When I was a kid, maybe 10, my parents were in a musical at church. They played the parents of a couple of kids. The role of the son in the play was covered by their best friends' son, with his brother and another friend as understudies.
One practice, all three had baseball games so I filled in. I was in the chorus, and hearing the same lines over and over made it pretty easy to remember what to say. I had a blast playing a boy's role. I even asked if I played the part if they'd change the character's name to my gender neutral middle name. My parents rolled their eyes and told me that wasn't going to happen.
Sometime earlier, around second grade, my mom stopped picking out what I'd wear to school. She'd always picked out a dress, often with a pinafore, stockings, and Mary Janes. I picked out a shirt and pants. She was mortified the day I came home with my "Citizen of the Month" Polaroid and saw I was wearing a turtleneck and cords. She asked me why I hadn't told her so she could help pick out my outfit. I told her that I picked what I wanted to wear.
She didn't bother with my clothes too much after that.
Due to personal inclination and Reasons, I grew up believing women were powerless. Dresses meant vulnerability. Doing your hair was vanity (it was the 80s…). "Gender identity disorder" wasn't really heard of back then, so I identified as tomboy.
And I grew up. And I still wear t-shirts and jeans most of the time. And I don't fuss with make-up or doing my hair. I got a degree in engineering and joined the military. And I'm celebrating 20 years of marriage — to a man — this September.
When my kid was little, he used to wrap his blankie around his waist and declare, "I'm a princess! I'm Cinderella!" He's now a high schooler who is very much into girls, thank you.
Right now, my two-year-old nephew occasionally prefers skirts. It's sad I have to say this, but: it doesn't mean he was meant to be a girl. It doesn’t mean he'll grow up with same-sex attraction. It doesn't mean we should start calling him "Susan."
It doesn't mean he should have sexual reassignment surgery and hormones before he reaches puberty because that will more effectively align his physical characteristics with his "real" gender. Or take medication to delay puberty until he's sure he wants the surgery.
It just means he doesn't feel like wearing pants but his mom won't let him out of the house in just his skivvies.
The horrors of a cross-dressing two-year-old aside (not to mention the fact that boys in other countries even today still wear skirts), our society has been creeping toward a strange place. Face it — many, many gender-based stereotypes today are completely arbitrarily. Clothing and colors and toys are given gender value based more on adult nostalgia and marketing than anything real. Fortunately, we now have dresses with dinosaurs but it's still presumed that if a girl condescends to use a Nerf gun, it must be pink or purple.
And, I think, that's where a lot of the problem comes in. A young girl who wants to build things, but is surrounded by voices who say girls don't build things, starts to think maybe she's not a girl. A boy viciously criticized because he's kind and thoughtful and likes to take care of his baby brother* starts to think he's not a real boy.
So the first thing is to celebrate the child. Affirm their likes and dislikes in a way that also celebrates their gender. Tell the caring boy that he's a fierce warrior who protects his family and shows the love of Christ. Tell the girl she's a creator — and then ask her what she wants to make for the AWANA Grand Prix race. As far as my nephew goes, maybe he associates skirts with the good times they had in costume at the Renaissance Faire. Or maybe he's hot. But mostly it means I really need to make him that utility-kilt.
* Yes, this is happening to my friend's young son. Based on his sweet and gentle demeanor, his mom was told to take him out back and "beat the gay out of him."
Kersley Fitzgerald is a former Air Force officer, former Air Force wife, and current editor of Got Questions’ blog site, Blogos.org. She and her husband adopted JT from Thailand when he was 18 months old. He has spent the ensuing years teaching her more about God than any theology course could.