Julie Tarney, a Solo Mom you should know
Solo Mom Julie Tarney’s blog, My Son Wears Heels, recounts her experiences raising her genderqueer child, Harry, who announced in 1992, “Inside my head, I’m a girl.” With no map to guide her, Tarney set out on a journey to learn from, support, and celebrate her fabulous child. She’s now a superstar advocate for LGBTQ people and the parents who are raising them. Just days after she completed the manuscript for her forthcoming book, My Son Wears Heels: One Mom’s Parenting Journey—from Clueless to Kick-Ass, Tarney sat down with ESME to talk personal growth, divorce, and parenting a gender-creative child. She is definitely a Solo Mom you should know.
Note: Julie’s offspring, Harry, identifies as genderqueer and has no preferred gender pronoun. Julie likes to use they as a singular pronoun to think of Harry as a person first, with gender coming second.
Q: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with ESME. Tell us a little about your journey parenting Harry.
A: Harry was two years old when they looked up at me and asked, “Momma, how do you know I’m a boy?” “That’s an interesting question, honey,” I responded. “What made you think of it?” “Well, inside my head, I’m a girl,” they informed me. That was in 1992. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but Harry would become my beacon along quite an unexpected journey. With a Barbie doll in one hand and a dress-up purse in the other, it was Harry who took the lead. I took only my insecurities and the watchful eye of a nervous first-time mom. But I learned to follow, sometimes sure-footedly, sometimes stumbling, and in the process I began to trust my instincts.
There were only a few books in the early 1990s for parents on how to adjust to a teenager’s announcement that he or she was gay. And there were zero books for a mom like me who was scrambling to raise a toddler with very definite ideas about their gender. I couldn’t find anything on the Internet because there was no Internet. I felt confused, anxious, and guilty. I didn’t know if I could be a good mother to such an unconventional son. I only knew that Harry wasn’t like other boys and that I didn’t want to mess Harry up as they made their way through life.
I had so many questions! What was the best way to respond to Harry’s declaration that they were a girl? Wasn’t it my role to encourage and support them as a person, no matter what? Surely I had to set some limits to their self-expression—or did I? Would other kids bully them? What kind of guidance and support would Harry need? Could I do the right thing? And what was the right thing? I just didn’t know.
Q: Tell us about a challenge you faced raising a gender-creative child. How did you work through it?
A: My biggest challenges, which I now view as my biggest mistakes, came on two different Halloweens when Harry was little. Harry doesn’t remember me redirecting them from the requested Wendy costume to Peter Pan at age two. I devised my little bait and switch because I didn’t want anyone making fun of Harry for being dressed up as a girl. There weren’t any bullies on our block, but there were two macho dads that I’d imagined snickering at my little Wendy. And to be honest, I wanted to protect myself, too. If a boy wore a girl’s Halloween costume in the Midwest in 1992, it meant he was going to be gay. According to some experts at that time, a boy was gay because his mother was overbearing. I didn’t believe it. And I didn’t want to care what our neighbors thought. But I did care. Overbearing mother meant bad mother. I didn’t want anybody labeling Harry or me.
Then two years later, at four years old, I wouldn’t buy the Pink Power Ranger costume they wanted; I would only buy the blue one. I still worried Harry would be teased and that my uninformed neighbors would judge me as the controlling mother who was turning her kid gay. The night of our trick-or-treating block party, Harry’s dad [Ken] came home with a pink-and-yellow-satin caterpillar costume. So there was little Harry wearing blue, while his dad was in pink. I never again stopped him from wearing what he wanted to on Halloween. I’ve forgiven myself, but I wince even now remembering how my fears of being blamed and my worries that Harry would be laughed at caused me to deny Harry the happiness they deserved on the holiday that is all about being whoever you want to be.
Q: How has raising a gender-creative child changed you as a person and enriched your life?
A: Every step of raising Harry enriched my life. I consider parenting a gender-creative child a big part of my evolution. While I didn’t feel qualified or competent to be Harry’s mom after their “I’m a girl” declaration at two, I eventually realized that Harry had known who they were all along. My job was simply to get out of the way and let them be themselves. Being with Harry now is always fun. At 25, their perspective, their humor, and their ability to be unabashedly and unapologetically themselves energizes me. And my experiences as Harry’s mom have inspired me to be a proponent for social change.
Q: When Harry was nine, you and Harry’s father divorced. How did parenting change for you at that time?
A: Harry’s dad and I had been growing apart, so there were times before our divorce that I’d felt like a single mom. But I remember the initial shock of wondering how I was going to manage the responsibility of everything on my own. I drew on the strength of my double-X chromosomes and told myself I could do anything. And I knew that Ken and I could coparent without living in the same house.
