Growing up, I worshiped all things “girly.” Today, children who self-express in that way might be politely, clinically described as “gender nonconforming.” But in the ’80s, the words you were more likely to hear were “soft,” “sissy,” “punk” and, of course, the ubiquitous homophobic slur “f–––––.” That’s the put-down that was first said — shouted, actually — to my face when I was 7 years old. It hurt.
There was nothing my mom, or any mother, could have done to prevent the experience — if you’re openly gay, it almost always happens eventually — but what she did before and after took some of the sting out.
Like other boys, I loved “Star Wars.” But in my mind, Princess Leia ran the show. I acted out elaborate scenarios where she flipped the Jedi narrative and was the one who chained up Jabba the Hut. I had He-Man action figures, but when I finally got a black Barbie doll, whom I named Dee-Dee, she became the real master of the universe. My mother hadn’t grown up in a progressive home (or era), but she took these developments in stride. There was never a time when she wouldn’t let me be myself.
I loved watching her get dressed up. She was only 18 when I was born, so when I was 7, she was a 25-year-old who could still drop it like it’s hot — that is, whenever she could find and afford a babysitter. I remember being mesmerized watching her prepare for a night on the town as she sang along to Klymaxx’s “The Men All Pause” or Shelia E.’s “The Glamorous Life.” She stood in front of the bathroom mirror, dolling herself up with that harsh ’80s makeup: press-on nails, blue eye shadow, endless blush and enough Aqua Net to clog your lungs. By the end of the night, she transformed herself into a fusion of “True Blue“-era Madonna and Wendy in “Purple Rain.”
I wanted to experience the same glamour, so one night I begged her to let me dress up in her clothes. She hesitated, but eventually gave in and I picked out a puffy, gaudy red dress and black high heels that didn’t fit. Of course I needed some makeup, and my mom helped me apply a little lipstick and eye shadow. In the mirror, I was overjoyed to see a little of my mother’s magic in myself.
I ran around our small apartment, screaming with excitement while she stared; not judging, just uncertain. But she followed her intuition to let me be me. Without the words to express it, she understood that I was playing with gender as a creative way to express myself. But my jubilation didn’t last.
In the middle of my semi-drag romp, her boyfriend — tall, unnecessarily macho and with a deep voice that occasionally frightened me — unexpectedly showed up. When he saw me, his mouth twisted up and he lashed out at my mother: “You got your son in women’s clothes! What the f––– is wrong with you?”
She looked shocked, but I wasn’t sure how to read her expression. Knots tied in my stomach, and I suddenly felt embarrassed and ashamed. I tried to wipe off the lipstick with the back of my hand, but I only smudged it over my face before he dropped the word that I’d never heard before: “You got your son dressed like a girl? Your son is gonna be a f–––––!”
I would hear it a million times after that, but this moment was vital. I was vulnerable; my sense of security and my admiration for my mother were at stake. I turned to see what she’d do next. She locked eyes with me and saw that I was scared. Maybe she was scared, too. Maybe she regretted letting me play dress up. But we were at a fork in the road — my little soul was in her hands.
And with a voice nearly as powerful as his, and a presence even stronger, she yelled, “Get the f––– out of my house!” pointing to the door. “This is my child! This is my son! He’s being a kid! Get out!”
I never saw him again.
I’ve heard lots of similar stories, but with terrible endings. Sometimes it’s a simple disappointing look in the eyes, when a parent sees their child going against the repressive norm. Sometimes it is a young boy getting caught in his mom’s clothes and being beaten till he bleeds. According to a study published last year by the New England Journal of Medicine, LGBT middle and high school students were around twice as likely to be bullied as their heterosexual peers, and a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that gay and lesbian high school students attempt suicide at a rate nearly more than four times that of their straight peers. Growing up is hard enough without being marginalized because of your sexual orientation. But the day I first heard the word f–––––, I learned my mother’s love was stronger than anyone else’s hate.
I’m certain that if, in that moment, she hadn’t chosen my happiness — and safety — over her own ambivalence, my life would have turned out very differently. Not for the better.
As time went on, my gender nonconformity faded. But hate didn’t, and hasn’t, at least not completely. Growing up, first in Washington state and later, in the 1990s, as a teenager in Philadelphia, I still struggled to assert myself within the confines of traditional definitions of masculinity. From that day on, though, I’ve always felt a protective force-field around me. Her affirmation has stayed with me for life, and I am eternally grateful my young mother, who loved me unconditionally and gave me agency in my moment in her red dress. Thanks, Mom.