"How Do You Know I'm a Boy?": A Mother On Her Child’s Gender Quest

Stories, Coming Out, Male-To-Female, Family, For Kids + Teenagers, Community + Allies, Work + SchoolJulie Tarney
Hanson Family Photo

Hanson Family Photo

By Julie Tarney

Twenty-four years ago, in 1992, my son, Harry, told me, “Inside my head I’m a girl.” He was two years old. I had no idea what that meant. I felt disoriented even trying to process it. The internet was no help, because there was no internet. Books didn’t exist on how to raise children who didn’t fit neatly inside a box that was either pink or blue. And terms like transgendergender nonconforming, and gender fluid were rare or nonexistent.

Harry, who at 26 identifies as queer, doesn’t remember that early conversation. But it’s the starting point of my new memoir, My Son Wears Heels: One Mom’s Journey from Clueless to Kickass.

I know there are thousands of parents who are just beginning a similar journey, learning about and struggling with their child’s gender identity. I’m hopeful my experience, of having lived it all the way through with my child – from toddler to adult, can help people understand gender identity and gender expression. I think the last thing a parent would want is to become their child’s first bully.

Book Cover Image by Ken Hanson

Book Cover Image by Ken Hanson

Chapter 1. An Excerpt

Harry whooshed past me, sputtering his own version of airborne sound effects. He jumped into the slew of stuffed toy animals that lined his bottom bunk bed and rolled up onto his knees. I watched him pat first his left shoulder, then the right, making sure the Velcro tabs of his red cape were still attached to the top of his size 2T Superman pajamas.

I sat in the middle of Harry’s bedroom carpet in a laundry-folding reverie. Aside from the whir of air blowing through the AC vent in the ceiling, the house was quiet. I breathed in laundry freshness mingled with the scent of watermelon kid shampoo and felt comforted by the hominess of this before-bedtime solitude. After an intense all-day client meeting, I was ready to kick back and relax during some welcome alone time.

Harry watched me. “Momma?” he finally said, tentatively.

 “Yes, Harry?”

 “How do you know I’m a boy?”

 I looked up. What brought that on? Why wasn’t he asking me what book we were going to read? Then I remembered that the son of a friend was two when he wanted to know why girls had two butts, so I figured this was an age-appropriate question. I decided to stick to the basics.

“Well, honey,” I said, clearing my throat. “Boys have a penis and girls have a vagina. You have a penis.”

Harry tilted his head of downy blond curls and I recognized his pose—he was processing the information. A few days earlier he and his neighborhood posse of Billy, Allison, and Travis had spent an afternoon running naked through the backyard sprinkler, so I thought maybe he was verifying my answer with a playback of that outdoor scene.

But as I stacked the last of his brightly colored socks in spectrum order, I noticed Harry’s expression shift to a “Hmm.” Then, holding his feet, he rocked back and squinted. I could tell he was sorting through ideas. I wondered what it was about my answer that was making him think this hard. Maybe he wanted to say something and was trying to figure out how to say it. I decided to probe a little.

“That was an interesting question, Harry. What made you think of it?”

“Well, inside my head I’m a girl.”

 “Oh,” I responded, with an air of upbeat acknowledgment. Now I was the one processing. He was so matter-of-fact, so self-assured in his reply.

Harry’s blue eyes were staring straight at me and it seemed as if the eyes of all his stuffed animals were fixed on me, too. Stalling for time, I slowly rolled up my small frame and smiled. In the few seconds it took to go from seated and stunned to upright and uptight, my brain speed-scanned every “How to Talk to Your Child About . . .” article I kept stashed in a folder at work. As the marketing agency for OshKosh B’Gosh, we subscribed to every parenting magazine, so I began clipping articles for future reference as soon as I knew I was pregnant. But I couldn’t recall anything that would help me in this moment. My head was throbbing and I wasn’t sure I was breathing. I wanted to be Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, who would have just the right answer.

“Well, it’s a good thing you know that about yourself, Harry.”

He rocked back and flashed a wide, baby-toothed grin. I could hear the game show host of Family Feud praising me with an enthusiastic “Good answer!”

God Bless America.

“Inside my head I’m a girl.” I knew what it meant, but what did it mean?

After story time with Frog and Toad, a few verses of my made-up Little Kitty lullaby, goodnight kisses, and lights out, I left Harry’s door open a crack and stood motionless outside his room. My thoughts were back in Speed Racer mode. I recapped the scene. “Inside my head I’m a girl.” I knew what it meant, but what did it mean?

