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Gender identity

Got a cross-dressing kid? Ease up on the validation, experts say-it may not be what you think.

  • Princess Oscar, here with friends Super Oscar and Spidey Leo, says, "Cinderella is my favorite because she has the fattest dress." Blue "glass" slippers and Superman's discarded cape complete the outfit.

  • Princess Oscar

  • Princess Oscar

  • Princess Oscar, Super Oscar and Spidey Leo

  • Princess Oscar, Super Oscar and Spidey Leo

  • Princess Oscar, Super Oscar and Spidey Leo

  • Princess Oscar, Super Oscar and Spidey Leo

  • Princess Oscar, Super Oscar and Spidey Leo

  • Princess Oscar

  • Princess Oscar

Princess Oscar, here with friends Super Oscar and Spidey Leo, says, "Cinderella is my favorite because she has the fattest dress." Blue "glass" slippers and Superman's discarded cape complete the outfit.

A notorious hallmark of tristate parenting is well-intentioned overencouragement: If your toddler is into music, say, you pack your weekends with live performances and spend thousands on Music Together classes. If your kid happens to like apples, you take him to a pick-your-own orchard, teach him the botanical terms for the parts of a tree and expound on the hardships suffered by migrant laborers. And if your son likes to dress up as a princess, you take him to Disney World and buy him a licensed-reproduction gown.

My son, Cinderfella

The day Meredith H. picked up her son from his first day of preschool, the teacher greeted her and announced, "Oh my God, you have to see Sean. He looks adorable!" In another room, the three-year-old was dressed in a Minnie Mouse costume, grinning from ear to ear. "My heart just thumped," recalls the Huntington, New York, mother of two. "I knew this was not going to be a one-time thing."

Sean was never interested in the trucks and trains that his older brother, Liam, had been obsessed with at the same age, and he always gravitated toward girls as playmates. Sure enough, Meredith says, from then on "every day he'd walk into school, head straight for the dress-up section and put on a princess dress." When the family visited Disney World later that year, both boys were allowed to pick out one souvenir. Liam chose a pirate costume; Sean chose a Sleeping Beauty gown with matching shoes. "He saw the dress hanging there and just said, 'I want it.' It was the first time he realized he could have a dress of his own. It was the sweetest thing."

Experts would label Sean, now 5, gender-variant, though various other (less creepy sounding) terms exist: gender-atypical, gender-nonconforming, gender-independent. While in most of the country gender variance might be considered either an abomination to be treated or merely an embarrassment to be roundly ignored, here it's considered endearing. (Ludicrously, gender identity disorder is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a mental illness; transgender and civil-rights advocates are lobbying to have it removed, just as homosexuality was deleted as a mental illness from the same manual in 1973.)

When Sam Barron and Chelsea Altman's son Oscar dressed up as a princess for his fourth birthday party in Prospect Park last summer, the other parents in attendance were nonchalant. Oscar wore a new yellow "Belle" gown (from Beauty and the Beast), accessorized with several changes of wigs, tiaras and fairy wings. "It's like comedy to them," says Barron, who lives in Clinton Hill. "It didn't faze them at all. They all think it's hilarious." Barron himself has no qualms about his son's theatricality. Returning my first phone call to him, he left me this voice mail: "Hi, this is Sam, calling to talk about my cross-dressing son Oscar, the princess."

Four-year-old Levi Hurst dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz for his last birthday, also held in Prospect Park—and no, Levi's parents, Geoff Hurst and Kim Davis, don't know Barron and Altman. "It was something he really wanted," Davis says. "So we told him that it was his birthday and he should do what he wished and not let anyone spoil his fun." The celebration marked the first time Hurst and Davis had left the apartment with Levi in his dress-up clothes. While the walk from their Prospect Heights building to the park was uncomfortable—"People stared at Levi, and he was very aware of it," says Davis—once the party began, Levi was in his element among friends and parents who all accepted him without question.

The dangerous assumption

While the adults who were at Oscar's and Levi's parties are undoubtedly open-minded, loving people who appreciate difference, I suspect a majority of them were thinking (as I did, when I heard of the boys' princess themes) what no one said: Gay. That kid's definitely gay.

