Not A Tomboy

Editor’s Note…I am thrilled to feature my first guest writer, Jacqueline Friedman Shepherd, a mom from Alaska who has captured brilliantly an all too common occurrence that I am sure many, if not all, parents like us can relate to.  Her story is funny, poignant and full of the type of unconditional love and acceptance that I wish for all gender variant children.  Enjoy!

It is always the same.  I am in the grocery store and I run into Someone I Knew In High School.  As we chat and catch up, my three children get antsy and begin to play tag or hide-and-seek or something else loud and inappropriate for the setting.  After my third or fourth “friendly” warning, my voice gets low and I say something like, “If you don’t stop I will string the three of you up by your toenails and let those vampire kids from Twilight eat you for lunch.”

As my kids sulk beside me, Someone I Knew In High School says, “Oh, are these your boys?”

I say, “Yes, these are my kids,” and as I pat each one on the head I say their names, “Solomon, Lucille and Abraham.”

Someone I Knew In High School gets a bit flustered, realizing that they have made a drastic mistake in calling Lucille a boy.  Then Someone leans forward, looks Lucy square in the face and says, “Oh, yes, I can see you are a girl.  Of course you are! Look at those pretty eyes and that nice skin.”  As Lucy shrinks down and draws her hands into the sleeves of her extra large shirt, Someone I Knew In High School stands up and laughingly says to me, “I had a cousin that was a tomboy.  She dressed like a boy and played with the boys until she was fifteen.  Then she suddenly blossomed and now she is the most beautiful, fashionable woman you’d ever meet.  Don’t worry, she’ll grow out of it.”

My reply is always the same, too.  I smile and shrug and change the subject.

But I want to answer with a litany of questions.  Not defensive questions, just curious questions.  Did your cousin wear boxers or briefs?  Did she change her name to Ryan when she was three years old?  When her mother began to potty train her, did your cousin hysterically scream, loud enough for the neighborhood to hear, “I’m not wiping! BOYS DON’T WIPE!”?  When it came time to write a wish list for her fifth birthday did your cousin the tomboy ask for a flat screen TV, an English bulldog and a penis?  At seven years old would your cousin have wet her pants in Barnes and Noble because her mom wouldn’t let her use the men’s bathroom?  When your cousin was deciding whom to invite to her birthday party, was she torn about whether or not to invite her cousins because she didn’t want them to tell her friends that she was actually a girl?  And the question I am most curious about: When your family doctor asked your cousin the tomboy if she was a boy or a girl, did your cousin stare back for a moment before saying, “I don’t know?”

My daughter is not a tomboy.  She is not interested in playing army or being tough.  She likes watching romantic comedies and she likes small dogs.  She has friends that are girls and she plays Barbies with them.  She also has friends that are boys who she wrestles and plays tag with.  She isn’t into sports; she takes hip-hop dance lessons.  She is incredibly picky about fashion and wants to look like one of the Disney boys from “Wizards of Waverly Place.”  She has buzzed short hair with bangs that she gels straight up in the mornings.  She goes skiing with her dad, but is a total momma’s boy.  Honestly, my closest guess is that she is a gay man trapped in the body of a seven-year-old girl.

I cannot tell you what gender my seven year old will grow up to be.  Some days I am absolutely sure that she is a boy and other days I am not sure what to think.  It is hard to sort through what behaviors stem from who she is and what behaviors stem from how society treats boys and girls differently.  She is definitely a strange child that doesn’t fit well into either box, but that is probably because she has the unique experience of living as both at the same time.  At home she is surrounded by a large extended family that knows she is a girl and remembers her long blond pigtails.  At school, everyone knows she is a girl, but no one has ever known her to look or act like one, so she gets treated more like a boy.  Out in public, strangers tousle her hair and call her “buddy,” “little fella’” and “son.”  I have to be honest, I really wish she could just stay exactly as she is right now because a person who navigates life based on what they like and not what society conditions them to like is a rare find.

