Last weekend my four-year-old son came to spend the weekend with me and my partner. Battening down against the absurd cold of the Midwestern winter, we spent all of Saturday indoors.
After breakfast, we all curled up on the couch with some new picture books. I felt nervous.
It's been almost a year since I came out as transgender, and even longer since his mother and I divorced, but my son and I are only just getting into a comfortable visitation rhythm. Reluctant to pile disruption on disruption, I’d previously stayed quiet about my identity, answering his questions only as they infrequently arose.
The picture books I'd chosen all address trans or gender-nonconforming (GNC) identity in one way or another: I Am Jazz, by Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel; Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah and Ian Hoffman; and Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall. Two of the books, Red and I Am Jazz, were recently involved in a kindergarten classroom scandal in Sacramento.
I Am Jazz recounts the childhood experience of Jazz Jennings, a by-now seventeen-year-old transgender girl and activist with her own reality TV show. In the book, she lists her favorite girly colors, clothes, and daydreams as concrete proof of her identity. Her parents encourage her to “be who you are.” Despite some resistance from her school and classmates, she proudly declares herself “transgender”—making the book an identity primer as well as a personal story.
In Jacob’s New Dress, Jacob, after some dress-up with his kindergarten friends and some symptoms of dysphoria, asks for a “real” dress, which his mom makes for him on her sewing machine. A classmate called Christopher voices the standard “boys can’t wear dresses” objection. Jacob’s New Dress suggests children should play with toys and wear clothing that makes them feel affirmed in their identity, although unlike with I Am Jazz, colors and clothes are less about gender than personal expression, acted out under a blanket of general acceptance.
In Red: A Crayon’s Story, a gender allegory, Red is a blue crayon with a red factory-assigned label. Although his fellow crayons suggest (very familiar) cures, such as hard work, Red can’t stop drawing in blue. The solution, offered by Berry, is to celebrate his blueness instead of trying to change it.
Despite their controversial subject matter, these books haven’t walked far off from other picture books. Their celebration of simplified difference is familiar. They exude a progressive attitude that says “[you] can be whatever [you] want to be” (from the cover flap of Jacob’s New Dress), alongside stories of fixed identity (Jazz’s assertion that she “was born this way!”). They’re coming-of-age stories, fast-forwarded and hit with glitter, taking place in a falsely simple world where similarities and acceptance will always win out in the end.
But, after all, they’re picture books. How astute can they actually be in writing about the knots that result from unmooring gender from biological markers? About how feelings often fail to lead to material or legal changes? About the tension between narratives of identity’s social construction and its lived experience?
Jazz writes about herself, “I have a girl brain but a boy body. This is called transgender.” But what, after all, is a girl brain? Does it come from a place like the mislabeling crayon factory in Red? In Red, Red is accepted as blue because he behaves in the “right” way, producing beautiful drawings. But what if Red insisted on making ugly drawings? Or if he couldn’t make drawings at all? What use are these stories if they fail before they’ve even begun?
I put the books in a pile next to me on the couch. I’m wary of exhausting my son’s attention before I can gauge his interest and understanding. He digs jets, trucks, trains, and sand. He already sports an insouciant James Dean cool in mini aviators and denim. No, I am the protagonist of these books. I am Jazz, who insists she’s a girl. I am Jacob, who wants to wear a dress more than anything. I am Red, a crayon who is actually blue. Which casts my son as the person who needs to be persuaded into acceptance, to recognize the “reality” of a dress, a color, an interior identity—not a role I am eager to make him play.
I want him to understand the import of these books without pressuring him to immediately accept their stories and language. I start our reading with Red, the most innocuous and least preachy of the books, since the characters are crayons and their identities are colors. After finishing, I faux-casually asked him, “How did you like the crayon book?” He liked it. He asked me to read again. He said, “I think it's funny the factory gave the blue crayon the wrong wrapping.”
I said, “Because they thought he was red?”
“He wasn't really red. I liked it when he drew blue strawberries.”
My partner, beside him, asked, “If you were a blue crayon with a yellow wrapper, what would you do?” This question about active choice and behavior—What would you do?—seems to me as important as the question that drives all three books: Who are you?
He said, “I would go back to the factory and have them make me yellow.”
“You don't think it would be easier to just have them change your wrapping color?”
“Oh yeah, I guess so.”
He seemed reflective but ready to move on, so we started playing with cars.
I’m hoping that the books can be a perch from which to initiate conversations, or let them arise organically. In the kitchen while I was making lunch, he mused, “If girls couldn't wear pants, they'd have to wear dresses all the time!”
My partner protested, "But what if I didn't want to wear dresses? I feel more comfortable wearing pants. People are still uncomfortable with boys wearing dresses, but that's changing. You should wear what makes you comfortable."
I use a book character as a reference: “Did you like the new dress Jacob made? It made him feel comfortable, right?”
I took the opening and asked, “Do you want to help me shop for a dress later?”
Head shake no.
Again, I felt like I was pressuring him. I suggested a glass of chocolate milk.
The next day, Sunday, a few hours before the long drive back to his mother, I pulled nail polish out of a drawer. Watching me, my son commented, "Boys should wear their nails short."
My heart stuttered. "Where did you hear that?"
"My uncle. My mom cuts my fingernails short because I'm a boy."
Paraphrasing Jacob’s New Dress, I explained, that there are lots of ways of being a boy. That I wear my fingernails short sometimes, even though I'm not a boy. That sometimes I wear them longer.
He didn’t answer, but did insist on piling every single color of nail polish onto the table.
It feels like a seesaw. I paint my nails; his uncle tells him painted nails are for girls. I use my chosen name; most of his family on both sides use my birth name. I sleep in on Sunday; he and his mother go to church. But both his mother and I are reluctant to turn our child into an ideological war zone. And I’m not willing to sacrifice his comfort over ideas of gender mostly derived from other family members.
He told me multiple times over the weekend, “I'm learning how to be an independent thinker.” And then, sadly, “Sometimes I forget to be an independent thinker.” It’s a mantra of his grandfather, a manufacturer. I’m happy with the philosophy, in its potential promise that he’ll be able to think past the differences between how his mother and I talk about life. But all of us are dependent thinkers, dependent on our shared language, our communities, and the entanglements of social pressures. Here I am, dependent on picture books to talk to my son about who I am. Because it is easier to introduce concepts like gender to my son through these books, despite their limitations. They provide a source for language, images, and behavior outside the locked binary of his parents’ lives, between which he pivots.
These picture books aren’t so eager to immure gender, to make non-conformance a new form of conformity, as I thought they were. They have started to clear a space with someone I love that can foster more generous and fluid understandings of living an embodied, gendered life. At moments when ridicule seems inescapable—when a group of girls whisper about you at a movie, or when a man loudly says, “These people!” into his phone as you walk by—stories about simple acceptance are a salve against the anxiety of being an isolated mistake, turned out by some combination of chemical, social, and perverse imaginative pressures.
Months ago, after I had started wearing women’s clothes full time, my son asked me, upset, to put on boy’s clothes. Now he tells me to wear my pink purse, and offers casual opinions on clothes when we shop at H&M. At the table that Sunday, after watching me for awhile, he pointed to a bottle of sparkling red polish and spread his fingers for me to paint his kernel-sized fingernails. My hands shook as I applied the color, and I kissed his curls. There are, after all, many different ways to be a person.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Kelly Caldwell on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.