And not in a bad, oh-those-poor-parents kind of way. I'm guessing they had a more "Right on, you go!," free-to-be-you-and-me attitude. That lack of judginess is a great thing, but the very assumption of sexual preference—a New York hobby—can actually be detrimental when it involves a preschooler, experts say.

Among parents and child psychologists, "there's a tendency to want to forecast a child's future based on current behavior," says Ken Corbett, a professor of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis at New York University and the author of the new book Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities (Yale University Press). He argues that liberal-minded parents, and the community of therapists who support them, are in a tough spot when it comes to dealing with gender-variant kids. "We're stuck between advocacy and reactive pathologizing," he says. "We want to be responsive and encouraging, but at the same time, it's not right—ethically or responsibly—to predict a child's future. We don't have an archive of what happens to gender-variant kids. A boy who displays feminine traits as a child may grow up to be transgender, he may be a gay man, he may be a straight man who is a good father, he may become an artist with a sensitive temperament." Or none of the above: Look at Eddie Izzard.

It's true, there is no "archive" of anecdotes, but there is one oft-cited study—which is outdated, according to Corbett—used to address questions of sexual orientation among gender-variant youth. In 1987, Richard Green, M.D., published the results of his longitudinal study of boys called The "Sissy Boy Syndrome" and the Development of Homosexuality. He followed 44 gender-variant boys from childhood to young adulthood; 75 percent of them grew up to identify themselves as homosexual or bisexual.

The small study validated, for many, the practice of "reparative therapy"—the baseless attempt to make "sissies" more interested in football than fairies—which resulted in countless kids growing up filled with shame and self-hatred. In a way, Corbett contends, "we're now attempting to redress our bad history" by being the absolute opposite of the parents who wanted to "fix" their gender-atypical children. "I get calls from parents who are worried that their kids are not coming out soon enough and must be repressing themselves," he says.

"Parents here are going to PFLAG meetings [for Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays] before their child even knows he's gay," agrees Gerald Mallon, a professor at Hunter College School of Social Work and the editor of a textbook for professionals called Social Work Practice with Transgender and Gender-Variant Youth.

"I wanna be a real girl"

But parents don't just jump the gun on issues of sexuality. Since many gender-variant kids express a desire to be the opposite sex (Oscar regularly voices this wish; Levi has said it once; Sean mentioned it during pretend play), some parents, Corbett reports, are responding, "Well, okay." He recently worked with the New York City parents of a young gender-variant girl who were, he says, loving, responsible and trying to help and understand their daughter. "They'd sent her to a camp for gender-variant youth, and it really upset her. She wasn't ready for that yet. Her parents moved too fast, thinking they were doing the right thing, but they got ahead of her," he says.

No official numbers exist, but the National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that only about .25 to 1 percent of the U.S. population is transgender, and relatively few gender-variant kids grow up to live full- or part-time as members of the opposite sex. So how far do you go in letting your child experiment with gender during childhood? There needs to be a middle ground, Corbett believes, between automatically affirming our kids' desires and squelching them.

That middle ground is hard to define, however, and the line between supporting and pushing can be thin. John Casey, a West Village dad of three, has had the unsettling feeling he's crossed that line a time or two with his eight-year-old daughter, Roma. When Roma said she wanted to cut her chin-length hair short, Casey and his wife, Nancy Smith, suggested she find a picture of a hairstyle that she liked. Roma tore out a magazine photo of Kris Allen, last season's American Idol winner (and, interestingly, a paragon of clean-cut heterosexuality when paired up with camp-goth gay poster boy Adam Lambert).

They took her to the barber, and 15 minutes later Roma came out with a boy's haircut, looking like, according to Casey, Maddox Jolie-Pitt. Beyond his aesthetic distaste for the cut, Roma's father worried that he was letting her go too far. Already, she wears only boys' clothes (down to her boy briefs and swim trunks) and is regularly mistaken for a boy by strangers. "I don't care what she looks like or how she dresses," he says, "but I want her to know that there's a price to be paid sometimes, that not everywhere is as accepting as Greenwich Village."

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