Five-year-old Zach stands barefoot in the middle of his bedroom, faced with a dilemma: Should he wear the pink dress or the powder blue...

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Five-year-old Zach stands barefoot in the middle of his bedroom, faced with a dilemma: Should he wear the pink dress or the powder blue? Both are long princess-style affairs, the first displayed on a hanger held by his mother, Rebecca, the second, slightly wrinkled, pulled from the top of a dresser by Zach himself.

“Or would you rather wear your witch’s outfit?” his mother asks him, nodding at a black polyester costume in the closet, its neckline trimmed in orange.

“No,” Zach says. “I think I want the blue one.” He dashes out of the room with dress in hand, returning half a minute later, his pink T-shirt replaced by a tight crushed-velvet bodice. Zach bounds around the room, smiling, wisps of blond hair breaking free from the French braid that trails down his back.

It’s that playful exuberance that Rebecca and her husband, John, hope their son never loses. “But we’re concerned that this piece of him will get lost, if other children aren’t able to respond to him well,” says Rebecca, 39, who asked that her family’s real names not be used.

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Of course, most parents dream of the best for their children. But Rebecca and her husband are a certain kind of parent: They’re raising a boy who wants to dress in girls’ clothes. And that places them in largely uncharted territory. Is this a passing phase or something central to Zach’s identity?

A compass of sorts may await the family this weekend, when mother and son participate in a local conference called Gender Odyssey Family. The event at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center will be Seattle’s first conference for parents raising “gender-variant” kids, or those children who fall outside what’s traditionally defined as “boy” or “girl.”

The conference will offer 23 sessions over the course of the weekend, some geared toward entire families and others focused specifically on gender-variant teens.

One family workshop, titled “A Dad’s Place,” will provide a forum for fathers to discuss the feelings brought about by raising such children. Another family workshop will help parents determine how — and when — to disclose their child’s gender variance to others.

Experts in such fields as pediatrics, endocrinology, psychotherapy, gender studies and communications, and parents of gender-variant children will lead workshops.

The conference was conceived by Aidan Key, a transgender man who has produced national conferences for female-to-male transsexuals in Seattle called Gender Odyssey. His twin sister, Brenda Chevis, of Bellingham, and Bay Area author and gender researcher Stephanie Brill are also organizers for the premier event, which is expected to draw a small gathering of 25 families.

Rebecca, a stay-at-home mom in Seattle, says she’s looking forward to the conference. “It’ll be fun to have him see other families who are like us,” she says, “and to learn more about how to navigate the world with a child who’s different in this way.”

Addressing the dress issue

For the family, their journey into the fuzzy realm of gender variance began last summer when Zach first asked his mother if he could have a dress. He was 4 ½ at the time. Rebecca remembers that, while acknowledging his request, she never got around to buying one.

A week or so later, he brought up the subject again. With his second request again falling on deaf ears, Zach became persistent. “After the third request, I thought, ‘I’m not going to put him off anymore,’ ” Rebecca says.

She drove him to a neighborhood Goodwill, where she bought him three items: a long, handmade dress with a floral pattern, a knee-length blue velour dress and a skirt. Back home, he rushed upstairs to change. A baby-sitter showed up, and Zach, wearing a dress, asked if they could go play in the park.

“After that afternoon, there was just no question that he would wear a dress, to school or wherever he wanted,” Rebecca says.

While there was no question what Zach wanted, his father’s emotions were mixed.

Intellectually, John had little difficulty supporting his son. “But emotionally, it was more complicated,” he says.

Those complexities lay, for the most part, in the visual. “It’s still jarring sometimes” to see him in a dress, John says, his voice cracking.

Yet he’s proud of Zach’s self-confidence, a quality he feels would be wrong to squash, whether at home or in school.

“Why would we tell him that he can’t wear a dress?” he asks. “It would hurt him.”

Rebecca says she spoke to school directors to ensure that Zach would be safe in the classroom. They assured her he would.

Karen Campbell, one of Zach’s teachers last year, says the other pre-K students accepted him. Because he progressed slowly from wearing floral print pants to skirts to dresses, she says, his 20 classmates were able to view Zach as he was — another kid — and not by a grown-up’s definition of a girl or a boy.

“It might be a big deal to parents or adults,” Campbell says, “but for these guys his age, it was, ‘Oh, that’s who he is. Let’s go ahead and play trucks.’ “

Defining dilemmas

So what makes a boy a boy, or a girl a girl? Dr. Edgardo Menvielle, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., says the answer is not simple.

For most people, the difference between male and female feels obvious. “But it’s not necessarily obvious all the time for those who don’t fit what we expect the person to be,” he says.

Such can be the case for gender-variant children, whom Menvielle defines as any young people who, whether comfortable with their birth sex or not, display behaviors that cause people to question societal distinctions of masculine and feminine.

To date, there are no hard numbers for how many gender-variant children exist in the country, and Menvielle doubts there ever will be. “We could look at this category in a number of ways,” he says, “so how would we count them?”

To some, it may be easy to view a boy who opts for dresses as one who’s passing through a developmental phase, on par with a boy who wants to spend every waking moment in his Batman costume. But such a comparison, says Menvielle, is “a bit like comparing apples and oranges.”

Most of the young boys who parade about in a bat suit and utility belt, he explains, will cease to wear them at some point. For the boy who likes to wear skirts, Menvielle says, it’s impossible to predict the types of clothes he’ll fancy as he ages. He may give up dresses; he may not.

Menvielle suggests that attempting to label someone based on the type of clothes he chooses is unreliable, as it focuses on the superficial. “Dress,” he says, “does not make the person.”

For parents raising gender-variant children, he stresses, “We need to hear what they tell us about how they feel about who they are.” But just as important, Menvielle says, is taking pains to never put the child at unnecessary risk.

“Parents need to be aware of the potential dangers from others,” he says, “but also about the psychological danger of forcing the child into a mold that is unnatural for him or her.”

Shows of support

For Zach’s parents, protecting their son takes many forms. At a weeklong summer theater camp Zach attended, Rebecca asked counselors if the camp had room for a boy who wore dresses. It did. It also instilled in him a yearning to receive a bouquet of flowers, the same as a number of girl campers, once they’d taken post-show bows. The day after the show, Rebecca watched as Zach picked out an arrangement of stargazer lilies and deep-red dahlias.

She’s also begun contacting the administrators of the kindergarten program Zach will be attending to ask that his difference be respected.

But, unlike those days when she dragged her feet in responding to his first request for a dress, she’s more apt to respond supportively to his desires these days. When he told her recently that he wanted to pierce his ears, she suggested stick-on earrings instead. While in a store to get them, she says he eyed a rhinestone tiara. Next to it, he saw another. He wanted them both. She bought them.

At home, he matched each tiara to one of his two princess dresses. Rebecca says he was elated — and so was she, to see her son so happy, even if it’s something most people don’t understand.

“Whoever he is and whoever he becomes, that’s OK,” she says, “because that’s who he is, and he has our unconditional love.”

Rosette Royale is a writer living in Seattle.

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