When Re was three, he used to play dress-up with one of my old deep red spaghetti minis. It was something I had kept aside to remind me of my thin days, although I usually give most clothes away. Re found it in my closet and asked me if he could wear it. I said why not? I must say it looked nice on him, with his curly locks and twinkly eyes and general poise. He twirled round and round in it and seemed really happy with himself.
It was love at first sight. The red dress and he.
I took a picture. “I hope you are not going to Facebook that,” the husband said, when he saw it.
But the important thing was, we were in agreement that ‘banning’ anything in the early years is the road to rebellion later. So we let him wear the red dress and indulge his ‘feminine’ side whenever he wished.
Was I missing a girl child and that’s why I indulged him? I think not.
Was I trying to unburden him from the constraints of gender? I think not.
I realised that telling him the cliched “Boys wear this, and girls wear that,” wouldn’t work for him. It wouldn’t work for me either.
Every afternoon, Re would return from school and ask for the ‘red dwess’. Sometimes he dressed it up with a sash, sometimes he would ask for bangles or a bindi, sometimes he even tried my shoes with it. We had agreed that afternoons were for dress-up, and he would willingly change into his regular clothes when we went out in the evening. On days that the dress went for a wash, he would be despondent.
Once, he wanted to wear the red dress to the park. My heart sank a little, not because I was ashamed of explaining it to people who knew he was a boy, but because I didn’t want them to think that dressing him like a girl was part of a larger social experiment, from a feminist stand point. I told him he could wear it just once, but then we would have to switch back to only wearing it at home. The lines between yielding to conformity and encouraging self-expression were blurring, even for me. May be I was protecting him from being laughed at, because he wouldn’t know what they were laughing at.
When we went to the US this summer, my friend Amrita wanted to buy him something when she took me shopping. He pointed to a Doc McStuffin bracelet and necklace set at Target. It was his instantly. He wears one or both every single day.
A friend said, “Stop all this, or he will turn gay.” I knew it was coming, but I stayed calm. I tried to explain that there is no correlation between kids cross-dressing and being gay. Maybe it’s a stage and it will pass. Maybe it’s not. But either way, I didn’t want him to feel that he wasn’t able to express himself because we didn’t support him.
Even when Re wore technically ‘baba’ clothes, many strangers still called him “baby” because of his long curls. I would gently tell them he was a ‘baba’ if they asked. Else I would just let it go. I know it bothers parents when you confuse their kids’ gender, but I was okay with it.
When we moved house to come and live on the school campus where I now teach, the red dress got left behind. Re missed it initially and still asks about it sometimes, but then he discovered the joys of dupattas and draping. One day, he found a blue sarong that had just the right fall. He draped it around him and pretended it was a ball gown, with tail and all. That was it! The ‘red dwess’ was replaced by the ‘blue dwess.’
I know from experience that some children do not conform to the conventional gender behaviour and Re is one. Some days he loves dressing his dolls, painting his nails and theirs, wearing a tiara, coloring their hair and throwing tea-parties for them; other days, he roughhouses with his cars and pretends to be a monster or a dragon. Of course, had Re been a girl who sometimes dressed or played in boyish ways, no one would expect me to justify anything; no one would raise an eyebrow at a girl who likes football or Spiderman.
May be there is a more simplistic explanation for all this and we are unnecessarily looking for subtext where there is none. Dressing up is what little boys do. You may think your son is a crusader for wearing women’s clothing in public but actually, he’s just playing a game. He is simply a boy who sometimes likes to dress and play in conventionally feminine ways.
(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 29th September, 2014)