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Parents of gender-creative boy: We're 'reluctant pioneers'

Sep. 3, 2013 at 12:05 PM ET

He does what six-year-olds will do: bounces on the trampoline, shoots hoops with his big brother, blows soap bubbles in the afternoon sun.

But the boy, who we’ll call CJ, also goes up to his room and, with his mother’s help, puts on a mini-skirt, and polka dot socks and girl’s shoes, and grabs hold of his favorite dolls.

CJ was two and half, says Lori Duron, when it became clear in a crystalline moment that he was different. Gender-creative, gender non-confirming, gender-fluid, gender variant — Lori would learn all the euphemisms — CJ was suddenly one of them. He had discovered one of his mom’s Barbie Dolls that fateful afternoon and his face — his whole being! — lit up. Until then, he’d become quickly bored with his brother’s hand-me-down toys, and with the trucks and kiddie sports gear bought just for him. Now, that first doll always in hand or by his side, CJ had connected, both his parents say, with something fundamental about himself.

“There was a Barbie in my mom’s closet,” CJ explained. “I went in her closet, and I found it. And then I started to like girls’ stuff.” That included "girl" colors, toys, and clothes. And his parents made a conscious decision to let him pursue all that he liked.

Matt Duron, a police officer from a family where all the males were jocks, says he was confused at first, and concerned for his youngest child like anyone from law enforcement who knows how cruel the world can be.

“It’s a whole different thing,” he said, “when you realize that your son is really into all things girl…and really is a girl at heart.”

But through “a thousand conversations” — as a couple, and often including older son Chase — the initial decision to “follow CJ’s lead” and simply support and love him no matter his choices was affirmed and re-affirmed.

With no guidebook to follow, Lori started one — a blog called “Raising my Rainbow” — and the response was startling: a million followers, from more than 170 countries. And now, a book by the same name (read the foreword, by Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka, here).

“I’m here to love my children,” Lori said, “not to change them.” And since it’s undeniable that anyone “born in the wrong body” has to confront that fact at some point, the dilemma for parents is what to do when that confrontation occurs at an early age — and so early an age as CJ's.

“This is not a choice for us,” Matt said. “We’re just letting our child be who he was born to be.”

Lori said she worries every day, but “I feel like we’ve prepared him so that things won’t shock him.” Things like the quizzical or cruel reactions of others. “If they have questions he’ll explain, ‘I’m gender non-conforming, that’s why.’ Or he’ll say ‘This is my style. Not everyone in the world has the same style.'”

I told Matt and Lori there will be people who freak out when they see this story, when they watch a mother dress her little boy in girl’s clothes and allow it all to be broadcast to an audience of millions.

Lori’s answer: She and Matt became "reluctant pioneers” when the impact hit home from the hundreds of emails and comments in response to her blog, mostly from the gender non-conforming community whose members suffer the highest rates of suicide of any single group. Many had been estranged from their parents and other family members since the time they revealed their inner struggle.  

“They’re the most likely to suffer from major depression,” Lori said, “along with substance abuse and unsafe sexual behaviors.” Most heartbreaking, she said, have been the scores of correspondents who said the first bullies they encountered were their own mothers or fathers. “It wasn’t at school. It wasn’t their teacher making a comment. It was when they walked through the front door of their own house.”

CJ looked so happy, playing with his brother on a summer afternoon. He’s smart, funny, talkative and unafraid of the strangers in his house. I told him, a sudden thought, that a friend gave me a gift: a couple of solar-powered dashboard hula girls that wiggle in the light — three dollars apiece! — and that he could have one.

He was delighted with it; it brought a smile that wouldn't quit, and he found a place in his room where she could wiggle non-stop.

And I wondered: As a parent myself and thinking about a story whose elements I’d never before considered, was giving him a hula girl — giving this boy that gift — the right thing to do?

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