What can you say to a bright soul who just simply ‘is’ – beautifully, wonderfully ‘is’ despite being pressured by the world every day in 10,000 ways to conform, to fit in, to adapt? What can you say to a child who doesn’t see the boundaries others hold dear and whose perspective is governed by a strong and vibrant vision of what is right for them?
What do you say to a toddler who puts pyjama bottoms on his head for ‘hair’? Who models himself after a long list of female performers from Cher, to Hannah Montana (but most definitely NOT Miley Cyrus), to Sophie in Mamma Mia, to the ever-charming Miranda Sings? What do you say to a child who for years yearned for a wig, who made anything he could find into a headdress that would have hair hanging down his face, who asked for night caps that he pretended were wigs, who asked you to crochet fake wigs, who would cry and sometimes rage when he could not go out looking like he wanted to look? What would you say to the kid who in every charity shop you went into headed straight for the skirts, seeking the ones that flow and twirl, preferably pink and possibly sparkly? For years and years. This didn’t just crop up. It’s been constant and steady.
We didn’t get it. We redirected. We had a stock of ‘dress up’ clothes in the house for performing. But still the displeasure and unhappiness and sometimes meltdowns as we were leaving the house – the sneaking ‘hair’ into school bags, the wearing sparkly clothes under more boring clothes.
We were scared. Our son has a brain-based disability. He has a Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (though we didn’t know that until he was 10). He is at risk out there in the world. We worried he would be simply too vulnerable if we allowed him out of the house dressed the way he wanted to dress.
And then in the post-Brexit-vote days a young gay man was brutally attacked in our town by six people. Yes, we were reminded we have a reason to be scared, to want to protect our son.
But over time we realised that the best protection we could give him is a positive self-image. My mom used to teach me to cross roads confidently and to “smile like you own the world.” “If you hesitate or look like you might run off in a different direction,” she said, “that’s when you get run over.” We lifted the protective dome. Our son at nearly 14 now walks through town dressed in outfits he chooses. Because of his needs he’s never alone – we are always there by his side, staring down anyone who chooses to give ‘the look.’
The mainstream discussions about gender fluidity, gender diversity, trans issues (whatever words are the right ones to use, I am still not sure) seem to not have a place for a kid like our son. We see some really insightful and courageous young people pushing forward their rights to be who they are – these young trans leaders are bright lights in a world that is all too grim.
I am thinking now of a whole forgotten group of others who struggle doubly – people who are gender non-conforming who can’t really understand in what way they are different let alone find words to describe how they feel. Kids who due to the way their brains are wired simply can’t comprehend why people have a problem with them, who don’t understand the sexual or social connotations that others might be tossing their way. Professionals tell us this is in fact a protective factor for the gender non-conforming young person with an intellectual disability. But they can’t really know the desperation of wanting to protect your child – the impact of parental hyper-vigilance on your health and the health of your relationship with your child.
Experts believe that the alcohol that flooded our child’s system while he was in the womb likely impacted parts of his brain that influence hormones and gender identity and the way he understands these things. FASD is itself very under-studied and this aspect is even less so. We are out there in uncharted territory. (We have started a closed Facebook support group on FASD and Gender Identity to try to fill this gap.)
But to the greater world, as a parent in this unknown space you might as well be from Mars. It’s a double stigma. It holds you back. You’re already judged as a special needs parent (someone recently said to me “IF FASD exists…”) and on top of all that denial, people project onto you their own hang-ups about issues related to gender. You try to sweep away all the criticism before it comes. You don’t post pictures of that outfit or an angle that might show just how long his hair has grown. Not because you are ashamed, but because you really don’t have time or mental space for other peoples’ baggage. Your every moment as a special needs parent is spent trying to keep your own home in balance. You’re exhausted. And muddling through. Doing the best you know how to do in this land far, far beyond the traditional rule books.
Let’s face it. The lingo and even some of the politics of the LGBTQ+ community are intimidating. You don’t want to get it wrong. It’s too important. There is no way in the world your little one can begin to access and comprehend the nuances represented by these different terms. No way. At least not yet and not likely before puberty comes through like Miley’s wrecking ball. Just the concept of possibly using different pronouns would be nearly impossible at this stage for your little one to understand. The impact would be impossible for him to gauge since those with FASD have challenges linking cause and effect.
You dwell on issues related to informed consent. It’s a minefield. You have a child whose emotional and social age is half their developmental age. You learn about theory of mind and discover that the reason why your child has a remarkable ability to be who they are is that they are not developmentally able to fully understand that different people experience the world different than they do. You learn from experts that your teenager does not have the same concept of what it means to be ‘a boy’ or ‘a girl’ that others have. You start to worry that your child’s physical clock is ticking much faster than their social clock.
Puberty hits and your kid with the angelic voice literally stops singing because his voice cracks. Your heart breaks.
You are asked by a leading psychologist, “Who’s got the problem?” He’s saying to you that your child is confident and comfortable with his gender non-conformity. He shows you pictures your child has drawn with happy faces and love hearts. Your little one seems happy in himself. That’s what you want as a parent. You hope those smiles survive when facial hair grows. You desperately wish that voice will sing again and you’re simply not yet sure it will.
People think it’s the parents and carers pushing their own ‘agenda’ onto their child. They tell you what they’d do. (Save your breath, if it was as easy as cutting his hair, we’d have done it.) Anyone who knows me knows I am anti-lipstick, anti-heels, anti-sparkle (though I have to admit my repulsion for sparkles has weakened considerably in face of the onslaught). This is NOT me pushing an agenda. But by gosh if I have to, I WILL spend hours watching YouTube videos of various hairstyles and help practice them on the styling heads we now have under our roof – because the thing is, a child with FASD learns in unusual ways. A lot of it is multisensory. If the child has a particular interest, it really helps to develop that, to use it as a bridge. To connect. It’s doubly hard to know at what point this is an obsession versus something deeper. For years we thought the hair and skirts were about sensory needs. Most likely it’s an unknowable combination of factors.
Honestly, I have no idea where all of this is heading. We are pushing no one anywhere. We would rather opt on the side of allowing our child informed consent, even if that means moving conservatively. We understand that perhaps might be compounding anxiety and limiting future options unnecessarily.
But then we hear, now that he’s in a supportive specialist school where staff have specific Stonewall training in these issues, that our child is a leader (their term). That he is helping other children in being more comfortable in their gender expression. That they have never had a student with gender identity issues as comfortable with themselves as our little one is. We get comments on school reports like, “he has managed to express his colourful personality” and “he is not at all afraid of thinking outside of the box.” We feel relief that his protective shield is growing stronger.
Just last week his school went to see “Everyone’s Talking About Jamie.” We were nervous about letting our son go on this trip since the theme deals with a teen who dresses in drag – possibilities we have not discussed yet with our son. At the end of the day, the kids came off that bus in a group. Our long haired, bright eyed, beautiful son was in the middle of them. They were elated. They were all together. And he blasted the theme music that night as he fell asleep. He was content.
There is everything to gain from being open to our little one’s magnificence. And by “everything” I mean keeping that sparkle alive in his eyes. That is the goal. Keeping our guy alive and full of life. His life. His very own unique and awesome life.
For information or support:
Stonewall has some great resources, including for schools
FASD and Gender Identity Facebook Support Group (you will be asked to fill out some questions before becoming a member of the closed group)