My wife, Sarah, and I were preparing to speak at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley about kids, gender, and our book, Jacob’s New Dress.
Reviewing our materials, we marveled at how far the world had come since our son, now twelve, first asked to wear a dress at age three. In nine years, gender non-conforming kids had gone from being publicly shamed to being featured in magazines, newspapers, and TV talk shows. Supportive feature articles had appeared in both The New York Times and The New Yorker. There were even gender non-conforming characters on mainstream television who weren’t caricatures or the butt of jokes. Change was happening at a pace we’d never imagined, a pace we could see.
We carried that enthusiasm into our talk. The audience was warm, thoughtful, and appreciative. We learned that the Unitarian Church has a comprehensive sex-ed program where they start teaching about gender diversity in kindergarten. “Look,” we thought, “more change for the good!” We knew there would always be educational work to be done, but sitting in that room, we could see the world had become a better place.
Then one woman spoke up, telling the group that her daughter had just been kicked out of preschool for dressing and acting like a boy. As she spoke, she tried not to cry. This was all new to her, and she didn’t know what to do. Was it true what people said, she asked, that her little girl was like this because she and her husband were too permissive? She’d read our book and decided she had to meet us. Maybe we would know the answer to her questions.
It was hard to breathe. We were sitting in a progressive church, in the liberal Bay Area, in the year 2014, celebrating incredible social change. And yet we just heard about a little girl who had been kicked out of preschool for…what? Pants? Baseball caps? Short hair?
Maybe the world hadn’t changed as much as we thought.
At home after the event, Sarah and I talked about the pain that woman and her family were going through. A kind of pain so common when a child has a gender difference. Yet it was still true that the world had changed an incredible amount in the last few years. We realized that this is very much the heart of our job: to hold both of these things as true, and to not lose sight of either of them. To remember the pain, because that’s why we wrote our book, and to remember the change, because that’s why we wrote it, too.
Sarah and I would like to thank Albert Whitman & Company for being brave, thoughtful, and forward-thinking–for publishing Jacob’s New Dress. A lot of kids, and a lot of parents, need a story about someone like them. They need to know they are OK being who they are. And they need to know they are not alone.
-Ian & Sarah Hoffman
Sarah and Ian are the parents of a pink boy and a girl whose favorite color is yellow. Sarah writes for national magazines, newspapers, and radio, and speaks publicly about raising her gender-nonconforming son. Ian writes children’s books. You can find them through their website, Facebook, and Twitter.