Mary/Joseph: A Parent Essay
As a parent of a gender nonconforming child, you never quite know what’s coming up next. You think you know what your child needs, based on the past, and you try to anticipate the possible situations that could come up (is there a “family bathroom” at the mall? Is there an additional entrance besides the two “men” and “women” entrances at the pool? A unisex portapotty besides the boy/girl portapotties on the class field trip?). You are always looking ahead and basing your trouble-shooting on what’s behind. But you can’t quite see around the bend, and it turns out that your child is always changing, sometimes almost imperceptibly, and so the past is not always the best predictor of the future.
My daughter was 3 when she first frowned at the lettuce edging on her little green shirt, asking “what’s this bumpy stuff?” She didn’t like it. Soon after, dresses were out the window, along with a girl identity. The school caught on quickly, a loving and progressive place; to be honest, more quickly than my husband and I did. But by the time she was about 5 we were in full advocacy mode. Our daughter, J, stated that she “liked to be a boy.” But we didn’t know what that meant – were we talking about hormone blockers, mastectomy and transitioning female to male? Or was this like, “I like to be a vampire?” Both seemed equally possible for many years. We moved to try to make situations like camps, classes, visits with relatives, anything involving dressing up or swimwear as gender fluid as possible, scouting out the family bathrooms and pushing for flexibility. She didn’t like to have to choose, and we didn’t like to have to force her to choose. Some things were just pink and blue though, and seemed less open for fluidity. Take the bible story of the birth of Jesus upon which our annual Christmas pageant at our Unitarian Universalist church is based. There are plenty of non-gender roles, like “shepherd,” “flock,” “multitude” and “heavenly host.” Even angels and kings were played by kids of both genders. But Mary and Joseph were traditionally played by a middle school girl and boy, even in our liberal church. Roles were assigned based on how long the child had been at the church and how many pageants he or she was in, so I knew it was very likely that my daughter would get to play one of the two leads. But which one – Mary or Joseph? After years of dressing in boy clothing (including underwear and swim trunks), socializing as a boy and being called “he” by friends and strangers alike, I began imagining my daughter as the first female Joseph, a kind of Christmas Victor/Victoria. Since our church is Unitarian and welcoming, I knew it would not only be possible but the kind of thing the community would embrace. As each year passed and she went from shepherd to heavenly host to king to the angel of the Lord, I prepared myself for the idea of my daughter playing Joseph. But a funny thing happened about age 10. Even as we were still advocating for her at camps and school, and looking for that needle in a haystack middle school who could accept a gender nonconforming kid, my daughter was changing. Almost imperceptibly she began to show an interest in girl things. She was willing to wear a color other than black and navy; she asked to play with the sister rather than brother nearby; she dressed her cat in doll clothes. These were small things and could almost be overlooked, but in retrospect there was a pattern. And so by the time the pageant came this past winter, I was even less sure which role she would want to play. If she chose Mary she would be “coming out” as a girl to a community who had supported her gender variance. If she chose Joseph she would be acting in line with her gender variant childhood. And maybe she wouldn’t want to do either one because of the public statement; she could be a king or angel again, or sit it out. So we asked her, casually, in early December. “You know you can be any of the lead characters in the pageant; you could be Joseph or Mary or one of the angels or a king. Do you want to be in it?” Silence. “Well I could be Mary, I guess.” OK then. Surprise. Based on the past 10 years of her life, I would have predicted Joseph, as would most everyone else who knew her. To make sure, the pageant director also asked her separately and privately, and even had her try on the blue gown that is passed down each Christmas to the new middle school Mary. Yes, this was what she wanted to do, in fact later she said it was something that she had been thinking about for a while, even while she was actively not conforming to girl gender norms. And she did it, wearing the blue gown and yellow head covering, standing next to Joseph cradling a new-born infant from the congregation. She was confident and lovely, and happy.
The lessons for us as parents:
While you can try to forecast what will happen with your child’s gender identity and plan for it, you have to remain open to all possibilities and look for clues as they come, even if they contradict your forecast.