Maybe someday when Someone I Knew In High School says, “My cousin was a tomboy. Don’t worry, she’ll grow out of it,” I will have the perfect concise response.  It will convey that I am not worried about the way my daughter dresses.  It might mention that she is really good at math and art and skiing.  It will also convey that I have my own long hair to play with, so I wasn’t sad when my daughter decided she needed to look like Tintin.  My response will have a witty element to it and include that we Jewish mothers don’t care if our child is a boy or a girl, or even if it has all of it’s fingers and toes, as long as it is born with a sense of humor.  It will make it clear to Someone I Knew In High School that I love all of my children for who they are, not for biology and that I am hoping that they never “grow out of” their personalities.  Most of all, my answer will convey to Lucy that I don’t care what Someone I Knew In High School thinks and that in every single way, she is the perfect child for me.

But until I find that perfect phrase, my answer will be, “Yes, these are my boys.”

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35 Responses to Not A Tomboy

  1. Jeanne Friedman says:

    Beautifully written. As parents, the love that we share with our children rises above the spoken and printed word. This love defines our children today and who they will be tomorrow. I love the depth of knowledge and understanding you share with your children, Jackie. This love comes across not only in the words you speak, but in your written words as well. Fantastic article!

    As I approach my own children’s gender identities, I wonder if I should have thought of more gender neutral names. I realize now how important nickname variants can help with individuals struggling for identity in a gender biased society. May wisdom continue to guide you both as Luce navigates through.

  2. kaisermiller says:

    Beautiful. I wish our children could be just that…”our children”. There is no need to put our children in neat little boxes based upon whether they are “boys” or “girls”. You set a great example of unconditional love and acceptance. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  3. LuvLu says:

    thank you for sharing your story… is so refreshing to hear of such a forward-thinking family…..Lucille, aka Ryan, is so lucky to have been born to such wonderful parents…..parents who allow her the freedom to become whoever she desires to be……I can imagine other parents would force her to fit into a box…..thinking they are helping…..when in fact they are doing more harm than good, in my opinion……Abe and Sol are just as lucky to have a sibling with her character……..teaching them to love people for who they are and not who society thinks they should be…….I wish you and your family nothing but happiness, love, laughs, and unique memories during your “transparent” journey……..and please keep sharing your journey with us……a truly enjoyable read…….she asked for a penis!!…HA HA!

  4. Judy Kintner says:

    Beautifully written by a lucky mom with a very lucky kid. Whatever path s/he chooses will be complex and true because you will allow it to be.


  5. Jeff says:

    Lucy doesn’t fit neatly into any box. I dream of a world without boxes.

  6. Courtney Hays says:

    Your writing is as remarkable as ever Jackie, and the stories you tell are so honestly beautiful! A fabulous combination…just like your family. You have always been one to stand up for what you feel is right, whether or not “others” agreed. I have always admired you for that, and I know that I am one of many in this regard. Lucy is a wonderful person, surrounded by wonderful people. I can not wait to see her become the amazing individual I know she will be…as she already is.


  7. maddox says:

    This story warmed my heart!

    As a kid, I often found it was more embarrassing for the parents who asked about my gender (especially my parents, who offered the correction), than for me.

    As for responses, you can try: “That is an interesting story, but personally I don’t care if my kids grow up to be pretty or handsome, all I care is they grows up to be happy.” But, most people won’t get what you mean by it anyway.

    (PS: I also look like TinTin, but I’m 20 years older. Guess I never grew out of it.)

    • Jackie says:

      I hope your parents have come around to your way of thinking! You are a pioneer of sorts and you should be proud of yourself for having the strength to stick it out in a world that can be less-than-tolerant.
      Thank you for reading my story and I’m glad it warmed your heart. Because of Tintin looking “girls” like you, I know mine will have a place to fit in someday.

      • maddox says:

        Often you have to carve your own place to fit in. Hopefully my work will make it easier for you and your children down the line. Best of luck Jackie and I hope to read more from you!

