My son C.J. is going to be Alice, of Alice In Wonderland, for Halloween. More specifically, he will be Tim Burton’s Alice because, at nearly seven years-old, he’s starting to outgrow his infatuation with the leading ladies of Disney.
While Disney represents the sweet innocence and make-believe aspects of early life, my son—even though he’s only in first grade—has found comfort and a sense of camaraderie in the dark, quirky fantasy worlds created by Tim Burton. They are worlds where being different is often celebrated. My son is different. He wants to be celebrated.
C.J. has a blue corseted dress with a white apron, and black and white checkered ruffles. He will wear black and white striped tights, glittery red Mary Janes, a long blonde wig and a headband of feathers and jewels. He’s allowed to wear makeup on Halloween: blush, blue eye shadow, and a faint swipe of black mascara. He’s already worn the costume to a Halloween party and he looked gorgeous. I snapped a picture and looked at it. It caught me off guard to see what a beautiful girl my son is and just how much our family has evolved in four years. Halloween has been an annual milestone in our lives.
Halloween was much easier when C.J. was small and I got to select his costume without his input. That was back when he was a baby and toddler before I learned that he is gender dysphoric, which is the medical diagnosis for C.J. being, as he describes himself, “a boy who only likes girl stuff and wants to be treated like a girl.”
For his first Halloween, he was six months old and dressed as a plush monkey with a banana peel on his head as his squishy cheeks forced their happy way out of the costume’s face hole. When he was 18 months old, he was a cherubic Robin Hood in a green velour costume and fringed Minnetonka moccasin booties. Auburn curls flipped out from under a green hat with a red feather.
At two and a half years old, he was a police officer like his father, his hero. We visited daddy at work on Halloween day and I took pictures of my two redheads in uniform. I recently found those pictures and my eyes zeroed in on the small Halloween-themed Polly Pocket doll in C.J.’s pudgy fist. It’s one of the first photos we have showing the early hints that he is gender nonconforming, gender variant, gender fluid, gender creative or whatever term you prefer.
Shortly before that, I found a Barbie while cleaning out my closet. C.J. begged to have her and I reluctantly gave in. C.J. says that is the instant when he knew that he liked girl stuff, not boy stuff. We spent the better part of 12 months hoping that our son’s effeminacy was just a phase, even as it became apparent that it was as much a part of him as his right-handedness and love for strawberries.
In September halfway through his third year, C.J. informed us matter-of-factly that he was going to be Snow White for Halloween. I panicked. What would people think and say? How would people respond? Though we were tempted to, we would not let our boy dress as a girl for all to see—not even on the one night of the year reserved for fantasy, role-play and costumes.
I spent weeks trying to come up with a costume option for C.J. that was a compromise. He wanted to wear makeup and fabric that felt nice. I sat him on my lap in front of the computer and went to a popular website for Halloween costumes. I clicked on the “Boys’ Costumes” section of the site and tricked C.J. into thinking that those costumes were his only options. I was hiding half of the world—the pink world—from him and I felt guilty about it, but it also felt like something that I had to do to protect my son from what other people and to keep the holiday as drama-free as possible. I realize now that I was parenting based on what would make strangers feel happy and comfortable, not on what would make my child happy and comfortable. I don’t parent that way anymore. I wish that I never did.
We ended up settling on a black satiny polyester-blend skeleton costume with a face full of black and white makeup, including black lipstick that would have impressed the girls and boys working the MAC counter. He slid off of my lap and walked solemnly to his room as I placed the order online. I felt bad for not letting my son dress as he wanted for Halloween, but I also felt like I didn’t have another choice.
The skeleton was fine, but it was not Snow White.
As Halloween approached the next year, I grew anxious, knowing that my four-year-old little boy was going to want to dress up as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Minnie Mouse, Smurfette, or Rapunzel. He’d been talking about it for months. Striking a compromise like we had the year before wasn’t going to let happen. I had, over the course of that year, spent countless hours researching gender nonconforming kids. I learned that children come to us with their gender identity intact. I could make him miserable by trying to change his identity, or I could love and support him and do my best to make him feel comfortable in a body and society that oftentimes wants him to be anything but.
I took C.J. to the costume store to select his Halloween attire. We went alone, in the middle of a weekday, so that we could concentrate on the task at hand without pesky onlookers. Now he wanted to be either a prima ballerina or a cheerleader. Matt and I agreed that whatever C.J. chose to be, he had to have a wig. That felt safer to us. A wig felt like armor to hide our son underneath.
We wandered eight aisles of options: boys’, girls’ and gender neutral. C.J. was not interested in any of the “boy” costumes, except for the moment he spent inspecting the size-extra-small Jesus getup, because, after all, Jesus wore a dress, strappy sandals and had long hair.
Then he saw it and our decision-making process was over; there was no going back. It was Frankie Stein from Mattel’s line of Monster High dolls. She is the 15-year-old daughter of Frankenstein.
“If you wear a girl’s costume, some people may ask you questions or wonder why you’re dressed like a girl. They may not have seen a boy dressed like a girl who likes girl stuff before,” I explained to C.J., so that he’d be prepared.
“I know. I don’t care. It’s okay, my costume is the awesomest,” he replied, reassuring me.
On Halloween day, C.J. was allowed to wear his costume to his pre-kindergarten school. We started walking to his class. “We’re doing this,” I thought. My son is wearing tights, a skirt and makeup to school for the first time. I wondered if it would be the last time; differently gendered children have roughly a 75 percent chance of eventually identifying as gay or transgender. There could come a day when my son would become my daughter and walking onto campus in tights, a skirt, and makeup would become our version of “normal.”
We spent another year evolving and educating ourselves about kids like C.J. We were dead set on loving him, not changing him. Last Halloween, when C.J. wanted to dress up as Bloom, a Winx Club fairy, we didn’t give it a second thought; we just bought the costume. No manipulative online browsing. No off-hour trip to the costume store. No panic. No worry. No nothing.
It saddened me to think that one day my son might want a “boy’s costume” to avoid negativity, stares, and judgment from other people. For years, I wanted him to want a boy’s costume, but now I dread the day, feeling like it will represent a loss of innocence. Would this be the year that he sacrifices his heart’s desire to avoid dealing with naysayers, homophobes, and people without manners? No, but he’s learned to be careful.
Although he decided weeks ago to be Tim Burton’s Alice, he will continue to tell the kids at school that he hasn’t yet decided on a costume. He’ll tell them that until October 31 and beyond. His personal evolution has taken him to a place of self-protection and next year I expect that to be the same. But I do not expect that he will wear a boy costume.