“‘But I can’t wear a dress, right?’ My 5-year-old child once asked, looking up at me with eyes full of hopeful expectancy. And it was in this exact moment I had the sudden and sobering realization of the tremendous and precious power I held over my child. They were looking to me for acceptance—yes, as all kids do—but also for approval. More specifically, permission to do something they just really had always wanted to do. Their question wasn’t a sacred vow to be a particular way for all time, determining the trajectory of their life, but I knew my answer held precious power and could absolutely determine so much, robbing them of their sacred right to their own experience, development, and confidence.
I looked into their eyes, spoke from my gut, and simply said, ‘Of course you can wear a dress! Anyone can wear a dress!’
I went to my room, found a pink sundress, and told them, ‘This is now yours.’ They lived it in for weeks; taking it off only to sleep. I’m not even joking. Soon after, they asked if they could play with my makeup. Their confidence exploded. In all honesty, they had always been interested in my makeup. Whenever I did my own makeup, which was rare, they’d watch me so carefully, asking thoughtful questions and letting me know which shades they liked best. So, I bought them their own kid glittery eyeshadow the next time we were at Target. They immediately began experimenting with it, applying it in all its messy glory and then making a bee-line out the door to the backyard to see how long they could spin before falling over in their brand-new-to-them dress.
My husband and I watched in awe, fascinated, yet holding space for all we didn’t know and would soon discover. In the beginning, we kept it mostly to ourselves. We didn’t yet have the language to understand what non-binary even was, or that pronoun usage itself was reaching beyond ‘the binary.’ We just thought we had a boy who loved dresses and wanted to make sure we didn’t extinguish that joy we saw in them. They didn’t even wear dresses all the time but we sensed in them a desire to be more public with it. It was clear they were not simply playing dress-up but they were identifying with it. They wanted the world to know what they were about and that included dresses and makeup as much as it included athletic triumphs and artistic masterpieces.
Around this same time, ‘Queer Eye’ was being released on Netflix. Eager to watch the reboot, we immediately were introduced to the unparalleled, playfully approachable Jonathan Van Ness. As I watched my child stare in wonderment at the image of a dress-wearing, binary-defying, confident, and joyful person on the screen, seeing a part of themself reflected back at them, it became overwhelmingly obvious to me how vitally important visibility and representation are for non-binary youth. When it feels like you are completely alone in your school or community, it is a veritable oasis to see yourself represented on the screen. We felt compelled to begin sharing aspects of our child’s life—their joys, hobbies, and interests—without censoring their non-binaryness.
Anything we shared we asked our child’s permission, as this was coming from their own experience with representation and their own desire to provide that for other kids who may be just like them. They wanted to help others see how completely normal and healthy it is to discover your own gender and creative expression for yourself, even at a young age. I felt the weight of the importance of this, specifically because of their age.
Not long after they came to me in the kitchen and whispered, ‘Mommy? I think I want to start using both they/them and he/him pronouns.’ And again, I found myself in one of those sobering moments where I intuitively knew the tremendous weight my response would hold. If I hesitated, this alone could affect them significantly. I quickly said, ‘Of course!’ and we instantly transitioned into a family with two boys and one sometimes boy, sometimes neither, and that was that.
They insisted on not cutting their already long hair and continued to play with makeup and preferred shopping in the ‘girl’s’ section more often than not and we just embraced it! It became the new normal. And for our kids, so did endless questions from their peers, assumptions about their gender, and a few traumatic experiences better left unsaid. Pushback took a seat at the table as even my own parents could not accept the long hair, let alone the dresses and makeup, and had pulled back so much so even basic communication with us and the kids suffered and eventually stopped. And though so much of this was challenging to navigate and still stings, I had and continue to have no reason at all not to trust my child’s own expressed understanding of themselves.
Around this time, we also discovered yet another life-changing reboot on Netflix: Noelle Stevenson’s brilliant ‘She-Ra and the Princess of Power.’ For those who haven’t seen it yet (and you totally should watch it, like right now), there’s a character named Double Trouble who, despite their mischievous nature, is clearly non-binary. It gave our kid so much joy to enter into the colorful landscape of this incredible fantasy story and have a sense of belonging there. Children are so drawn to the power of storytelling and vigilantly search it in hopes of finding a part of themselves in it.
Clearly representation matters and with the rise of anti-trans laws targeting youth, representation is more important than ever. It’s not simply to make some kids feel seen—which is noble and right all on its own—but it also serves as a way to finally stop deleting LGBTQIA+ people from history. They have always existed and in all spheres of life. Their presence in everything, from art and music to science and medicine, must stop being left out. Representation needs to extend with purpose in schools so we can move toward a place where culturally it’s no longer erased but accepted as a normal and beautiful part of our colorful humanity. And while we can’t change people’s minds, I believe exposure to the truth and beauty of queerness and gender non-conformity makes it harder to deny their existence.
I saw this in my own life. As I moved through, and ultimately out of, my religious affiliations, I saw my views on the LGBTQIA+ community shift rapidly as my exposure to them increased. The connection between visibility and acceptance is undeniable. Sometimes parents ask me on Instagram how they too can be a better ally. I always stress just how important it is to search out sources of good and diverse representation. As they do, their children will have a tangible way into a conversation about gender early on. And if we give kids the permission to not only explore more variety in their clothing but to make the conscious choice to refuse to censor that exploration in public or around certain friends and family, we bring representation organically to the doorstep of those who still fear queerness from lack of exposure and understanding.
Being intentionally exposed to queer people experiencing joy and just doing everyday, normal things closes the gap othering creates and thrives on. In our own personal life, not everyone has been accepting. We struggle to help some of our closest friends and family to use the correct pronouns and in some instances even acknowledge our child is non-binary. Because of this, though, we have had to opportunity to navigate in real-time the differences between acceptance and safety.
We tell our child, ‘It’s okay if not everyone likes you or even understands what is so precious and beautiful about you, and misunderstanding can feel sad. Questions are okay, confusion is okay. But above all else, in every single circumstance, you always deserve to feel safe.’ Sadly, some family members have indeed proven to be unsafe.
For us, it’s never been hard to accept our children, but it has been difficult to accept our families’ lack of acceptance for them. Recently, at our child’s request and in honor of pride month, we announced officially to our friends and family our child’s pronouns are they/them. While we have always been open about it, we follow our child’s lead about how public they want to be and to whom. Our hearts hurt when after a few days we noticed most of our family members did not respond at all. Our child was watching, and the silence was deafening.
The truth is, my child is a whole person. Their gender identity is them, not a separate part of them. Though our path is our own, and I speak only for myself, I am so grateful our decision to leave religion coincided with Asher coming out about their gender identity. I shudder at the thought of the hurt we might have caused if we hadn’t as we would have definitely had to wrestle with our position ‘on the issue’ while our kid would be at our side just wanting to be seen and accepted.
We are their safe place. Myself, my husband, and my other two children have become a fortress of safety for them. And when the world undoubtedly becomes difficult to navigate and they grow into teen-dom and eventually adulthood, their family will be the place they can return to, knowing however they express, however they identify going forward, they will have a sense of belonging that will lead them well.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Dani Aceino. You can follow Dani’s journey on Instagram. Follow Dani’s husband, Jimmy, here, and follow Asher’s journey here. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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