THE BLOG

A Boy in a Dress Isn't Funny Anymore

With an attempted suicide rate for unsupported transgender youth at a terrifying 41 percent, we now know too much: mainly, that gender is not a punch line.
03/28/2016 05:48pm ET | Updated March 29, 2017
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Purim. The Jewish Halloween. It's our first year sending our kids to a private Jewish day school, so while I wasn't thrilled at having to come up with another round of costumes (heaven forbid they wear their actual Halloween costumes from last fall: "Everyone has already seen THOSE, Mom!"), I was happy because they were happy, and looking forward to the holiday.

When we arrived at the elementary school, my girls immediately melted into an ocean of bright colors and brighter smiles. All the children were tripping over themselves to check each other's costumes out, ooh-ing and aah-ing over the innovative choices and creative homemade accessories.

There was a small crowd around one kid, so of course I craned my neck to see. And then my heart sank. It was a boy dressed in drag: full dress, wig, necklace, fake boobs. The reaction amongst the other children was sheer hilarity. The kids couldn't get enough of how funny this was! A boy in a dress! Can you even imagine!

But my heart broke because I absolutely COULD imagine.

I am an advocate for transgender and gender nonconforming kids. I have spoken nationally and written articles (and even co-authored a children's book, I Am Jazz) about the potentially excruciating struggle of children whose true gender identity doesn't match their physical anatomy. I have read firsthand accounts, and wept, of young people's agonizing social transitions: a biological girl's profound shame when she was "caught" trying on men's clothing, a biological boy's desperate pleas to be permitted to wear a dress to school. For these children, clothing is no laughing matter; rather, it is the primary vehicle through which they can authentically express the person they are inside. And if one of these children had been at our school and witnessed the revelry surrounding the little boy dressed in drag for comedic effect -- and perhaps one was, unbeknownst to all of us? -- I believe it would have been crushing.

Of course some people will say that I'm being too sensitive, that men wearing dresses on Halloween is nothing new, and it's always been good for a laugh. But times have changed, rapidly; and to pretend otherwise is aggressively insensitive (it's not like you see people performing in blackface anymore). With the emergence of pop culture icons such as Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox, Jazz Jennings, and Caitlyn Jenner, we can no longer claim blissful ignorance of the transgender experience. We can no longer tacitly approve when a boy is beaten up by classmates for being too "girly," or when a girl has her Spiderman action figures taken away and replaced with Barbies. With an attempted suicide rate for unsupported transgender youth at a terrifying 41 percent, we now know too much: mainly, that gender is not a punch line, and that it cannot be willfully imposed upon a child.

In fact, just last week the world became a little more dangerous for transgender and gender nonconforming kids: North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed into law a bill which prevents transgender people from using the restroom with which they identify (and goes further, banning ANY protections for the LGBT community). I watched the story developing with incredulous eyes: how could this be happening, in this post-Caitlyn Jenner world? Didn't I believe whole-heartedly in Margaret Wheatley's quote, "You can't hate someone whose story you know"? How could we be granted such generous access to the very humanity of transgender people, and still reject them outright?

If you are reading this and rolling your eyes, then take a moment and count your blessings. It means you have never known, or loved, a child struggling with gender identity. You have never seen the horrified tears in their eyes when discovering the outfit laid out for them on the bed, never been begged to drastically cut their hair. You have never sat in the principal's office, demanding your child's access to a particular bathroom or sports team; or waited in a lawyer's office while a legal demand letter was finalized. You probably take for granted every time you walk into a public restroom and don't have to fear for your physical safety as a transgender person often does. And you probably think that a 9-year-old boy in a bra is hysterical. Until someone points out to you that it's totally not.

Parents, let's stop snickering about little boys who like dolls, and little girls who dress like "lesbians." Instead let's start talking to our kids about how to be more aware of our privileges, and how to empathize with those who are not similarly privileged (because they struggle with gender identity, sexual orientation, physical handicap, economic hardship, etc.). And it's high time to stop letting our little boys leave the house in drag, or laughing along with those who do. Otherwise, we have just emboldened the next generation of Governor McCrorys, and then the joke's on us.