Opening Barbie’s Box — Blog chronicles challenges of parenting ‘gender creative’ boy

Editor’s Note: “Opening Barbie’s Box” is an article produced for a Stanford narrative journalism class. Some student reporters pursued stories outside the San Francisco Bay Area on topics that would be of interest to Peninsula Press readers.

 C.J, 5, has become the subject of his mother’s popular blog about raising a boy who does not conform to typical gender roles. He is shown here wearing a pink T-shirt dress while riding a purple Razor scooter near his family’s Orange County home in May. (Photo courtesy of C.J.’s Mom)

C.J.’s Mom finally lets out a sigh. After a long day of chauffeuring her two boys between flag football and tee ball practices and cooking them dinner, she has tucked the kids in bed. Her husband, a police officer, just left for the night shift, and she is grateful for the silence.

Cradling her MacBook, she tiptoes downstairs, brews a cup of decaf and sinks into the comfy brown couch in the living room, a blanket within reach. It’s almost 9 o’clock on a recent Monday evening. She is the picture of a prototypical Orange County housewife, until she powers up the laptop and opens her blog. On the screen appears a post titled “Things I Never Thought I’d Say to My Son.” The list includes, “Your jean skirt is on backwards.”

She opens a new post and begins to chronicle the latest “adventures in raising a fabulously gender creative son,” as the blog’s tagline declares. A few days later, after careful proofreading and showing her husband what she wrote, she’ll publish this update for the hundreds of thousands of readers of Raising My Rainbow.

Started in December 2010 and now read in 45 countries, the blog is her attempt to document and understand the life and times of 5-year-old C.J. To protect the family’s privacy, her youngest son is only referred to by his initials throughout the blog, and other family members are referenced by their relation (e.g. C.J.’s Brother), with a few nicknamed exceptions such as “Nana Grab Bags” for C.J.’s maternal grandmother and “Uncle Uncle” for his uncle.

The family agreed to be interviewed for this article on the condition that their anonymity be maintained and photographs refrain from showing their faces. While they will disclose that they live in south Orange County, they requested that the name of the city be withheld.

C.J.’s Mom still finds it hard to believe that this all started with a Barbie doll. One Friday afternoon in 2010, with her husband at work and her older son at school, she made a startling discovery. When C.J. glimpsed the contents of a box she had opened, “He screamed so loud … I almost fell off my stepstool.” C.J.’s Mom laughed as she recounted the incident. “I thought he was hurt at first, but when I turned around, he was just staring at the Barbie with his eyes wide open.”

The doll had been a gift to C.J.’s Mom from her own mother, a reminder of the many Barbies she had loved as a child. It was Mattel’s 50th anniversary Barbie, a tribute to the original with its signature long blonde ponytail and black-and-white-striped bathing suit. But this one came with a little pink cell phone, helping bring Barbie into the 21st century.

C.J., who was 2 ½ at the time, pointed to the toy that his mom had tossed onto the bed while cleaning out her closet, and asked, “What that?” C.J.’s Mom realized her son had never seen a Barbie before. Living with a “tough guy” husband and two sons meant the house was full of toy trucks and legos. Barbie had never been invited in.

“What’s funny is, that when he asked me to open it up for him, I didn’t hesitate because he was a boy, I hesitated because I had always been taught to keep a Barbie in the box for as long as possible,” C.J.’s Mom said. “Everyone knows that the value goes down as soon as you open the box.”

C.J.’s parents revealed his gender non-comformity to friends by throwing him a princess-themed third birthday party. (Photo courtesy of C.J.’s Mom)

But open the box she did, and soon C.J. was ignoring all of his other toys to sit down and comb Barbie’s hair, which is exactly what his dad found him doing when he came home from work that day. “What the hell is that?” he whispered to C.J.’s Mom, who quickly ushered him out of their 2 ½-year-old’s sight.

“It’s a Barbie,” she responded.

