I usually flinch when people marvel at how accepting we are towards Sam, because that wasn’t always the case. As a young child he told us he was really a boy until he was blue in the face, but we plugged our ears and let fear be our tour guide. We depended upon society’s Tomboy label to explain Sam’s choice of clothes, type of play and masculine demeanor. And we clung to unsolicited words of advice from friends who proudly proclaimed being just like Sam when they were young. Women who now wore flawless makeup and lace bras under form-fitting dresses, while sporting gemstones on perfectly manicured fingers.
Even when we started to realize that there might be something more going on than ‘a phase,’ as we also used to wishfully call it, we still did not move swiftly to help Sam transition — a fact that makes me wince. While everything about him screamed, “I AM MALE,” we made him dwell in an in-between hell, insisting on waiting ‘…just to make sure.’ And we didn’t just drag our feet. Instead we got fitted for cement shoes that kept us firmly planted in the middle of this sea of denial, because quite frankly, we were too scared to admit out loud what we already knew in our hearts to be true.
One of the tactics I employed back then was to try to convince Sam that it was okay to be masculine and female, erroneously thinking he just didn’t want to be a girly girl. I bought him books proclaiming “Girls Can Do Anything,” and stopped asking him to wear dresses or anything pink, but all of these efforts fell on deaf ears. And then I heard about a camp for 12 year-old girls that emphasized science, technology, engineering and math – subjects society historically only encouraged boys to pursue. A camp that replaced traditional activities such as making friendship bracelets and arts and crafts with classes in physics and electronics. I remember thinking (and hoping), this was a camp that might just show Sam it is okay to be a girl.
The concept was simple. Campers would spend the week learning how to build their very own remote controlled boat. Along the way the girls would be exposed to the science and math disciplines behind the creation of this watercraft. The week would culminate with the girls racing their boats against one another in front of an audience made up of parents and teachers. I could not have hoped for a less feminine camp if I had created it myself. Or so I thought.
We arrived early the last day to get good seats on the bleachers overlooking the pool where the boats would race. As the girls marched in I squinted to see what was in their boats. I must have been mumbling my confusion because a mother next to me said, “Oh look, aren’t those dolls cute?” I could still see her lips moving but didn’t hear anything after the word ‘dolls,’ knowing how repulsed Sam must have been when they handed him what was intended to be the captain of his boat.
Yes, as it turned out, well-meaning camp counselors thought it would be fun to give each girl a Bratz™ Doll, encouraging them to style their hair and customize their clothes so the dolls would look glam as they navigated their maiden voyage. If you are not familiar with Bratz dolls, perhaps sharing their tagline, “The only girls with a passion for fashion,” will give you an idea of their target audience, of which Sam never was, nor ever would be, a member.
At the starting line my eyes went from boat to boat, where I could quickly see that the dolls were manifestations of their proud young owners. Mini-Me’s that had perfectly styled up-dos, make-up applied to highlight their already exaggerated plastic cheekbones, and outfits tailored by the campers that would make even Ken and Barbie blush.
And then there was Sam’s doll.
To my horror, sitting in Sam’s boat was a Bratz doll that was dreadfully disfigured. All of her hair had been chopped off, and by ‘chopped’ I do not mean trimmed down to a clean crew cut. No, the hair on Sam’s doll had been haphazardly hacked leaving small tuffs amongst completely bald spots. To this day I have no idea how Sam customized the Bratz attire to look like a man’s suit, but I imagine it entailed several painstaking hours and a lot of duct tape. But what was most disturbing was the beard Sam had drawn on the doll’s face with a black marker. The sight of this bearded lady was so jarring I felt like I had been hit upside the head with a 2X4. This time the hint was unmistakable. A ‘can-you-hear-me-now?’ moment that I will never forget, delivered by a child who was at his wits end.
The 2X4 in the form of a doll had finally made me accept the fact that Sam was a boy. Not a girl going through a phase or consciously choosing to act this way, but a young boy whose mind and body didn’t match. That day I retired my “It’s Great To Be A Girl” speech, embarrassed and guilt-ridden for dragging my feet for so long. And going forward we let Sam know with words and actions that we understood and that we heard him loud and clear.