination. He is subject to hate crimes. He is even subject to the subtle (but tiresome) day-to-day discrimination.

Most of us don’t understand or even recognize the more subtle acts of discrimination. When you see it happen to your child, though, it’s extremely painful, because you realize that people don’t even know they’re doing it. These microagressions are born out of assumptions, and we all know what happens when we make assumptions.

Adding insult to injury, just when we thought society had made considerable progress towards the acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, we stepped backwards in history about 40 years. My home state of North Carolina, just prior to the phrase happening, made House Bill 2 into law, which was unarguably the worst, most sweeping anti-LGBT law in U.S. history.

I did everything I could to fight against HB2, from calling and writing my representatives, to voting, to founding a program called S.E.A.R.CH. (Safe Environment for the Acceptance of Rainbow CHildren), which later became an official program of the LGBT Center. S.E.A.R.CH. still runs today as a playgroup for TGNC (trans and gender non-conforming) children, and dialogue group for parents. But I’m only one person running one group, and I feel powerless against the massive tide of conservative power right now — conservatives who won’t be swayed, and are blind to the outright (and even subtle) discrimination that our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters endure every single day.

What does subtle discrimination look like? Last year, during our school’s annual PTA basket raffle, my son and I were having a sneak-peek at all the lavish baskets available for auction. He stopped to admire one in particular: The American Girl Doll gift basket. Included was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American Girl Doll, two outfits, and a white, frilly doll-sized canopy bed.

My son’s jaw dropped while he stood in admiration, having previously been unaware of the American Girl Doll Collection. (I had been, for years, cleverly hiding and recycling those damn catalogs we didn’t ask for but regularly received, because I knew my son would want one, and I couldn’t justify the expensive price tag and upkeep for those dolls). But there she stood, in all her American glory.

My son reached out his hand and caressed the doll’s hair gently, saying, “You’re so beautiful. I wish I could have you, and brush your hair.” Shortly thereafter, an adult woman walked by, saw what we were looking at, casually smiled and said, “Oh! That’s going to make some little girl really happy!!” As she continued on her way, my son’s words disappeared into the air behind her as he muttered, “or some little boy…”

An innocent, seemingly harmless comment from a well-intentioned person, but destructive nonetheless, because before that moment, my son was blissfully naive to the fact that most everyone thinks only girls could possibly enjoy playing with or owning dolls.

Similarly, from the first day he wore his sparkly “girls” backpack to school that year, kids regularly gave him strange looks. Adults, too. In fact, one adult approached us on the way into school for small talk and commented, “I see you got your sister’s hand-me-down backpack,” chuckling at his own joke. My son stared at the ground, embarrassed, and not laughing while I gently told the man, “actually, my son picked it out himself.”

A little awkwardness ensued and we quickly shrugged it off. But after the 18th or 20th of these daily microaggressions, my son could’ve easily decided to tuck his sparkly rainbow backpack in the corner of his bedroom closet where it would be hidden. He could’ve easily swapped it out for his old one — a neutral shade of pastel blue that he did not pick himself — and have a much easier time walking into the school building every day, blending in with the rest of the boys.

But, he bravely and independently chose not to do that. Instead, I watched every day in awe as this 4th grade boy of mine strapped on a “girly girl’s backpack,” wore it like a warrior shield, and in the process, gave a collective middle finger to all those who dared to judge. His bravery, day after day, in this single act of noble defiance made me feel like maybe I had done something right after all.

I wish it wasn’t so, but I had to realize that I couldn’t then, and cannot now spare him of the “gay” slander, as much as I want to. I can’t stop kids from ignoring him, mocking him, or saying, “you can’t play with us.” I can’t stop the weird looks. I can’t stop the judgment. I can’t guarantee him dignity. As a parent, it’s heartbreaking to know that your child has to be brave just to be himself.

Now, a year later, we’re transitioning to another stage where our son identifies as genderqueer and currently prefers they/them pronouns. I still can’t stop the subtle discrimination that chips away at my child’s foundation day after day. Hell, we can’t even offer this kid legal recourse or protection for such discrimination. Despite all of this, despite knowing the risks of letting my son live authentically, I wouldn’t have it any other way. My child is just exactly the type of human I want to raise.

My son, many years ago, wearing a favorite princess costume. Read more about our journey at www.gendercreativelife.com

Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on June 18, 2016.