Supporting my grandson as he explores his identity

Guest blogger Anna Bianchi is a creative activist, writer, workshop teacher and change guide, and a grandmother with a 4-year-old grandson who is exploring female gender identity. Here Anna reflects on her own conditioning and honouring Ruben's* journey.

Anna’s website:

Ruben’s powder blue princess dress is bunched up over his thighs as he sits on the loo looking up at me. “Nanny, do you know I’m a girl?”

“Are you sweetie?” and I smile at my first grandchild, “is that some of the time or all of the time?” “All of the time.”

Over the last year or so Ruben has increasingly identified with all things pink and sparkly: hair slides, sandals, lunch boxes, tee-shirts, bags and socks. My daughter, Jude*, and son-in-law Phil*, are parenting courageously. They are following their child’s lead and refusing to censure the way he wants to express himself. As a result of this, Ruben’s expression and his wardrobe, is expanding. Yesterday he was running around the garden with his cousins wearing a sunshine yellow smock with peach shorts beneath it. Other days he might choose his patterned leggings, white cardigan with red ladybirds on or dress with shimmery sleeves. At home he’s free to enjoy all his preferences for ‘girly’ things with abandon: clothes, Tiana, Ariel and Rapunzel dolls, glittery shoes, tea parties and lip gloss.

Some people have asked my daughter if this approach is ‘encouraging’ her son’s behaviour, although they fail to specify towards what exactly. Jude is gracious in her response and fearless in naming what has gone unsaid. She explains she doesn’t need to safeguard Ruben from his own emerging sense of gender identity or manipulate it through the use of her parental authority. And neither does she or her partner seek to label or lead their son in any way. No, her threshold for decision making around a request for lilac lace-ups or rose patterned tights is infinitely more uncomplicated than this. She considers, ‘what are my grounds for saying no?’

When Ruben asks if he can wear his princess dress out shopping with me, I am reminded of this. I find myself buying time while I assess my feelings, suggesting the hem will get dirty if he does so. He tells me, ‘it only comes down to the hip on my shoe nanny.’ My anxiety is lassoed by Ruben’s words and his innocence swells my heart. He takes the integrity of our bond for granted and doesn’t realise it depends on my fidelity. In a moment the decision is made and he is holding my hand, spotting squirrels as we walk down the road and swishing his lacy skirts in the sunlight.

My grandson is teaching me about truth. Sometimes I feel like a poor learner, then I recall the power of my own conditioning and take a step away from self-condemnation. There is nothing remarkable to Ruben about his assertion he is a girl, he is simply being faithful to himself. So I wonder, whose authority rises up inside of me when I hesitate in my positive responses to him? Which rules are embedded in my ‘yes’ and my ‘no?’ And, in what ways, consciously and unconsciously has fear constrained my expression of personal freedom over a lifetime? These are important questions and ones I return to again and again. Like most people I know, I’ve been successfully tamed by mainstream culture and this isn’t something I want for any of my grandchildren.

I have taken some of this journey before. Thirty years ago, my eldest son, Adam, was five. As a toddler, his first words were, ‘shoes on,’ as he explored beneath a café table and encountered his first pair of high heels. Adam was not a typical boy; his closest friends were girls, he revelled in being flamboyant, drew buxom women in the margins of his school books and took baths to the soundtrack of Dracula by the light of a candelabra. His imagination was and remains, extravagant.

Then, as now, I repeatedly chose to scrutinise the recesses of my psyche for patriarchal fingerprints which might contaminate my parenting and bring harm to my children. There were many, sticky and sour smelling, all over inherited attitudes, opinions and behaviours. I continue to find them, though less frequently these days and with greater acuity.

I spent an hour in Ruben’s school recently. It was a non-uniform play day and my grandson wore a flower print dress with a ruffle above the knee, cerise leggings and dusky pink trainers. He struggled with the change to his timetable but not the change to his appearance. I am forever indebted to Mr Jay, his first teacher outside of nursery, who uses his rank and role of guardian to protect and promote Ruben’s full inclusion in school. He has set the bar high and there can be no excuse now for any other professional authority figure to fall short of it.

At home time, as we stepped outside the playground gates, Ruben told me how two big children, a boy and a girl, had been unkind to him during lunch. When I enquired further it turned out they had repeatedly and forcefully told him he wasn’t, ‘allowed to wear a dress.’ In response, he held his head up, looked them in the eyes and asserted his right to wear whatever he wanted to. Just as his mummy had rehearsed with him.

I honour every step my grandson takes as this journey unfolds. And I grieve the sacrifice of his four year old innocence. As a family we are compelled to educate him, for his own safety, about ignorance, dogma and the denial of difference. Just as I educated his uncle some years previously. Perhaps this explains how, when Adam was twenty and being tracked by three beer drinking white men in a car, he refused to be intimated by their homophobia. When the car stopped and one of the men got out and verbally abused him, Adam looked him in the eyes and said, ‘fuck you,’ in response. The man punched Adam to the ground but failed to stay around when my son stood back up. To this day I remember the convulsing waves of pride and fear that weakened my legs as Adam told me about what happened. And it took many days before I ceased imagining three pairs of feet kicking him to death in a London park.

Parenting Adam and grand-parenting Ruben has finely attuned me to the potential danger at the border between our private and public worlds. Many adults can still recoil at a childhood memory of crossing an invisible boundary and being punished as a consequence. Tragically, for some, this experience may have defined their lives. Worse still when these boundaries are patrolled by gender vigilantes who use all forms of violence to enforce the status quo. Ruben’s declaration that he wants to wear a skirt to a friend’s party dismisses rigid gender roles, his parents’ support of this is changing the world as we know it. This is not territory for the faint hearted.

The LGBTQ community and its allies have fought for and radically changed the legal and social landscape of the UK in the last thirty years. There is much to celebrate and more to do. If we are passive witnesses to any forms of gender discrimination then we are conspirators too. There is no middle ground. My grandson, as his uncle before him, continues to teach me about my own rank as a heterosexual woman and the privileges that come with this status. To Ruben, this information is irrelevant right now, I am just his nanny and confidante. May it always be this way.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

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2 Responses

  1. <p>Nice one Anna. Thoughtful and courageous. Reuben*'s lesson to us all ~ unto thyself be true. And an impressive family supporting his honesty.</p>
  2. <p>So moved to read this - brought tears to my eyes. I feel really proud to know Reuben* and I admire his parents (and the rest of his family) for your beautiful reflections, respectful guidance for him, your inspiring parenting and helping to speak out for and with Reuben* and others like him who may face such vigilantes or narrow minded people of the world.</p>
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