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Author's book focuses on her gender nonconforming child
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Charlsie Dewey

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When her son, Harry, was 2 years old, author Julie Tarney said he told her, "Inside my head, I'm a girl."

With that statement, Tarney said her journey as the parent of a gender non-conforming child began.

It was 1992 and resources were scarce.

"My first thought was 'does this mean he is going to be gay,'" Tarney said. "Gender identity was completely foreign to me. There was no internet and a lot of misinformation and a lot of stereotyping."

Tarney said the language was inadequate as well.

"There was no 'gender non-conforming,'" she said. "I'm not even sure 'transgender' was being used—maybe in medical circles—but it wasn't something I'd ever heard."

Tarney listed several current terms to describe children like Harry: gender-creative, gender-expansive, gender-diverse and gender-fluid.

"I wish when Harry was 2, I would have had those terms," she said. "That I would have been able to say, 'Honey, you are gender-creative or gender non-conforming and there are a lot of kids like you.' I wish I could have said that to him."

Tarney said parents raising gender non-conforming children today are lucky to have the Internet at their fingertips and many more accurate resources available to them.

Tarney said she decided to write My Son Wears Heels to give other parents a resource she wished she'd had.

"I wanted to write a book because I feel like I'm in a unique position," she said. "My child is 26 now, and I started this journey when he was 2. I know there are thousands of parents out there just beginning this journey right now, who are learning about and struggling with their child's gender identity.

"I hope my story, that follows a child from toddler to adult, can help those parents understand it and put it in perspective."

Tarney said she's seen a lot of advancement over the past two decades when it comes to understanding gender identity and in making mainstream society more informed about gender, especially in public schools.

She said there are more gay-straight alliances in schools, and that PFLAG offers a safe-schools program that goes into the schools and explains different terms.

"In public schools there is a great effort being made to include gender in diversity discussions," she said.

She also said television shows like Glee and The Real O'Neals as well as celebrity children like Jaden Smith and EJ Johnson are helping to raise awareness just by being themselves. And, she said there are books geared for kids like I Am Jazz, Jacob's New Dress or My Princess Boy that help kids see other children like them.

"There is definitely more visibility in the media," she said. "There is more focus on LGBTQ young people and more kids coming out as LGBTQ. Trans youth are also getting more attention lately, so there is more learning and acceptance.

"Kids have an easier time understanding than their parents do, which is very encouraging. The burden comes on the kids to educate the parents, so that is different."

Although parents still seem to struggle with gender identity, Tarney said she is seeing more parents taking an interest in understanding gender identity and sexuality than in the past.

"Parents want to know more to answer questions for their kids, even if their kids aren't transgender," she explained.

Tarney said she hopes progress continues to be made until one day it's a non-issue.

"I imagine this day where you'll open a year book or look at a kindergarten graduating class and not have to think about who are girls and who are boys, they are just kids," she said.

To get there, she said hopes to see more visibility, awareness, conversation and education.

She also said parent's need to listen and learn from their children.

"I loved Harry unconditionally and I tried to listen to him and, as I did, I learned from him," she said. "It's never too late to learn from your child as much as you're learning for your child."

Tarney said she learned many lessons from how Harry handled the world around him.

"Harry's story has always been about being true to yourself and not letting anyone tell you whom you can and can't be," she said. "Knowing there are always going to be people who are going to love you no matter who you are has always been a part of Harry's family story.

"My priority—and most parents would agree—is you want your kids to feel loved, secure, safe, confident and happy. Those were the screens with which I measured my responses to Harry. 'How is Harry going to feel based on what I'm going to say or do?' Sometimes you have to pause as a parent and think about that."

"No parent wants to be a child's first bully," she added.

Tarney will be at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark St., on Friday, Sept. 23, at 7:30 p.m.

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