My Son Wears Heels: One Mom’s Journey from Clueless to Kickass is published today by the University of Wisconsin Press. We talked with author Julie Tarney about some of her experiences raising a gender diverse child, why she wrote her memoir, and what she hopes other parents can learn from her story.
Tell us a little bit about yourself before we delve into the topics in the book. I’m a mom. I live in Brooklyn, New York. And I think I’m in a unique position. My child Harry is 26 years old now and a part of the LGBTQ community. I started this journey when he was two years old, when he told me, “Inside my head I’m a girl.” I know there are thousands of parents out there who are just beginning this journey now—right now—learning about and struggling with their child’s gender identity. I wrote this book as much to help change that experience for kids and the parents who worry about them, as to tell my own story.
What is the book about? It’s about my journey raising a gender diverse child—or gender-nonconforming, gender creative, gender expansive, gender fluid, whatever term you want to use—beginning in the early ’90s. And it’s what I learned from him along the way about gender identity, gender expression, and self-acceptance. It’s about how I grew as a parent and a person.
What did you learn from your son? I learned so much from Harry. Most important, that it’s never too late to learn! And it’s never too late to learn as much from your child as much as you learn for your child. I have lived that experience all the way through with Harry, from toddler to adulthood. And the way I learned, in many respects, was to unlearn. It’s never too late to learn or unlearn. As for specifics, I learned that gender identity is something that develops over time. I didn’t really even understand the term gender identity until Harry was in college and I heard him use it. Gender to me used to mean one of two boxes you checked on a driver’s license application. But I know now that I was confusing sex and gender to mean the same thing, which I think a lot of people still do.
How did the book come about? I was talking at dinner one night with a friend who’s a PhD in psychology and working with LGBTQ youth in Chicago. I told him how Harry had shared his gender identity with me at such an early age and some other stories about Harry’s love of Barbie, the color pink, and so-called girl clothes. That friend encouraged me to share my story. He said he thought it could help a lot of people who were experiencing the same thing now, and that I could help kids by helping parents put things in perspective. I hope it reaches a lot of people.
Transgender youth in particular are getting a lot of attention lately. What do you hope the book will do given the elevated conversation about gender identity, transgender children, and youth? I’m hopeful that it’s going to help parents understand that they’re not alone, that other people have experienced the same thing. And to help them understand what gender identity is, how we all discover ourselves, and that discovering our gender selves is part of that. My journey with Harry began at a time when there were few resources, no Internet, little knowledge, and a lot of misinformation and stereotyping. People were up against a lot then. And today there’s community, support, resources, expertise, research. I want my book to add to the growing expanse of information available today.
What did you discover about yourself, both in raising your child and as you wrote this memoir? I discovered the good and the bad. I discovered that I have a tremendous amount of love for my child. I knew I wanted him to feel that love. I wanted him to feel safe and secure, have confidence, and feel comfortable in the world. I also learned what a big worrier I was. There was so much I didn’t know, and that made me fearful. I found myself facing double standards of boy-girl stereotyping. I considered myself a very liberal, progressive person, but I found myself with the pink problem, something I had to unlearn. And I realized I cared too much during Harry’s early years about what other people thought. In the end I discovered that letting Harry just be Harry —giving him the freedom to be his true self—was what I’d always wanted for myself, too.
Are there any favorite stories in the book that you want to share? I have so many favorite stories. Harry, who today also lives in Brooklyn, is a creative director, photographer and videographer. He also performs as drag artist Amber Alert. So he’s an entertainer, and that began at a very young age. I remember taking him with me to a department store after I’d picked him up from preschool. I needed to buy some black tights to wear to a client presentation the next morning. He wanted to walk around, and I told him to stay close by. He was four. As I flipped through packages, I felt a tap at the back of my waist. When I turned around, there was Harry in a short gray wig. And in his best imitation of an elderly woman, he said, “Grandma wants to go to the park today.” I cracked up, and then he just ran off. I half-expected to be reprimanded by a sales clerk for not keeping my child in check. A few minutes later he came back with another wig and a different voice.
Can you say more about the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation? I didn’t understand the difference until Harry was grown. Gender identity is about you, who you know yourself to be in your own mind. Sexual orientation is what’s in your heart; whom you fall in love with. They run on a parallel, but they are separate paths. Harry identifies as queer. Some people are unfamiliar with that term, or think of it as a term of the past that was used as a slur and had a very derogatory meaning. But for today’s young people, it’s an all-encompassing identifier that really is a way to say, “Don’t try to put me in a box or give me a label to define me in your terms.” It speaks to the idea that I know who I am. I might be genderqueer, I might be gender fluid, I might be agender, but don’t you tell me who I am.
What would you say to a parent whose 3- or 4-year-old child is telling them they’re a girl on the inside or a boy on the inside? Or expressing themselves in ways outside gender expectations? I would tell that parent to love and support their child with all their heart. I would say listen to your child, and keep listening. Your child will tell you who they are. Learn as much as you possibly can. And seek out support. PFLAG is a wonderful nonprofit parenting support organization with hundreds of local chapters across the country.
Your memoir focuses on your experience as a mom, but what are some of the concerns of dads? When I was worrying and projecting a horrible future for Harry, it was Harry’s dad, Ken, who was calmer and said, “He’s only two. He’s just a kid.” But as Harry grew older, I knew his dad wanted to protect him, too. Ken worried that maybe he wasn’t being a “guy enough” as a dad. He thought that maybe because Harry identified more with toys and activities that were/are considered to be feminine, or stereotyped as feminine, that maybe he was being an inadequate father in some way. But I think, at the end of the day, you look at your kid, and you realize this is a little person. You have to listen to them and understand that they’re not here to live up to your expectations of them. They’re here to be who they are. Ideally as parents you default to unconditional love. You ask yourself, “Do I love this kid enough to let them be who they are?” I hope that the questioning and self-doubts I share in the book will encourage other parents to learn more and seek support.
Julie Tarney is now a board member for the It Gets Better Project, blogs for the Huffington Post’s “Queer Voices” pages, and is a contributing writer for TheParentsProject.com and the True Colors Fund’s Give a Damn Campaign. She volunteers for the PFLAG Safe Schools Program. A longtime resident of Milwaukee, she now lives in New York City. Visit her own blog here.
Early reviews for My Son Wears Heels:
“Tarney does an exceptional job of tracing the zigzagging line of Harry’s self-identity and recalling the inevitable questions asked along the way.”—New York Times Book Review
“A memorable account of one young person’s journey toward self-identity and a valuable parenting guide for a new era of gender awareness and acceptance.”—Foreword Reviews
“Not only does the book chronicle an especially memorable mother-son relationship, it also suggests that the best parenting is the kind that does not forcibly mold a child into what he/she ‘should’ be but lovingly allows him/her the freedom to follow his/her own special path. A fearlessly open and frank memoir.”—Kirkus Reviews