It is unclear to me whether Teddy really understands the concept of gender, in part because from the beginning of his life with me he has been exposed to people who identify themselves as Gay, Lesbian, bisexual and transgendered. My circle of friends has always included many Gay men. I volunteered as a crisis intervention counselor for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis before and after Teddy’s arrival in my life, and we often went to their social functions together. Teddy would often be the only child in attendance and would be encircled by men who too rarely had the opportunity to interact with a young child. Teddy had no awareness of who had sex with whom, but loved being the center of attention. He also enjoyed that some of the men (who were still obviously men to him) dressed up as women. Even as a toddler, Teddy seemed to see the incongruity of a man dressed as a woman.
Jim and Mark were the most important men in my life before Teddy, and they became equally important to Teddy afterwards. For the first few years of Teddy’s life they acted as his fathers. Uncle Mark and Uncle Jim were lovers, and I am sure Teddy understood this on some level. Until their relationship ended, he rarely saw either of them alone.
Mark was a very hesitant father, mostly watching from the sidelines, but then Teddy would crawl into his lap, and he could not resist. Mark rarely initiated contact, but never refused it. Teddy always knew instinctively when to attack Mark with kisses and when to just lean on him peacefully. Mark and I often wrestled in fun, and Teddy would climb into the mix. Teddy would laugh hysterically, and Mark would let down his ever-present guard.
Mark was not much of a hands-on father, but he was always concerned about choices I made about Teddy. He supported me in my decision to offer Teddy toys designed for both boys and girls, and to dress him in clothes of both traditionally masculine and feminine colors. Teddy learned with Mark’s help that being a boy was not dependent upon what he wore or what he played with, but that he had a penis.
I always thought Mark would be a good father, and I was glad for both him and Teddy that they had this relationship. Sadly, Mark’s death from AIDS was the first death Teddy would experience. Thankfully, for Teddy’s sake, Mark and Jim had separated a few months before and Mark had moved to California. The tie that bound them together remained strong, but they no longer had a day-to-day relationship.
Teddy and Uncle Jim were always close. Jim was very demonstrative with his affection. He also was quite willing to change diapers, baby-sit, sit next to him at a restaurant, accompany us to the park, and show him off to his family. I know that many people assumed Jim was Teddy’s Dad. I was thankful that Jim showed Teddy by his actions that men could be just as good at giving care as women.
Jim was very much a part of Teddy’s daily routine when HIV began to take its toll on his life. One of the happiest days in my life and the saddest in Jim’s happened at the same time. Teddy was adopted, and Jim’s HIV status was upgraded to AIDS. Jim was too ill to be at Teddy’s adoption ceremony. Partly because with Teddy’s adoption we were finally free to live where ever we wanted, but also partly because I did not want Teddy to watch Jim slowly die, we moved to Michigan where my family lived.
Some fifteen years after the death of Uncle Mark and Uncle Jim, Teddy will sometimes start to cry without apparent cause and say “ I miss Uncle Mark” or “ I want my Uncle Jim.”
About the time of Jim’s death, my mother, who lived near where we had moved in Michigan, discarded a bright red flouncy square dance slip. Teddy found it and decided to wear it. Seeing a four-year-old wearing a bright red slip that encased all except his head was very amusing. Little did anyone know that his interest in wearing this petticoat would last ten years and in time require strict rules about when and where it could be worn.
Teddy seemed unable to understand that wearing the red slip could cause him to be teased. Teddy and I frequently had to argue about whether he could wear this slip outside to play or to school. “ I need it!” He loved to stand and twirl in it. His interest in female attire was not limited to this red flounce, but included a desire for clothes of feminine colors and silky textures. He also held a fascination for Barbie dolls. He loved to change their clothes and twirl them about so their hair flew.
I saw an indicator of Teddy having confusion around gender at three to fours years of age because when he saw people very obviously dressed as men or women he could not consistently interpret their clothing cues. “Teddy views people by their role in society, rather than their sex – mommies, daddies, children, babies. He knows he is Mommy’s boy, but does not know how this differs from being a girl”, except that he knows he has a penis (Fitzmaurice, 1988, p. 7.)