  8. Heather says:

    I’ll admit that I was one of the people who tried to put Lou in a girl-box or boy-box. With her guidance, I now understand I could just put her in a kid-box (i’m a very organized person who likes boxes.) She has since taught me many things:
    1. “Heather, did you lose a lot of weight before you got married or did you get fat after your wedding?” (self-reflection)
    2. “Heather, the water at your house tastes funny.” (importance of having soda in the fridge at all times)
    3. “Heather why is there so much dirt under your sofa?” (remember to purchase a Zoomba)
    Our whole family is better for having known the entire Sheppard clan-but Lucy in particular.

  9. Jennifer Campisi says:

    THAT IS EXACTLY MY EXPERIENCE. I feel like I need to explain her short haircut or her clothes or the fact that it’s not just a phase—she asked Santa (he was shocked!) to become a boy for Christmas. I guess most people mean well, but it does get frustrating!

    • Jackie Shepherd says:

      Jennifer, you have no idea how great it is to read your words, “THAT IS EXACTLY MY EXPERIENCE!” I don’t know anyone else with a kid like mine and it’s comforting to know you are out there. Thanks! -Jackie

  10. DJC says:

    I don’t want to be put in boxes either. I’m just me, Dave…why is this hard for people to get? I am the guy who works harder than anyone else on class-related research but that doesn’t mean I need to be filed away somewhere I’ll never get out of and, Jacqueline, I’m sure you’re familiar enough with the notions of feeling that you were born on the wrong planet or are getting abused for being different that I shouldn’t have to revisit this around you again.

    I did enjoy this essay, though. I carried my pink suitcase with me until the bullying started and you know the rest of how that goes.

  11. Jamie Katz says:

    I am another one who has a child EXACTLY like this, although my child did not proclaim to be a boy until she was 5, and is only interested in boy activities, sports etc. I am a Jewish mother as well, and have the same interactions with Friends From High School. She is pushing to change her name and pronoun, and it is hard to be totally on board although we are trying real hard. BTW, my child wears boxers AND briefs.

    • Jackie Shepherd says:

      Jamie, let’s be penpals! Email me at jacquelinefriedman@ and then I will email you from my private email address.

  12. Kai Alcala says:

    I am a parent of two non-trans boys. That is, bio boys who are also boys in their minds and hearts – I am writing, not so much as a parent, but TO parents, as a former child….born biologically female. I write in support of parents of transgender boys whose friends, Someone From High School, or ‘well-meaning’ acquaintances tell them that their tomboy will outgrow their ‘phase’. While it’s true that being a tomboy can be part of a spectrum of gender expression, and just as true that it can be a phase, I want to offer a perspective from the other side – the middle-aged side. I was one of those tomboys, and unlike the child who insists and tantrums about the need to express as male, I was very shy and became ashamed of my male identity. I didn’t push hard. I became one of those 15 year olds who allegedly ‘blossomed’ into femininity, boyfriends, makeup, and eventually heterosexual marriage (white gown and all) and motherhood. The reality? I was confused and often depressed, I hated my female sexual characteristics, and although I fit in and had good friends, I was deeply unhappy and hid my true self. Some kids will do that, even with their strong cross-gender identification. Guess what? That strong cross-gender identification is still there, half a lifetime later; one just gets better at hiding it, even forgetting it, after a fashion….but it’s still there. I still think about it every day. I still wonder whether I should have pushed harder to be my true self, even though in the 1960’s there was no support for such thinking and certainly no medical options. I love and am very attracted to my husband (who is aware of my feelings and my past, my hidden self) and more than anything in the world, I love being a mom to my two wonderful teenage sons. But this does not mean that I ‘blossomed into a woman’. It means that I learned to go underground and fit in. It means that I can be attracted to men and yet feel like a male – but not a gay male – (very confusing-). It means that I learned how to be attractive to heterosexual men. It means that as someone who is marginally bisexual, I chose men because I was used to choosing what was ‘easiest’ or most acceptable to society at the time. It does not mean that I am happier this way, because I still don’t feel like my ‘real’ self gets much time in the real world. If I were sure that going into hiding had been the right decision, I wouldn’t be reading this website or writing this comment. Or repeating as I do here that that feeling, however hidden, never, never goes away, and that the loss is a huge loss. So – to parents under fire who want another anecdote in their arsenal – you’ve got mine. Maybe the tomboys-turned-girls are happy. Maybe they’re not, and they are going to spend the rest of their lives feeling like a male in drag (and not wanting to feel like a male in drag). Maybe the kid who makes a lot of noise about being a boy is no more male-identified than the kid who hears the messages to back down and backs down.

