Father Tony

In My Grandmother's Dress

Filed By Father Tony | November 19, 2009 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: gay advice, gay children, gay parents

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.

Triathlete69r

Dear Triathlete69r,

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.


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This is always true, but especially so with children: control of anyone or anything other than yourself is an illusion. Tony's advice is dead on. Teach with love and by example. Your son will ultimately choose his own way—as you did—so relax and tell him with words and actions that you will love him always, no matter what.

Parenthood is spelled G-U-I-L-T. We all worry whether we are doing it right. Honey, you're going to fail pretty much every day if you're really doing your job. We all are making it up as we go along, for every child, every parent and every family is different.

Forgive yourself for the mistakes that are inevitable and find the way that your son hears "I love you" best. All else falls away.

I hope you play dress up again! I can't imagine the fun of it ever ending.

How sad is it that so many queers equate "different" with "less than"? It's a classic American delusion to insist that each of us is unique, while most are too fearful of judgment to shop anywhere other than the Gap or Abercrombie.

Imagine how much fun the next generation will have playing dress-up if they learn early that there truly is no shame in being unique.

So right on!
I often hear parents wanting their kids to fit in at school, and two seconds later bemoan a lack of creativity in the same child. Personally, I think promoting creativity and imagination creates a certain toughness that serves us all well later in life.... Worked for me!

*stands up and applauds*

As a father, I salute you.

Tony;
Just gotta, have-ta share an anecdote here...? One of the hottest guys I ever was under the sheets with? Was a 'simple' boy from Oklahoma. He was the 8th son of 11 children; reared on a dirt farm there. As he recalls it? About once per year, he was 'suddenly possesed' from about age 8 yrs on, to dress up as a Catholic nun, and make a grand entrance on the porch of that farm-house. Every time he did that?
Every time he surrendered to that whim? His older brothers beat him to a pulp in the dust, and often broke a bone or two - which was just so much chump-change in his hard-scrabble life. He performed this rite, about once per year, for several years, and broken nose, et al, be damned. He couldn't help himself. And P.S.; at 6.2", he had the hairiest chest, the deepest cleft in his chin, the boadest shoulders, and the bluest eyes I've seen on a man. Every hard muscle in his body was born of hard work - never at a gym. What an idiot I was - to let that hunky and spirited sprite slip from my grasp? :(

My straight cousin's 7-year old son loves Barbie, dresses, and make-up. My straight cousin and her straight partner absolutely accept this. Their son is growing into a sensitive but confident and capable person who knows that his parents care more about him being an honest, compassionate, confident and decent person than what he chooses to wear. Overall, he's a very happy and independent kid. His father said, "I don't care if he's straight or not, or if he grows up to be a man or a woman. I want him to be who he is. And who he is is a total star."

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | November 20, 2009 7:42 AM

OK, over sensitive Gay parent. I get it. But why is that parent over sensitive and what are their reasons? We do not know the ethnicity or community of the questioner and these are important factors.

While I was an advocate for safe neighborhoods and schools in Chicago I did all I could to advance school uniforms for all children. It was not about conformity, but to keep them safe in the event they wore the wrong color in the wrong splinter of their own urban neighborhood. Gangs operate under adult radar and this could get them harassed, at least, even if they are presenting as butch as "Popeye."

Father Tony, you would have loved my railroad outfit, but it involved creosote, shovels, picks, jackhammers, a lot of sweat and the ability to work eight hours a day shoulder to hip with men who could not read. In all, a harder gig than St Peters.

This ain't about me! It is about where the kids have to live and decisions that all parents need to make about school dress. Let him or her dress up as a pirate or fashion designer on week ends. :)

Right on! Goddess forbid anyone take into account a child's SAFETY! After all, Pansy Political Correctness is the only consideration here, right?

Jessica H. Christ! The father didn't ask for your life story, or anyone else's, but thanks for the memories. Now back to the person who will be affected by your reckless bloggerhea.

Keywords: "5 yrs. old" and "school."

