Yellow With White Polka Dots
Some of you may know that my kid likes bow ties. He loves to dress up. What you might not know is that he also likes dresses. At home, he ties blankets around his waist as skirts, and occasionally he will wear one of my shorter dresses. He likes to put on my high heels and walk around the house. My only rule is that he shouldn’t run in them.
Ben is very gender-fluid. This means that since he was very little, he’s told me that some days he feels like a girl, some days he feels like a boy, and most days, he just feels like Ben.* My partner Drew and I honour his feelings and encourage him to express them however he wants to. He has gone to school with wigs and nail polish, and sometimes he’s been laughed at.
There have been occasions where he’s been heartbroken, which makes my own heart seize up and want to spring to his defense. There have been times when I have taken his offenders on, ready to spit fire until I realized that they themselves are just kids. Instead, I have tried to engage them, question them on why they think the world is made up of rules that boys are this, and girls are that. Sometimes we get somewhere, and everybody is fine. Sometimes these kids run off, and I don’t know if it will happen again.
Drew and I try to teach our son resilience. I tell Ben he needs to learn how to stand up for himself. I tell him about being beat up when I was six years old for being different. When I do, my kid actually turns it around and comforts me, and I realize how childhood wounds surface in my parenting of him.
I try to remember that we are different people – perhaps Ben is living in a changed world, and he is better equipped with language and an understanding of paradigm shifts than I was. I tell myself that, but I am not convinced.
On the weekend, Drew and I took him to the mall. As we were walking, Ben said to me, “Remember how you said it was okay if I was a girl some days?”
I said yes. He said it was time that I bought him a dress. So, we walked into the Gap and went to the girls’ section, and Ben picked out a dress, bright yellow with white polka dots. He said he loved it. He immediately put it on when we got home. Drew and I told him he looked pretty, beautiful, lovely – all the words we reserve for girls, and boys don’t get to hear nearly enough.
This morning, Ben decided to wear it to school. I asked him if he was sure, and cautioned him that people might laugh and bother him. Ben said he knew that, and he could manage it. He said that he would yell, STOP LAUGHING. IT’S NOT FUNNY. IT’S JUST A DRESS AND BOYS CAN WEAR DRESSES TOO. He had a plan.
We went to see his grade one teacher this morning before class, and his teacher was loving and supportive. Andrew gave her a book to read to the kids in case she felt she needed it. It’s called 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert — about a boy who loves dresses but is not allowed to wear them, so he imagines 10, 000 beautiful ones.
I held back my tears as Drew tied the ribbon on Ben’s dress into a bow. I held back tears when Ben marched into school along with his classmates, even as I heard some kids start to say, “Hey, you’re not a girl!” I held back tears when some older kids patted Ben’s back and said that he was “waaay cool.”
Now he is in there and I don’t know how it’s going, and I let the tears flow because I am so proud of this child for having such tenacity and self-love. I am crying because I am terrified and didn’t realize that I would have to send my child out there and have to trust the world so soon. I am crying because it is a precious thing when someone values pleasure above the risks in order to feel truly themselves.
If by now you are still reading this and feel irked – then I ask you to examine why that is, and how you are invested in the ways that gender is constructed.
I want you to think about how you would feel about my kid because he is wearing a yellow dress with white polka dots. Would you feel like it’s a harbinger of spring and make you smile? Or would you change your mind about everything else you might already know about him – that he’s funny, quirky, friendly, smart, beautiful?
Because my kid is, regardless what you think or believe, beautiful. And I ask that you never make him, or anyone else who goes against what your prescription of gender should be, feel any less gorgeous and brave.
* names have been changed for privacy
Epilogue from the author, Anne:
So, some kids laughed at him (he ignored them) and some kids complimented his dress (he thanked them). Ben said, “It was awesome wearing a dress to school! Can we go shopping again and get another one?”
I marvel that there was acceptance from most of his classmates, affirming that sometimes, six-year-olds do know better than us.
When I first posted this story on my Facebook timeline, I wasn’t certain how it would be received. I knew I would get some support, but I was unprepared for the huge number of people in my community and family who flooded Ben, Drew and I with love and encouragement. My friend Lynn observed how brilliant it was that all the comments became part of the story.
It gave us hope, and expressions of desire and longing for the world that my son wants and believes should be. I realize that what began that morning with my young child taking his first leap of faith had a ripple effect. It may be a little thing, a simple garment, a small act — and yet it wasn’t. Maybe one day, it will be.