Q: Many parents facing divorce worry about the impact of the divorce on their kids. Harry, by all accounts, looks like a thriving, self-possessed, fully expressed adult. What would you like to say to parents supporting their children through a divorce?
A: I’d like to recommend agreeing on a process before informing your child of what is to come. Before Harry’s dad and I told them we were separating, we agreed that minimizing any trauma for Harry would be our top priority. We needed to see outside our own situation and become advocates for Harry. While we had never fought or argued in front of Harry before that, we established three cardinal rules of engagement. First, we agreed we would not complain about or speak ill of each other in front of Harry. Second, we would not discuss or argue about money in Harry’s presence. Third, we would both attend all of Harry’s school functions and arrange for both of us to receive school news and notices.
I worked in public relations at the time of our separation, so it was natural for me to want to develop key messages for Harry. We worked on those with the help of a child psychologist before the two of us sat down together to tell Harry that their dad would be moving out. Any child about to feel the impact of a divorce needs to know that both parents love them very much, and that the separation or divorce is between the two parents and has nothing to do with them. Children need to know it’s not their fault and that both of their parents will always be there for them. And it’s also important to let a child know that it’s OK to feel hurt and sad.
Q: Given what you know now, what advice would you give to yourself earlier in your parenting life?
A: I would tell myself to be more patient. I know now that a child’s gender identity is something that develops over time. As much as I wanted to know right away what a statement or behavior meant, identity is [a] continual unfolding. I would make a big point about not ever caring what anybody else thought about my child’s choice of colors, toys, or clothing. I would tell myself to forget about the rigid gender boxes of boy or girl. It would have helped me a lot to know that gender is a spectrum, with no one right way to be. And I would look myself straight in the eye and say to focus more on love than worry. I think those two states of mind are actually mutually exclusive.
Q: What advice would you give to solo parents raising a gender-creative or transgender child?
A: Solo parents need to remember that, as alone as they may feel, there are others like them, solo or not, who are experiencing the same challenges of how best to parent a gender-creative or trans child. Even for couples, I think one parent may often feel alone because their partner isn’t as understanding or accepting of their child. I would encourage ESME readers to be the parent that’s going to listen as their child explores their own ideas about gender. And I’d advise them to find the support that’s available and waiting for them. There are remarkable organizations like PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), TransYouth Family Allies, and Gender Spectrum that offer a wealth of online resources. And I know that PFLAG has active chapter meetings in numerous cities around the country.
I also highly recommend two books. The first is Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children (The Experiment, 2011) by Diane Ehrensaft, director of mental health at the Child and Adolescent Gender Center in the San Francisco Bay area. The other is Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Fabulous Gender Creative Son (Broadway Books, 2013) by Lori Duron, who, by the way, was just awarded PFLAG’s Flag Bearer Award at their national convention. I wish I’d had both books when Harry was a toddler.
Q: Tell us about your blog. How long have you been blogging? Why did you start a blog? What do you hope your blog offers to readers?
A: I began the My Son Wears Heels blog almost two-and-a-half years ago to share my experiences raising a gender-creative child with parents who might feel as clueless now as I did in the early 1990s. It’s hard when you don’t know what to do, so I’m hopeful others can learn from my mistakes. I also write about the knowledge I’m still acquiring from my son and others, and how I’m continuing to evolve through my involvement as an ally [of] and advocate for LGBTQ youth.
Q: Which blog post would you most like to share with ESME readers?
A: The piece I’d most like to share is “He, Zie, or They: Gender-Specific Pronouns are Personal.” I think it demonstrates how much I’ve learned and how far I’ve come on my journey as Harry’s mom.
Q: You recently finished a book, soon to be released by University of Wisconsin Press. Tell us about that. When and where can we get a copy?
A: My upcoming book is called My Son Wears Heels: One Mom’s Parenting Journey—from Clueless to Kick-Ass. It covers two decades, starting with Harry’s “I’m a girl” announcement at two. It follows me interpreting the unexpected Mother’s Day portrait of the two of us they gave me at seven to the intolerant mother superior he encountered at age 15 as a foreign-exchange student to his debut as a New York City drag queen. The book is due out in summer 2016. You can watch for info about its release on my website as well as the My Son Wears Heels Facebook page.
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Images provided by and with permission of Julie Tarney
Cheryl Dumesnil, ESME’s LGBTQ Resource Guide, is an author, educator, writing coach, all-around do-gooder, and one of two moms separately coparenting two amazing boys. You can follow her on Twitter at @cheryladumesnil.
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