C.J.’s Dad stared at her, puzzled, before his wife realized that C.J. wasn’t the only one who had no prior experience with Barbies. One hushed conversation later, C.J.’s parents had decided to leave C.J. and the Barbie alone for now. After all, this was probably just a phase. He would get tired of the doll on his own.

“He had never latched on to a toy before,” C.J.’s Mom said. “His brother had been really big on Thomas [the Tank Engine] and the Wiggles, but C.J. hadn’t found a favorite yet, so we were surprised when he grew attached to the Barbie.”

As the days went by, C.J.’s parents slowly realized that this was no phase. What started as an innocent play date with Barbie soon turned into a fascination with Disney princesses. The “pink aisle” in Target became his favorite place to go, and soon C.J. was requesting toys that are typically marketed towards young girls.

And his parents were supportive, to an extent. While his mom and dad were willing to buy him Barbies and introduce him to the girlier side of Disney, they drew the line at anything they thought would lead to judgment or ridicule in their conservative Orange County suburb.

C.J.’s Dad, who openly admits to having been a bully in school, was particularly concerned. His own years in the public school system, combined with his work in law enforcement, had given him firsthand experience with how cruel people can be, and the last thing he wanted to do was condone behavior that could subject his son to a life of bullying.

As C.J. became more infatuated with girl colors, clothes and toys, his parents found themselves coming up with more excuses to hide their son’s behavior from the neighbors. That’s when the rules came into play. “We started off by telling him that he was allowed to play with his Barbies, but that they weren’t allowed to leave the house,” C.J.’s Mom said. “It was so he wouldn’t lose them, that’s what we told him.”

As time went on and the family became more comfortable with C.J.’s behavior, the restrictions were relaxed. C.J. was allowed to bring his girls toys in the car with him, but was told he had to leave them there so that they didn’t get dirty. Eventually, he could bring them into places like the grocery store, but had to leave them behind when his mother picked up his brother from school.

This process of making concessions dragged on for months before C.J.’s Mom slowly began to realize something: she had never told her older son where he was not allowed to bring his toys. C.J.’s Brother never had to ask permission to bring one of his cars along when the family was going out, so why should C.J.?

“I just began to realize that I was treating my sons differently, and that wasn’t fair,” she said. “It just got to this point where I saw that we weren’t denying his brother anything, so as a parent, it felt wrong to be telling my younger son no.”

Right around C.J.’s third birthday, a series of nightly talks behind a closed bedroom door led his parents to discuss what it was they were afraid of.

“In the end, we saw that we were saying no to him because we were afraid of what other people would think,” C.J.’s Mom said. “But those people are strangers, and we just realized that we can’t raise our kids like that.”

In December 2009, the first Christmas after C.J. started expressing an interest in “girl toys,” his parents complied with his wishlist and got him this doll. (Photo courtesy of C.J.’s Mom)

And just like that, the family took a huge step. Four months after C.J. met Barbie, his gender nonconformity was introduced to their preschool community via a Disney princess-themed third birthday party.

“Birthdays in Orange County are a huge thing,” C.J.’s Mom explained. “So this was our family’s way of saying, ‘Alright, here we go!’”

A year of blogging

Pretty soon, that leap led to another.

“It was hard,” C.J.’s Mom recalled. “I mean, I had never dealt with anything like this. We lost some friends who weren’t willing to talk to their kids about [C.J.].”

It was only a matter of time before C.J.’s parents found themselves turning to friends and relatives for parenting advice. The first logical turn was to C.J.’s Uncle, his mom’s brother who came out as gay in his mid-twenties. “I talked to him and his friends about whether they thought C.J. was gay,” C.J.’s Mom said. “I was just trying to figure out what we were dealing with so I could know what to expect.”

But they didn’t know what to tell her, and at this point, she didn’t know where to seek professional guidance. Some of C.J.’s behavior did resonate with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community, but no one had the answers C.J.’s family was looking for.

