(Note: although we fully accept our daughter is a girl, I've use the male pronoun to refer to her during the phase we all thought she was a boy.) In the first picture we saw of the boy we decided to adopt there he stood wearing a red shirt holding a pink stuffed animal. "It's a meepit!" the twin boys shouted. They were in a phase where they loved their small pink creatures that looked like guinea pigs on two legs. Wasn't it cool their soon to be brother liked them too? I knew that when I lived in China, boys didn't wear red, but maybe things had changed.
Later we were sent updated photos. In one, he looks adoringly up at the camera, a small pink address book with Disney's Cinderella pressed to his cheek. Worriedly, I started asking around on online adoption groups. Was this a phase? People poured in their anecdotes, how so and so's son wore his sister's skirts; somebody else's son loved to try on his mother's high heels; another had a son had hoarded Polly Pocket dolls. They all seemed to grow out of them. Things would change, I was told, especially once he joined a household of three brothers.
While waiting for him in China we were able to send presents and even communicate by email. We sent neutral or traditional boy items: a stuffed duck and monkey, a super hero wallet, animal stickers, a navy long sleeved tee with a soccer ball on it. Curiously we never heard any enthusiasm or gratitude for our gifts. Weren't children in orphanages excited by presents? One day, after we'd started using the web cam, I showed off my new skirt. "Can I have one?" he asked enthusiastically. Ummm. Through the months we repeatedly asked what names he liked and he never responded. We offered suggestions. Right before we flew to China to adopt him asked him if he wanted to go by his Chinese name, or the name we'd picked out for him (without his input.) He blurted out "I don't want to be called Rudy and I don't want to be called Tang Li, I want to be called Annika!"
At this point I suggested to my husband we pick an androgynous name, just in case. I don't want to paint my husband in an unfavorable light. He is an amazing dad. But the process has been a long and hard one. At that time, though, he blew up. He would claim ownership of our new child by choosing one of his favorite names "L___." And L_____ most definitely was not a girl's name. Not long after, we received a final report of our child's habits, abilities and preferences. "He likes holding a doll while sleeping." "His favorite toy is Barbie doll." "He likes pretending to be girls." One of our reasons for adoption (always ill-advised to plan thus) was to balance out the family, have a similarly aged brother for our little guy, since his older brothers were twins. What if he were a she? What if he didn't like any of the same things Ted did?
In China, at the adoption office, our new son edged in, turned around, and ran into the hall to purchase ice cream pops for everyone in the room. Then he sat shyly with his foster mom. He wore a muscle tee and on his shoulder was a temporary butterfly tattoo. His English was limited. He did however know some terms from movies. He'd point to Ted and say "You're Jasmine, I'm Ariel!" To Matt he'd say "You're Cinderella, I'm Belle!" In this way he talked about most of the Disney princesses. Oh boy. Back outside the hotel it was tortuously hot, so we chose to go swimming in the hotel pool. We had to buy goggles. He of course wanted the pink ones. Even then we cringed. It was not in our parenting philosophy to say no, but we deeply wanted to. Pink goggles it was.
Similarly he was dying for a Disney purse or backpack. I wanted to let him be himself, but in my mind it wasn't a good start on the first day of third grade for a boy to show up with a pink Disney princess backpack. We had to protect him. (This is a similar mantra that parents of gay and transgender children repeat. Much later I heard a gay man say, "They wanted to protect me from the pain of rejecting, but they were really rejecting me.") Meanwhile, our new child would gaze yearningly at the pink bags in the markets. Internally I fought myself. Do the right thing or let my stereotypes guide me? The latter won out. Finally we let him get a small dismal gray and black Disney sling bag that at least had Mickey Mouse on it.
Before we parted his foster mom made us promise not to buy him a new Barbie doll. She'd taken his away prior to saying goodbye. While we waited for all the official documents in Guangzhou, every evening he'd sit at the restaurant and tears would well up and slip down his cheeks. Trying to console him, we did go and buy him a new doll. I knew in my heart, if he really were transgender the best thing we could do for him is let him arrive in America as a girl. Not that my husband could stomach this. But if we did so then he'd never have to socially transition. I leaned over, and in Chinese inquired, "Some people feel like they are born in the wrong body. They may have a boy's body, but they know they are girls. Do you think this is you, or do you just like girly things?" "I just like girly things." Okay. For now.