Maybe Harry was trying to tell me he was a girl in a boy’s body. Or possibly he was giving me the heads-up he was gay without even knowing the concept. Then I wondered if that’s what famous transsexual Christine Jorgensen told her mother when she was two years old. It was 1992, and she was my only reference for someone who’d undergone a sex-change operation. I didn’t know much about people who identified as a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth and I figured most people knew even less. Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS was the prevailing image of homosexuality; being gay was a stigma and a pandemic. I wasn’t sure what any of this meant for me or for Harry.

I walked straight to the shelves in the guest bedroom and scanned our small collection of parenting books, all bought two years earlier after a blue plus sign appeared on my at-home pregnancy test.  My forefinger brushed over the spines of the retired volumes of What to Expect When You’re Expecting and What to Expect the First Year. Where was What to Expect When Your Two-Year-Old Comes Out to You?

I settled on Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. Tucking my wavy chestnut hair behind my ears, I searched the index for “sexuality,” and found an entry for “homosexuality.” I surely didn’t want to read about any of the theories that controlling mothers were the cause of homosexuality in boys. I hesitated turning to the page; in some ways I was controlling and I didn’t want to be condemned.

It was true that no two colors of my Fiestaware plates or bowls touched each other in their stacks. My knife drawer was organized from largest to smallest. My husband Ken teased that if he got up at night to use the bathroom I’d make his side of the bed. I knew I color-coordinated Harry’s sock drawer, made sure his fingers were never sticky and left five pages of detailed, typed-up notes for his babysitters. But that wasn’t the same as my mother telling me not to touch my face or to close my mouth when I breathed.

I sank onto the guest room bed, found the page, and then wondered why I bothered to sit down at all. What the hell? There were only two measly paragraphs.

In the first one, Doc Spock said the majority of what he referred to as “feminine boys” and “masculine boys” grow up to be heterosexual. The next paragraph was longer. I read it and then reread it. Spock gave a few hypotheticals, which I understood. But I was stumped by his absolutes of onlyexclusively, and always.

According to the good doctor, if Harry wanted to dress exclusively in girls’ clothes and play only with girls, he might have some of his ideas mixed up. And if he wanted to play only with girls and was always unhappy about his biological gender, I might want to consult with a child psychiatrist. But if the dress and play activities occurred only occasionally, the door was still open for Harry to join the hetero majority.

I wanted Harry surrounded by the safety and protection of large numbers on the school playground. I fast-forwarded to him as a gay adult not being able to get married, or have kids, or keep the job he loved. I thought of my close childhood friend in Los Angeles who was dying of AIDS. I would never wish for my son to be gay. I took a deep yoga breath in and exhaled slowly.

Spock’s unspoken words were: if after age five or six the “only-exclusively-always” modifiers predominated, it was time to schedule an appointment with a shrink.

“Huh!” I thought. I’m supposed to wait until Harry is five or six to know what’s going on? What about now? What about the next three or four years? What about Harry’s next question or surprise statement? I studied those two paragraphs several times, and then put a purple sticky tab on the page. At least there was no mention of controlling mothers. Still, I decided I liked Dr. Spock better as a peace activist.

I recounted the whole story to Ken when he got home from a dinner meeting.

“What does that mean?” he asked.

“I have no idea what it means!”

 I read aloud to him what little the Spock book offered.

His face twisted in puzzlement. “That doesn’t tell us much now, does it?”

 “No,” I said. “It says nothing. And who takes a happy, confident kid to a shrink anyway?”

“Well, we’re definitely not doing that.”

 “But what do we do?”

 “We don’t have to do anything. He’s two.”

“Really? Nothing? Don’t you think Harry was revealing something kind of heavy?”

 “Julie, he’s two. Let’s just see how it goes.”

I didn’t say another word. Maybe Ken was right. I needed his inborn patience now to balance my natural compulsiveness as my mind stayed in overdrive.

Editor’s Note:  From My Son Wears Heels: One Mom's Journey from Clueless to Kickass by Julie Tarney. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2016 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. 

To learn what happens next, and for the following 24 years, attend one of the speaking events on Julie’s book tour. Click here for dates and cities



Green Room   Selfie of Julie Tarney   and   Harry James Hanson/Amber Aler  t

Green Room Selfie of Julie Tarney and Harry James Hanson/Amber Alert

Julie Tarney is a board member for the It Gets Better Project. She blogs for Huffington Post’s Queer Voices page, and is a contributing writer for The Parents Project and the True Colors Fund’s Give a Damn Campaign. She volunteers for the PFLAG Safe Schools Program. A longtime resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Julie now lives in New York City. Find her online at Find Harry James Hanson online at