Much to my consternation, this confusion inspired Teddy to ask countless persons if they had a penis or a vagina. “You have a penis?” It is difficult to ascertain whether Teddy had a delayed ability to decipher a person’s sex, was not ruled by society’s notion of what people of a certain sex look like or was questioning the constancy of his own sex. I wondered whether he understood that all men had penises and all women had vaginas, and if this confusion had anything to do with his early exposure to transgendered and cross-dressing men. I did not observe his friends without disabilities having similar confusion, and many of them also grew up with gender-ambiguous lifestyles, single moms, and had relationships with gay men and lesbian women.
As Teddy entered middle childhood I had a growing concern that he would have life long problems with his gender identity. He had friendships primarily with girls when other boys his age were divorcing themselves from interacting with girls. “Gender segregation usually begins around age 8 and peaks at about ages 10-13 (Allgeier, p. 394),” but I saw no signs of this developing in Teddy. He still had his desire to wear the square-dancing slip and play with Barbie dolls.
I was worried that Teddy might be Gay or a lifelong cross-dresser. If he did not have disabilities, this would have been of little concern to me, but I felt sure he would have very limited access to the experiences that would bring him pleasure. People with intellectual disabilities have enough difficulty being sexual when what they want is considered mainstream heterosexual behavior. I knew too many people with intellectual disabilities who have been prevented from participating in any sexual behavior what-so-ever no matter how mainstream it was.
I asked Teddy if he remembered wearing the red slip and he responded, “I wore it when I was little. I like dancing in it. I liked wearing in. Nothing funny about it, it was just the way I dressed. I dance around and spin around. The dress moved.”
If Teddy were to be Gay, I knew I could support him in his choice of lifestyle, but I wasn’t sure the Gay community would be as supportive. In all my years of advocacy in the Gay community I have never seen anyone address the needs of people with disabilities except in the context of AIDS. Would Teddy be able to socialize in Gay-oriented venues? Would Teddy ever be able to have a fulfilling sexual relationship? If he did not have me as a conduit would he have any access to the Gay community at all?
I considered that Teddy might be developing his gender identity at a slower pace due to his disability, but when I discussed this with a number of professionals involved in his life none offered any opinion based on direct experience. Furthermore, they also discouraged me from imagining that a gender identity would be that important for Teddy to acquire. I was repeatedly told that most children with disabilities like Teddy’s were not interested in sex and if they were it was best to discourage it. Thankfully in hindsight, I took little stock in their notion of Teddy as asexual.
Until Teddy was ten, I made no determined effort to dissuade him from abandoning his beloved square-dance slip, or discourage his interest in girl’s toys or with playing largely with girls. Each Halloween I made Teddy elaborate costumes and each Halloween Teddy wanted a store bought Cinderella or Barbie costume. Finally, I discovered a possible solution – he would be Dracula and wear makeup and a long cape. This was a surprisingly effective solution. With encouragement Teddy substituted wearing the cape for the slip in his day-to-day play. It was more appropriate for a ten-year-old boy to twirl about in a Dracula cape than a square-dance slip, and yet both seemed to give him the same pleasure. And both caused the same argument about wearing it to school. “I need wear it!” (Teddy wearing slip)
Learning to play with boy’s toys, playing boy’s games, and be interested in male peers required more effort. I enlisted the help of a young adult male with Down syndrome to spend time with Teddy. This backfired as the young adult took his cues from Teddy not me. One day I left them in K-Mart to look at sports equipment with strict instructions to stay put while I looked for another item. When I returned a few minutes later they had disappeared to the TV area and were sitting on the floor watching cartoons. It took over an hour to find them and when finally found Teddy said, “We not lost Mommy, we here.”
I also found college-aged girls with boyfriends to take Teddy to sporting events and play outdoor games. This also proved ineffective. Teddy fell in love with the girls who showered him with attention and grew jealous of the boyfriends who drew their attention away. “You no marry Jennifer, I marry Jennifer when I big.”
In conflict, I found it necessary to tell Teddy that his playing with girl toys was babyish, and refused to purchase Barbie dolls for him. I insisted he watch me play with boy’s toys purchased for him, even if he chose not to join in. This increased his interest marginally. He would show cursory interest in Lego building and running train sets for a few minutes and then switch to looking at picture books or dancing to music.
