Dear Father Tony,
I read what you recently wrote about parenting so maybe you can settle something for me. We are two men raising my five year old son. I want this kid to grow up to be confident, which you correctly noted is so important, and because of that I want him to fit in at school. I don't want him to act loopy or fem or dress "different" when he is young. He will have plenty of time for that when he is older if he wants. Because of this, we are careful to dress masculine at home. We never did drag but I mean that we have just toned down the whole gay way of dressing. We are keeping it "beige" if you know what I mean. I think I'm doing the kid a favor. He can flame out in whatever direction he wants to when he is on his own. My husband says I might be wrong about this.
In My Grandmother's Dress
First I'll tell you a story and then I'm gonna read your beads.
When my brother and I were maybe eight and nine years old, my little Italian grandmother invited my mother and us to spend a day picking blueberries in the secluded, hilly and pastoral acreage of a Connecticut farm owned by a cousin of hers from the old country. We arrived at my grandmother's house dressed immaculately. In those days, Mom was still trying to impress the mother-in-law who took one look at us and declared her worry that we'd soon have our perfect outfits drenched indelibly with berry juice. She ordered us upstairs and into the closet that contained her loose thin cotton housedresses. She told us to pick out one apiece to wear over our clothing as protective tunics for the rest of the day.
I distinctly remember feeling thrilled at the prospect of selecting a dress, not because it was a woman's garment but because this would mark the very first time when I would be allowed to pick out something to wear on my own. Our household was a strict one in which we, the children, followed orders and were extended neither behavioral nor wardrobe consultation. Mom favored the grow-into-it frugality of Sears where she always shopped without us.
On that sunny morning, I selected a sleeveless white smock, loosely gathered at its scooped neck and with a repeating print of swagged pink cabbage rose garlands. My brother, who grew up to be a practicing heterosexual, selected a non-flowering pattern of trellised ivy over bamboo crosshatching. There are old photos of both of us happily dragging the hems of our dresses over rock and field with stained smiles and empty baskets in hand.
Many years later, while working in the Vatican as an Assistant Master of Ceremony for Pope Paul VI, I'd get the same feeling while in solemnly costumed procession. I would sometimes laugh aloud when catching my reflection in some polished surface of St. Peter's Basilica or when seeing photos of myself in brilliant pleats in the windows of the shops that sold papal memorabilia to tourists.
And many years after that, I'd again feel that same thrill when my husband and I first got into leather. With our jarhead haircuts, Carolina engineer boots and studded harnesses, our exterior said "We are real men. Grim, dark, butch warriors." Living up to that gear was much more difficult than assuming the aloof air of Roman clerical arrogance, for as soon as we greeted our similar friends, and once our bevy hurried through the doors of our local leather bar, our silly and playful demeanor seemed to shift the message into "We are children in the attic. We are nuns on holiday."
These days, almost nothing I wear is remarkable or theatrical. Maybe that is the telltale sign of growing old. We stop taking delight in dressing up. We lose the urge to be fanciful and florid. Odd that it should happen to me in a state called Florida.
Although I hope before the end of my days to feel again the liberating pleasure I felt while romping through fields in my grandmother's housedress, or gliding through the marbled chambers of the Vatican in my velvet-collared cape, or shirtless and sweating into my enormous biker jacket, I suspect the only special garment I will ever wear will be the open-backed hospital smock one is handed during regular visits for those post-fifty colonoscopies.
I had a priest friend whose mother always said "Dress to please others. Eat to please yourself." I think I'm now old enough to ditch that advice that had been so useful during my workplaced years and during my single years when fetching self-presentation might draw partners or promotions. I think kids in school should not be saddled with that obligation any more than should I in my retirement. We already spend more than enough of our lives wearing the functional straightjackets of convention. Let the young postpone it. Let the old discard it. Let those in the middle question its value.
Recent reports of children sent home from school for wearing outlandish or gender-crossing outfits irritate me greatly. What kind of dour and homophobic culture gives itself creative license on only one night of the year, Halloween? Aside from the fact that I think schools cannot successfully draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable garb unless they mandate uniforms, I do not see any value in forcing kids to stifle their natural and healthy sense of costume.
To deny your son his God-intended right to "dress up" fabulously and not to show him by example how it is done is rather a crime. You need to seriously rethink this.
You need to inform yourself that he will become the moth or the butterfly that he will become with or without your prohibitions. Need I remind you that most drag queens did not become drag queens because the houses they grew up in had pink feather boas where you would hang a dish towel? It doesn't work that way. How about the kid's crayons? Have you removed from the box the hot pink, magenta and royal purple ones?
Your husband is right. Relax. Be yourself. Stop trying to control what you can't control. He's going to reject you as soon as the first whisker appears on his chin anyway, so resign yourself to it and take those gorgeous Hermes scarves out of hiding and let him make a turban out of them and if he wants to go to school that way warn him that he will be bullied and teach him how to defend himself and how to courageously defend his right to be wonderful and how to seek out true friends and how to be a true friend. That is your job as a parent.