To be fair, the father did imply that he thought there was a "one choice fits all" solution when there rarely is, and you totally failed to correct his error...and, again, more importantly, to separate reality from The Party Line.

"teach him how to defend himself and how to courageously defend his right to be wonderful"???? Really, Marlo Thomas, just step away from your worn LP of "Free To Be You & Me" and step up to a sanity check.

Now then, class, let's cut to a real life example...which, in applying your forumula for Party Line Parenting, requires us to consider something one would guess none of us ever have before: denouncing Judy Shephard.

Having met her, I'm sure she encouraged Matthew to be himself, but don't recall any reference to having taught him self-defense. If she had, then he wouldn't have been raped by those three guys in Marrakesh...right? Or kidnapped and beaten to death by two other guys in Wyoming....RIGHT?

Now that we've gone from YOUR absurdity to mine, let's offer these fathers...and others...some genuine, practical advice; the kind everyone has experienced and practices personally whether or not he/she is a parent. It's called "fitting the action to the moment."

It's a challenge, yes, but every parent is required in the real world to teach children long before they can reason for themselves that what is "okay" in one situation is not okay in another. Nakedness is almost universally the first issue, and the nude body is at least as "natural" as wanting to play dress up [in whatever]. A child and/or parent going naked at home is one thing; dressing before going out is another, and railing against "body shame" or whatever might feel good but it's neither practical nor good parenting.

Then there's bodily function once the child is no longer an infant. Whether it's urinating, defecating, breaking wind, or belching...what could be more "natural" or "value neutral"? You may still be cycling between your own variations of drag, but one assumes you don't drop your denim, leather, whatever and take a dump in front of Toys-R-Us at your local mall whenever feeling the urge/need...or even in and on the privacy of your living room floor. But how dare anyone suggest you shouldn't if you wanted to...right?

Throw in smoking in church, saying "Fuck" at Grandma's, and playing pocket pool while addressing fellow employees at work, and even you might finally get my point. [Though I did see someone do poppers in Grace Cathedral during a SF Gay Men's Chorus concert intermission...could that have been you?]

It is no betrayal of our belief in what we SHOULD be able to do to inform a FIVE-YEAR OLD [IF the situation arises] that some things are best done in certain situations and others not...including wearing a turban made out of an Hermes scarf.

I haven't read the earlier epistle Triathlete69r referred to. It could well be a font of wisdom. But if this one is any indication, you should leave playing "Father" to others not so willing to sacrifice their children on your altar of sophistry and stop confusing "Ding Dong School" with "The Boys in the Band."

While overall I agree, I couldn't help but take pause from an article I read recently (can't remember where) that noted that children who were raised to be fierce individualists were more likely to end up in jail (and not for civil disobedience) than those that were instructed in how to adjust to the behavior of their peers.

For every ground-breaking Andy Warhol, there is that guy who did't bathe, wasn't invited to the party, and peed in the sink before he left.

May the Saints and all that is Holy, Bless you Signore Padre Antonio! Mille Gracia!

Being an Aspirant of the Sisterhood, with out a convent, you have brought in a most beautiful Light. Very well played Antonio, well played.

Reverend Mother Estelle Wilson
Lilac Sisters of God's Light
the.white.countess@hotmail.com

Have a true story to share: growing up in the rural South in the 1950's alot of us wore hand-me-down clothes. A female friend
of mine hated wearing dresses or any type of clothing that young girls were expected to wear; she loved to wear boy's
jean and shirts. Her family was not happy with this and she was a cause of much worry for them. Now fast forward to
her teenage years; she was a local beauty queen. Next fast forward to her early 20's; she was a highly paid fashion model
in New York. Finally to the present time; she has married very well as as they say "a pillar in her community", a Mother and a
Grandmother.

The last time I saw her was when I was as we say "back home" for a funeral. We talk about our present lives and also shared
childhood stories. I asked her if she remembered always wearing boy's clothes, she simply smiled and replied "I did?". Then she
got very close to me and quietly said "we have done extremely well in life for a couple of rednecks!!"