Teddy’s puberty was marked by many changes in his life. We moved to England and lived with a man I met over the Internet. We had frequent visits from his two sons – one older and one younger than Teddy. Suddenly, Teddy found himself living in a male-centered household. As his stay-at-home mom he still spent an inordinate amount of time in my company, but now he had role models who turned their heads when pretty girls and fast cars passed by.
The onset of Teddy’s puberty was timely in many ways. His interest in girls as girlfriends served to ameliorate my fears that his gender identity was confused and was age-appropriate sexual interest even without taking into account his disability. Teddy began to discuss wanting to grow up and get married and have babies and be a Dad. When he discussed what work he might like to do he chose typical male professions, even when offered all kinds of opportunities. “Mommy, I want to be a fireman and have a fire dog and help people.” He began to be seriously interested for the first time in playing with cars – but as a type of role rehearsal, not just bang them into each other as he has before. Although Teddy’s androgyny still concerned me, he had begun the “primary task of adolescence….,”and began his “…development of a coherent identity as a person…recognition of himself as male or female – gender role identification (Allgeier, p. 412.)”
With the advent of the Spice Girls, Teddy showed even more telltale signs of his gender. At first, his interest was naive, but over time he would blush and get erections when he would watch a Spice Girls video on TV. He began to especially idolize one Spice Girl, Baby Spice. He told me he was in love with her and would marry her. “Mom, I am going to marry Baby Spice.” This interest in girls seemed to be mostly focused on very public figures; he was also in love with Princess Diana. None of the figures Teddy showed a romantic interest in were men, and in this I found relief.
The most recent concern regarding Teddy’s gender has been his announcement that he was Gay. He has told friends his age that he is Gay and wants to get married to his male friends. Two girls his age came to the house and told me he had repeatedly said this and it was causing some of his friends to avoid him. I was very distressed both by an announcement about which I was clueless, and that he was being avoided by friends. If he were Gay that was OK, but if he were not, I did not want him ostracized for making comments of which he did not fully understand the ramifications.
We discussed his announcement at length, and it became clear that Teddy had made this decision based on overhearing me and others when he said, “All the good [available] men are Gay,” and “I want to be like Uncle Jim. I be Gay when I am big like Uncle Jim.” I explored what it was he wanted to be like when he thought of Uncle Jim and it had nothing to do with sex. It boiled down to his simply wanting to be like Uncle Jim and Uncle Jim just so happened to be Gay. When I asked him did he want to kiss men, he said “No, I want to kiss girls.” I explained that this meant he was not gay, he was straight. In continuing discussion I realized that he had never understood the term straight as a particular sexual orientation until now.
Yet, this situation was of such concern to me that I contacted a professional counselor. This counselor suggested that I make available to my son heterosexual erotica and that we discuss explicitly what it means to say you are Gay. He suggested photos of female rock stars, more mainstream men’s magazines like the Sport’s Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, and women’s lingerie catalogs. Teddy had posters of Britney Spears and the Spice Girls we had never put up. So these were put up on his bedroom walls. In an amazingly short time, Teddy began to spend an inordinate amount of time in his room and he made a point to tell me, “ Mom, I’m not Gay, I was foolin’.” (Teddy often uses the word “foolin’ to describe a situation he has resolved differently than how he first intended.)
One of my greatest fears for Teddy’s future has been for the moment eliminated. Teddy’s sense of himself as a male is still marked by feminine and masculine traits, but his overall presentation is most definitely a masculine one. I am heartened that he harbors no negative feelings regarding people who practice non-mainstream sexual lifestyles. I no longer fear that his adult life will be lonely due to wanting to be part of the Gay community where few people with developmental disabilities find welcoming peers. I am not concerned that he will have difficulty finding a place to live or work due to his inability to appreciate the heterosexual and non-cross-dressing sensibilities of our American culture.
“Some men like women. Some men like men. Like the rainbow flag. We different, we the same. Sometimes people are scared being gay. But not me. I not gay. Some people don’t like gay people. I don’t like that because it hurt their feelings and they are nice people – they’re not strange. I like it if two men and two women get married.”