    • admin says:

      Dear Kai…thank you for taking the time to reply to this post, your thoughtful insight is much appreciated not only by me, but also all the other parents of gender variant/transgender children who read this blog. By sharing your thoughts you are helping many understand this subject better.

      My best,

      • Kai Alcala says:

        You’re welcome! I’m not sure that my rambling post makes a huge amount of sense, but those are some variables I don’t seem to come across in the transgender information I’ve seen on the internet. If anything, my message is to let your kids know it’s okay, not shameful, not embarrassing, maybe difficult, but still okay — to be how they feel, to wear their gender (I know I’m speaking to parents who already know this) — but also, to be able, as a parent, to say, ‘Not all of those former tomboys seeming to ‘blossom’ into mainstream girlhood, or womanhood, are at peace with that choice’ when that version of ‘growing out of it’ is touted as desirable. And to know that it’s not always the kid who screams the loudest who has the strongest feelings about something.

      • Kai Alcala says:

        ps, I meant to add, “I’m also a Jewish mother!” as this site seems to have a few of us on board (culturally only in my case, as I’m not religious). If anyone is interested, the organization ‘Keshet’ is terrific (and run by a good friend). I’m secular, so please know there’s no religious push behind anything I’ve added in this post. Keshet is just another good resource out there. They do a lot of high school educational outreach.

        • Jackie says:

          Even though we are obviously mothers who support our childrens’ identities, your words mean more to me than you can ever understand. Even though I am SURE that I am doing the right thing, sometimes, when I am alone with my thoughts, I think, “Am I doing this right?” Of course, I feel like that at times about all three of my kids, I think it is a side effect of motherhood. Maybe even more prevalent in Jewish Mothers? Ha!
          One thing that I have realized in all of this is that I think my kid would be happiest if there was a third gender. Maybe you, too?
          I really appreciate your perspective and if you ever want another friend, feel free to e-mail me. Your kids are lucky to have a parent like you.

          • Kai says:

            Just reading what you said makes it worth my while to have put myself out there. I am so happy to have had that moment to possibly make another mom feel less worried, however slightly, about this complex issue. Thank you for posting and letting me know that.
            As a parent of two male children utterly ‘cis’/completely identified with their bio selves (as different from each other as they are, and as NOT pushed to be traditionally gendered as they are), I get to compare what it’s like for them with what it was like for me. (Interestingly, neither of them is anything like the boy I would have been). Kids are who they are. I sometimes think that there are at least four genders, and that most contemporary societies just haven’t figured that out yet (convenient and awfully high-and-mighty of me to think so, but I do). That is, there are masculine brains in female bodies and in male bodies; there are feminine brains in female bodies and in male bodies. All of which are on a continuum of sorts, just as ‘cis’ (boy it’s taken me a long time to get used to that term) individuals are not all identical in their gender expressions… any case, Jackie, I am so certain – just from the fact that you are trying to meet your child’s needs – that your child is benefiting from a mom who can really listen and be supportive. I think it’s okay to say, “I am trying to do what’s right….I’m just figuring this out, too ” – ie, to be honest….not that I have any real answers, as I have my own experiences. And how about, “It’s both a little scary and a little exciting – because it’s not what I expected – but because it’s about you, my own child, it’s amazing…..?” – I think it’s important to treat gender as just another part of one’s being – and to feel one can be honest about it (I’m still working on opening up as best I can about mine). You sound like a terrific, caring, supportive, loving mom! Surely your child will be stronger as a result of having a dialogue with you about (his/her/—?) identity.
            I don’t think I have access to your email, in response to your suggestion that we email – but I’d be happy to continue the dialogue on email.

