'Are the kids going to tease me today?': Sending my rainbow child back to school

Story highlights

  • Lori Duron's son is gender creative -- a boy who "wants to be treated like a girl"
  • Duron prefers to let his teachers know early, and to explain how that changes how he learns
  • Pronouns and bathrooms can be sources of anxiety for the first-grader, his mom writes
  • Duron's new memoir, "Raising My Rainbow," published on September 3

A few weeks ago, one of my mom-friends messaged me a photo of a retail employee stocking bare shelves with school supplies. The caption read, "First sighting of back to school supplies! I can almost hear the ring of that school bell! Yay!"

I couldn't share my friend's uninhibited enthusiasm because there is a bit of dread that grows inside me with the start of every school year. I'm one of those moms who fight back tears the first few weeks of school -- not because the separation from my children for six hours a day five days a week is too much to handle, but because I fear for the safety and acceptance of my youngest son, C.J., who is gender nonconforming.

C.J. doesn't conform to traditional gender norms. He is a boy. He knows that and doesn't want to change that, but as he explains it, he "only likes girl stuff and wants to be treated like a girl."

This month, my son will skip onto campus for the first day of first grade wearing girl shoes with girl socks, carrying a rainbow- and leopard-print backpack and a pink lunchbox covered in hearts. There will probably be a miniature Smurfette figurine tucked in his pocket for comfort and a necklace that he hand-beaded hidden under his shirt. He'll be wearing his "school clothes," which are the most feminine clothes from the boy's section. He saves his skirts and dresses for home.

Sometimes I feel like he is a magnet for wonder. Sometimes I feel like he is a target for cruelty.

Every new school year makes me anxious because I don't know what to expect. Who will his teacher be? Who will his classmates be? Who will accept his gender nonconformity? Who will try to dull his sparkle?

Lori Duron wrote the memoir, "Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Fabulous, Gender Creative Son."

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I used to shy away from telling people about C.J.'s gender nonconformity before they had a chance to meet him, but I've learned over the years that it's beneficial to talk with C.J.'s teachers about it as early as possible. Plus, he prefers that I make the announcement ahead of him. He wants everybody to know that he is gender nonconforming, but he doesn't want to see their reactions because he's seen some pretty negative ones: People shaking their heads in disappointment, laughing like his gender identity is a joke and grown men calling him a sissy.

I don't expect C.J.'s teachers to know the distinct difference between sex and gender, I just hope that they are empathetic, with an open heart and an open mind. Teachers need to know that C.J.'s gender nonconformity affects his learning and time at school. They can expect my son to draw himself as a girl, to mix up his pronouns, to have a hard time deciding which bathroom to use, to always choose pink if it's an option and to feel uncomfortable if the class is divided by boys and girls. He'll do all of those things one day and then he might not do them next. His gender fluidity is just that: fluid.

"Are the kids going to tease me today?" C.J. asks every morning while getting ready for school.

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It breaks my heart that he has to worry about getting teased and that I never have an honest answer. All I can say is, "I don't know, baby. I hope not," and ignore the statistics. According to a 2012 report from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, about 80% of LGBTQ kids like C.J. have reported being verbally harassed, nearly 40% have reported being physically harassed and nearly 20% reported being physically assaulted at school.

School isn't necessarily a safe place for C.J., but he loves it. If you ask him, he'll tell you that his favorite subjects at school are playing on the playground with his friends and doing crafts. It's the academic portion of school that he struggles with sometimes because he's more focused on his gender noncomformity and how it is being perceived.

When your focus is on self-editing and self-preservation, learning your ABCs and 1-2-3s doesn't seem important. He's concerned about being teased, about liking girl stuff -- not about identifying numbers out of sequence.

I've been told that kids like C.J. are usually a year behind their peers academically because they have to deal with all-consuming social and life issues while staying on top of schoolwork. I've also been told that children like C.J. are typically more gifted creatively and intellectually than their peers. I wish I knew which theory has the higher likelihood of being true.

But, then again, I wish a lot: for my son to be safe at school each day, for him to feel comfortable enough to be his awesome, authentic self with his peers, and for his teacher to embrace his gender nonconformity. I wish they could take the opportunity to teach students about differences, empathy, kindness and acceptance. I also wish that the back-to-school supplies didn't hit shelves a month before the start of school, giving me four full weeks to cultivate that dread that comes with mothering a gender nonconforming son at the start of a new school year.

Of course, I hide this dread from C.J. so that he can wait out the first day of school with happy anticipation. We'll part ways on that day and I'll tell him, as I always do, "I love you -- no matter what."

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