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Ask Jane, Column 16

I thank all of you who were so kind to respond to my query about crossdressers' wives' fears. I am still in the midst of research on this topic, so don't hesitate to contact me if you have something to add. In the meantime, here's a new column:

Her 4-Year-Old Son Prefers Dresses

Dear Jane,

Maybe because I'm an artist (a singer), I am a very open and free-spirited type of mother. I am married to a man who is very straight, very conservative. We have four children, 4 to 8 years old. Our 4-year-old boy Ricky is particularly close to his 8-year-old sister Melanie; it's about Ricky that I write you, as an expert on transgender issues.

For the past month or so I have witnessed Ricky act very differently from what society considers "the norm" in terms of how 4-year-old little boys should behave: he has been wearing dresses, putting on makeup, polishing his nails, etc...

Yesterday, Ricky walked into our bedroom to show me how good he was at polishing his fingernails (they were flawless), but then his dad walked in and freaked out.

I don't know whether what I did next was good or not: I undressed Ricky, pointed to his penis, and told him that he was a boy. Then his dad took his pants down and I pointed to his dad's penis, saying that daddy was a boy, too. Then I undressed and told Ricky I did not have a penis, but a vagina, and that I was a girl.

The next day, Ricky told me he wanted to cut his head off and put on his 8-year-old sister Melanie's head instead... pretty powerful stuff for a 4-year old boy to say! I was distraught, to say the least.

I'm watching to see what sort of influence Melanie has over Ricky. The two middle children are both boys; they are both "straight" without any question. Ricky is a very bright little boy; I want him to be normal in every sense of the word and yet want him to be "who he is."

Should we seek a therapist for Ricky to deal with this transgender issue? Or allow Ricky to go on wearing dresses as a regular thing? Or should we "encourage" (i.e., force) him to stop? Or will he outgrow this? Neither of his older brothers ever had such a fascination with female things.

Worried Montreal Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

Hold up. Stop. You may not be dealing with a transgender issue at all.

First, Ricky's not even 5 years old yet. Children usually don't feel they "belong" to one gender or another until five and sometimes later than that.

Second, this has only been going on a month. If Ricky eschews everything "male" (playing with trucks and so on) and embraces everything "female" for an extended period of time, then consider it may be a transgender issue. But it's way too early to make that determination.

Third, Ricky's behavior may be a function of the person in the family he most identifies with. As a performer, perhaps you're away a good deal of the time. Ricky may be feeling left out. He's the last of four closely spaced children; his 8-year-old sister may be the person in the family he most identifies with. And, in identifying with her, he wants to be like her. For now. That will very likely change as he gets older. If Melanie weren't in the picture and you were home full-time, Ricky could well want to be "just like mum," with nail polishing and everything else that being like mom entails. Again, for a while. And then it would pass.

Also, I understand that his dad is shaken by the possibility that his son is not man enough for his taste. But his freak-outs can't be helping things in the household. Even if Ricky ends up wanting to be female later on or is gay - or whatever your husband's biggest fear is - having a well-adjusted, treasured child is far healthier than forcing a child to suit a mold no matter what the consequences.

If you seek therapy at some point, know that this is not a Ricky issue but a family issue. Families are complex little societies and there are many, many things going on here that could be impacting Ricky's development: His mum and dad's anxiousness, his sister's influence, his possible sense of loneliness or not feeling he has a place in the family. You're lucky to be in Montreal; the department of sexology at University of Quebec in Montreal was founded by world-renowned sexologist and sex therapist Jean-Yves Desjardins who understands gender identity problems.

Before you escalate this drama, work together as a family. Provide male role models for Ricky by involving dad and Ricky's two brothers in playtime.

Also, dad can help Ricky learn the pleasures his penis can provide. Many sexologists believe that developing a good friendship with his penis is fundamental to boys developing the masculine role.

And while you're waiting for Ricky to toss his dresses and pick up a football, rent the movie "Ma Vie en Rose" for an example of sensitive handling of a transgender issue. If that's what this is. I myself wouldn't be so quick to judge.

Jane

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