        • Jamie Katz says:

          Kai, your story really really helps me to keep things in perspective, thank you for being brave enough to tell us about your true self. By speaking out, you give parents like me the courage to support our kids in being exactly who they are– and not pushing them into a box or a closet.

          • Kai says:

            Thanks, Jamie. I could address the reply I wrote above, to Jackie, to both of you. I am happy to hear from parents about this, and I hope that my own experience can help if only through providing another perspective.

        • Jackie says:

          My friend Jamie (who I “met” through this site!) just sent me a quote that summed up my feelings, and your sadness all at once:
          “To be nobody but yourself in a world that’s doing its best to make you somebody else, is to fight the hardest battle you are ever going to fight. Never stop fighting.”
          E.E. Cummings

          • Kai says:

            Thank you. As a poet (Kai is not my true name, but one of two which I’d always considered as an androgynous possibility, in the place I obviously never got to) that certainly means a lot. (I have a day job, too, but I want to maintain a certain anonymity on this site, for the time being — so I’ll leave it at that! – I have a funny feeling some of us live in the same city…..)

  13. Kai says:

    My funny feeling belies my lack of geographical acuity – actually, it seems that you live in Alaska – I don’t! I’m in Massachusetts. – Kai

  14. Jackie says:

    If you ever decide anonymity among us is not important, you can always e-mail Leslie (the founder of this site) and she can hook us up.
    Massachusetts is as far from me as you can get! Well, not quite, but close. My family is from the East Coast, though.
    Again, thank you for your perspective. It was really helpful!

    • Kai Alcala says:

      I’ve created a semi-anonymous email address which I can publicize here; would love to hear from you. Funny how this feels as though I’m poking a toe out of my closet.

  15. Luciernaga says:

    Oh God!!! my daughter at 4 was convinced she was once a boy or that when she would grow she would become one and get a penis, she would pull her vulva to see if it would grow. I never managed to put her in a dress, at 2 I push her into a dress to make a picture of my girl! well when i saw how miserable she looked in that picture I decided never ever to push her any more into that. She is mistaken by a boy and people are so nasty that they take the time to guess what she is, she has the body strength of a boy and has decided lo let her hair grow just to easy situations, she is almost 10. How I manage? well, i buy her clothes that are sex neutral and Bjorg underwear boxers so that she is not embarrassed when in trips from school as she is set up with the girls. I actually love how she looks, I think she looks very cool and I admire her strength to stand for who she is at such young age so I can’t let her down, I stand for her and I nurture her in a way that it gives her strength to go out there every day and be happy in her own skin, it has been key to keep her in same school where she has grown around same friends so it is easier for her to manage, still it doesn’t save her from some children questions whether she is a boy or a girl. My mission is just to make sure she is a happy girl! does all.

  16. Why do people see it as this beautiful thing to “outgrow that tomboy stage”? If she outgrows it, fine. If she doesn’t, that’s fine too. And if she’s gender fluid or transgender (and turns out that “he” is the appropriate pronoun), then that’s fine too. Why can’t it be seen as beautiful for people to be who they are?

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  19. Peggy Ehling says:

    Your Lucy sounds so much like my Skate. We called him “our total tomboy” with a great deal of love. And your experience with Someone I Knew in high school is one I lived a thousand times. I walked away from those “don’t worry, she’ll grow out of it” comments SO MANY times, shaking my head and thinking, “You can afford that fantasy. But I have to be ready when my Skate tells me who he really is.” And why would I want my Skate to outgrow being Skate? After he finally told us he was our son, he told me that when he was small he thought that “tomboy” was a third gender and because that’s what we called him he thought we knew he wasn’t really a girl and that made it okay for him to just be Skate. Skate being happy and comfortable being Skate and knowing he was loved for it, was my only goal when he was growing up, so I guess I did something right. Given how many times I worried I wasn’t doing any of it right, that was pretty comforting! I hope you’ll keep writing about Lucy. She sounds like a wonderful child. It sounds like she has just the mom she needs.

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