22 April 2014

"But why does he have girl's hair?"

I'd like you to meet someone:

This is the Captain, or Cap'n for short. He's three years old and he is a boy. You can ask him, he's not afraid to make that perfectly clear. He gets angry when Daddy drives the car because then he has to sit behind me and "then we don't match". He likes things to fit into neat, tidy categories.

He also has his daddy's hair. And his great-grandfather's hair. And his mother's hair, when I was a little girl about his age. He wears it long, past his collar, and in curls. Sometimes in a ponytail, "just like Daddy". He likes it long; we've asked, especially on the mornings when he screams at having it brushed and runs away from the evil thing. He doesn't want to cut it.

I'm fine with that; I can respect it. I like long hair on boys and men (witness Daddy's ponytail). But Cap'n has a charming face and the morphologic androgyny of toddlerhood and it's a cultural thing to identify moppy blonde curls as belonging to little girls, so we are constantly catching strangers' comments about "her". I normally let them pass, having learned the hard way that correcting a stranger's assumption about the gender of my child inevitably leads to their embarrassment, but seven-year-old Cups is at that stage in life where she must make certain that everyone is completely accurate in all details at all times.

We had the kids out at a local con recently in Wonder Woman and Flynn Rider garb, sitting around a table playing KinderBunnies and Spot It with some other kids (set up a game and people will play!) when one of the kids pointed at Cap'n. "It's her turn."

"He's a boy," Cups corrected. "He's my brother."

The child -- about six or seven himself -- looked up at me, clearly the only mother in the area. "But why does he have girl's hair?"

I gave my standard answer. "Because his daddy does, and he likes it." It clearly wasn't satisfactory, but you don't argue with the Mom Voice. He muttered something about girl's hair and went back to the game, and I went back to thinking.

In case you missed it, we're raising cosplaying children. Costuming my kids is a labor of love and also an expression of art for me. But this year has been a challenge. We were in the preliminary design stages of doing Mary Poppins' "Jolly Holiday" costumes for the four of us (a project I am still finding alarmingly ambitious) when Frozen came out and the kids went gonzo. It didn't take long before there were demands for costumes, and it didn't take long for that to turn into What We're Doing For GenCon.

Here's the tricky part: Cap'n insists on being Anna. I was okay with doing that for him, and worked up an adorable little vest-and-pants set inspired by a dear friend's quick sketch, but he was not satisfied.
"Mommy," he complained, "these are pants. Anna wears a dress."

I'm going to go out on a limb here and make a statement that is true for me, and may not be true for other people: it is really hard for me to give my son the same liberty of style that I give my daughter. I had a hard time coming to grips with Cups's preference for dresses, ruffles, and the color pink; I wanted her to like jeans and eschew princess fluff. I'm having an even harder time letting Cap'n pick out the pretty teal Princess jammies he desperately wanted in the store, even though they're the same cut as the Lightning McQueen ones right next door.

"How about big loose pants?"

"Anna," he insisted, "wears a dress."

I thought: His hair is already gender nonconforming. Everyone is going to call him a girl. "I can do something in between?"

"Anna wears a dress. I want to be Anna."

I can't put him in a dress. People will be confused. "We'll see," I finally conceded, which everyone knows is parent-speak for "I'm going to hope you forget about this."

I sat down with some women friends of mine at a party one night and told them about my son and his Anna dress, and my struggles. And with love and support they said helpful things to me. Things like "I would have expected you of all people to be okay with that." Things that challenged my thinking.

I remember when Cups was about four or five and my mother called me from the Big City three hours north. "There's a Disney Princess show here," she said. "I thought I could take Cups. They'll do dress up and makeup and things."

"I'll ask her if she wants to go," I answered, and my mother's surprise was audible.

"I thought you didn't want her to do princess stuff!"

I explained to her then that part of being a feminist to me involved letting my daughter choose her own path, and what was interesting to her, and that I had to respect that if she wanted to wear pink and lace that it was her choice to do so. Even though I can't stand pink and lace, and my deep abiding fear has been that I would have a daughter who needed advice on things like makeup and shoes, things I don't particularly care much about outside of which ones go with which costume.

It's hard to let go of the things I didn't even realize were so important to me. It's hard to be sizing a Scandinavian walking skirt to fit my three year old son's little Buddha waist. It's hard to think about GenCon this year, with Cups correcting everyone who calls her little brother a girl (although it's nice that he won't need a wig, just some hair color for the braids). There's a voice in my mind that worries about what people will think and what am I doing, putting my son in a dress?

But it's more important by far to let him know that he can choose his own path. It's more important to me that he learns that he can have faith in his instincts. It's more important that he learns now that the first law of cosplay is make a costume you are comfortable wearing and that nowhere does it say worry about how other people think you look in it. It's more important that he learns that his family will stand up for him and support him and respect his desires. I committed myself to this path when I said I'd raise my daughter to be strong and independent and true to herself. How can I do any less for my son?