[7 November 2013]
The nursery rhyme goes “What are little boys made of? Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails… What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and all things nice.” Lori Duron seeks to dismantle this misconception through the inspiring story of her gender creative boy, C.J.
Judy Garland’s song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz imprinted in moviegoers’ minds that over the rainbow “dreams really do come true.” This notion transformed into an important symbol of the LGBT movement post-Stonewall. The title of Lori Duron’s blog, as well as her book, Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Fabulous, Gender Creative Son, utilizes this symbol to indicate that her gender nonconforming son lives within the rainbow, if you will, where he is free of societal restrictions.
Growing up, Duron’s son C.J. emerged as the antithesis of the stereotypical boy. When Duron discovered that her son had found her Barbie and completely gravitated toward it, she began to wonder what she and her husband should do. After three months of Barbie, Duron noticed that C.J. always preferred girls’ toys. When Christmas came she began to question what all of this meant and what to buy for a boy who liked “girl” things. She had thought of herself as a liberal, but at the time she felt “unease” (Duron 15). She remembered wondering, “Did C.J. like girl toys because they were a novelty? Would he like boys’ toys if those were all he had? What were we supposed to do? Encourage this untraditional behavior or help him conform to stereotypes?” (15).
In spite of her initial insecurity, Duron never forced C.J. to conform. At three he was a “total and complete pinkaholic” (25) and even began to cross-dress. He felt kinship with princesses and wanted to be one. Beginning with his third birthday, every birthday celebration would have a “girl” theme. On his third birthday there was a “jumbo pink princess cupcake with pastel sprinkles” (23), on his fourth the family went to Disneyland for a princess-themed celebration, and on his fifth they had a “Monster High” theme so that he could dress as Frankie Stein. Halloween was C.J.’s favorite holiday because it was “the one day out of the entire year when it [was] okay to dress up as anything you want to be” (169). One Halloween C.J. decided “either [to be] Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Alice from Wonderland, Minnie Mouse, Smurfette, or Rapunzel” (169).
Although they accepted their son’s gender identity, Duron and her husband often struggled with an unaccepting world. At McDonald’s, they had to negotiate with complete strangers to get a girl’s Happy Meal for him. Duron writes, “I thought that a child’s heart—or at least fifteen minutes of content quiet—could be purchased with a Happy Meal.” But then she adds, “I had a child whose heart was neither all boy nor all girl and McDonald’s started handing out its kids’ meals based on gender. That is when, suddenly, Happy Meals weren’t so happy” (40).
When it came to sports, C.J. could not find himself. He tried all the sports available, but he never connected with baseball or soccer. His favorite place was in a ballet studio wearing a pink tutu. Duron had work closely with C.J’s teachers, even in preschool, to help him be comfortable with his identity. Before C.J. began school, Duron wondered how best to protect him. “Would the teacher notice that there [was] something different about C.J.? How could she not? Would she care? Would the other kids notice? Would they care? Would C.J. get teased? What would I do, could I do, if he did?” (131).
Though we only read of a few times when C.J. wore female clothing in public—Halloween, birthdays, pajama day, some playdates, and later at pre-school graduation—other challenges arose. C.J. was uncomfortable with all-boy groups and was more comfortable in groups of girls. Sometimes he played house and wanted to be the mommy. He wanted to play dolls with the girls in his class, which took time for the girls to accept.
Duron and her husband also had their own struggle to come to terms with the possibility that their son would grow up to “be a girl”, especially since he had mentioned this to them. Through their love of C.J., they overcame their own personal concerns and worked to help their son feel safe with his gender identity. Duron found solace with the help of Darlene, a social worker, who specialized in working with transgender youth. She also started a blog, which allowed her to share her experiences. This would inspire her to later write this book.
She received positive feedback but also intense criticism of her style of parenting. “I’m always surprised by the hate, intolerance, ignorance, and phobia that people will spew online for all to see when they are protected by the veil of anonymity the Internet readily provides,” (76) she writes. Yet Duron was not deterred in her fight on behalf of her family.
One of the most striking aspects of what the book reveals is the rigid gender boundaries in American society. There’s a clear distinction between what is deemed “male” and “female” even before a child enters kindergarten. Boys are supposed to play with “male” toys such as cars, trains, and action figures, play “male” sports such as football, soccer, and basketball, and wear “male” clothes, such as pants, jerseys, and anything blue. Duron had to perpetually confront this gender-bifurcated world on behalf of her son.
Duron’s story also demonstrates that having a “gender creative” child (3) can impact the whole family and can be especially difficult for siblings. C.J.’s brother Chase was a target of bullying as a result of C.J.’s gender identity. Duron writes, “We ignorantly never guessed that Chase would be teased as much for his brother’s gender nonconformity. We never anticipated that would be the bullying we’d have to deal with first” (228). To stop Chase from being taunted, Duron almost had to get the ACLU involved in a huge legal battle. She had to fight both for her youngest son to be himself, and for her older son to be safe.
Duron’s engaging style of writing is witty, compassionate, sensitive, and deeply honest. We get to know her family and feel connected to everyone. Duron aims to stop her readers from staring, giggling, and criticizing, and learn instead to listen to children even if they do not conform to their expected gender. She encourages parents and teachers to be aware and supportive of gender nonconforming children to prevent them from becoming another suicide statistic (218). She points out that a child may know his or her gender as early as three, and she offers a list of strategies for approaching a gender nonconforming child.
At the end of the book, Duron provides resources for educators, parents, and children. Raising My Rainbow is both a guide for parents in the 21st century and a new voice for gender- and sexuality-questioning youngsters.
While this book will be helpful to readers who are open to its message, it may have difficulty reaching those in more conservative areas in the United States who have trouble supporting gender nonconforming children. Duron acknowledges that geography and parents’ attitudes can make a difference, and she discusses how these issues affected her transgender sibling Callie (formerly Michael). While C.J.’s story is hopeful and positive, one is left with concern for children who do not have parents like Duron and her husband to advocate for them.
Overall, however, the book holds promise of a better life for children who do not fit neatly into a gendered box. It offers hope that someday over the rainbow, these little boys and girls can still find a place where dreams really do come true. In this place, a little boy will not have to travel to Oz to freely wear ruby slippers.