Eventually, further research led C.J.’s Mom to the term “gender nonconforming” as the description for his behavior. According to a 2009 article published in the University of San Francisco Law Review, gender nonconformists are defined as individuals “who exude visible traits and mannerisms that are atypical with their ascribed biological sex.” Or, to put it in C.J.’s words, he’s simply “a boy who likes girl things.”

“We finally had a word for it,” said C.J.’s Mom. “So then we went looking for information on how to parent a gender-nonconforming child, and there just wasn’t anything out there.”

Combing through pages of Google search results and parenting blogs proved exhausting and fruitless. At one point, the family thought they may have found an answer when blogger Nerdy Apple Bottom wrote a post entitled “My Son Is Gay,” detailing the process her own family went through when her 5-year-old son asked to dress as Daphne from the Scooby Doo series for Halloween. The post went viral, drawing more than 4 million page views and 47,000 comments.

“I was so excited because the post made me realize there are other little boys out there like C.J.,” said C.J.’s Mom. “But then [Nerdy Apple Bottom] went back to writing about typical mom stuff. That’s what her blog is about.”

Finally, C.J.’s Mom sat down with her brother and told him she had been thinking about starting her own blog. One that would talk about the many struggles and rewards of raising a gender-nonconforming child. “I wanted to do something for families like ours,” she said, “to show them that they’re not alone.”

This dress and hat are some of C.J.’s typical dress-up clothes. (Photo courtesy of C.J.’s Mom)

The blog, which she eventually titled Raising My Rainbow, was part of a New Year’s Resolution, one that C.J.’s Mom hoped would help her gain more insight into her son’s behavior.

“I thought that maybe if I put this out there, people would be willing to help,” she explained. “I couldn’t think of a better way than the Internet to reach out to other gender variant people and make sure our family was a part of that world.”

“Plus,” she said, smiling, “I was hoping C.J. could meet a nice little gender-nonconforming girl to play with!”

At first, the blog seemed to be nothing more than a journal for C.J.’s Mom, who set strict rules for herself. She planned on writing two posts a week — a lengthier one every Monday, followed by a “breezy” conversational piece every Thursday — for a year. In addition, she made the vow to always protect her family’s identity.

“The most important thing was to keep names off-the-record,” C.J.’s Mom said. “I saw all of the nasty comments that people left Nerdy Apple Bottom, and they scared me.”

The first few blog posts introduced the family members, talked about C.J.’s desire to receive a Rapunzel princess toy for Christmas in 2010, and even posed questions such as “If homosexuality could be detected during pregnancy, would you want to know?” Raising My Rainbow slowly started to gain steam, and C.J.’s Mom was soon approached by David Hauslaib, founder of Queerty, a popular online magazine covering gay-oriented lifestyle and news. Hauslaib was interested in publishing the blog on Queerty, and when C.J.’s Mom agreed, her readership swelled.

She received emails from top media outlets and elite universities. Her blog’s total page views rose to approximately 1 million, with more than 2,000 email subscribers. She found herself asking where her readers were from, and received confirmation that Raising My Rainbow was being read in more than 45 countries.

“I even made friends with one really great Dad from Ireland,” she said. “He has a gender-nonconforming boy and if his family had been anywhere around here, I totally would’ve set up a playdate for C.J.!”

She found her blog being used as part of gender studies curricula at more than 35 universities worldwide — including Yale, UCLA and UC Berkeley — and featured in her local newspaper, The Orange County Register, and briefly in a New York Times article.

But when a year of blogging was over, C.J.’s Mom found herself at a crossroads. Now that her promise to herself was fulfilled, she wasn’t sure if she should continue posting on Raising My Rainbow. Encouragement from her husband, among others, helped her make the decision.

“We never expected it to get this big,” said C.J.’s Dad. “Honestly, this was started as something that was just therapeutic for us, but now it’s more than that, it’s helping other people out there.”

Even C.J.’s Brother, who is in third grade, is a fan of his mother’s. “Mom writes a famous blog,” he said, matter of factly. “It helps families like us, and it’s famous.”

C.J.’s attire still conformed to typical boy colors and styles when he was 10 months old, shown here on a family trip to Big Bear, Calif. (Photo courtesy of C.J.’s Mom)

So C.J.’s Mom kept writing, though her posts have become much less frequent. “Now, I just write because I think there’s something I should share,” C.J.’s Mom said. “not because I’m sticking to some sort of promise.”

She has no concrete plan to stop, unless an immediate family member asks her to. “If my kids or husband were to ask me to stop, I’d absolutely do it in a heartbeat,” she said. “And there are other family members and friends whose opinions I really value, so if they asked, I’d definitely stop to think about it.”

Anonymity is still being maintained, despite the media’s attempts to persuade C.J.’s family otherwise. C.J.’s Mom has turned down dozens of media requests that meant appearing on television, something she isn’t willing to do. Even names as large as Anderson Cooper have been unable to persuade her otherwise.

“This isn’t something I’m doing for fame or money,” she said. “I have a real job and I’m anonymous for a reason, but sometimes people don’t understand that.”

She has received a significant amount of criticism, particularly from people who worry that the blog will affect C.J. negatively in the future, when he and his peers are old enough to read it.

“I write every post with C.J. in mind,” C.J.’s Mom said confidently. “There isn’t a single post that I would be uncomfortable with him seeing when he grows up.”

C.J.’s Dad added, “Even if this ends up being just a phase, we’re going to tell C.J. that he was gender-nonconforming when he grows up. That’s not something that’s going to be a secret. The proof is in all the photos of him as a child!”

C.J.’s parents have also been keeping a binder of all the positive feedback that they have received since starting the blog which they plan on showing to C.J. when he is old enough to read through them.

“I have other cool stuff to show him, like hundreds and hundreds of emails of support and some emails from people whose lives we’ve changed,” reads a post written by C.J.’s Mom on January 4, 2012. “Parents who gave up struggling over gender and, instead, chose to simply love their child, no questions asked. That is one of my proudest achievements of 2011.”

Preparing for kindergarten

C.J.’s Mom is quick to remind readers that there’s more to her family than what gets posted in the blog.

“People think they know all about us because they follow the blog,” she said. “But they don’t realize that we’re still living during the other six days of the week that I don’t write about. There are a lot of struggles and personal stuff that don’t go on the blog.”

For example, the family recently dealt with a bullying episode at their older son’s school, and they are now preparing to send C.J. off to kindergarten in the fall, a milestone that is being accompanied by plenty of discussions with the school’s administration to ensure that no more bullying takes place.

“C.J. is technically a member of the LGBTQ community, and I’m just trying to ensure that people educate themselves and understand what it means to be gender nonconforming,” C.J.’s Mom said. “People need to understand that it doesn’t mean that C.J. is gay.”

On her blog, C.J.’s Mom is eager to stress the differences between sex, gender and sexuality, differences that she herself became aware of after starting Raising My Rainbow.

“Sex is what’s in your pants, it’s your genetalia,” she said. “Gender is what’s in your brain, it tells you that you are female or male. Sexuality is what’s in your heart, it tells you who you love.”

“A lot of people get all three confused; I used to,” she added. “When C.J. first started displaying effeminate behavior, I foolishly thought it was a sign that he was gay. But C.J.’s effeminacy and gender nonconformity are his gender presentation, not his sexual orientation.”

Despite their best attempts to educate, however, C.J.’s family has realized that sometimes, they do need to let things go.

In a recent post about a baby shower, C.J.’s Mom wrote, “For the majority of my friends, if their baby is a boy he will like boy toys, the color blue, sports and the such. I have to let them revel in their uneducated presumptions and be happy for them.”

“It’s part of my family’s process to not allow ourselves to get jaded and cynical,” she reminded herself. “We have to celebrate and support every person’s individual journey. Sometimes you have to let go of your issues in order to rejoice with and for someone else.”

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