Prizm News / February 1, 2018 / By Dre’ Varela
Illustration by Christian Cimoroni

My gender-fluid 12-year-old faces the world with confidence and pride, but I’m scared out of my mind.

By Dre’ Varela

There was one child drag queen among the beautiful mass of sparkly and talented headline performers featured in November at the Austin International Drag Festival. “The Dragnificent E!” is my son.

We were honored that E was asked to be a part of it. While there, E was treated like royalty, surrounded by so much adulation and support everywhere we went. E was loved. E felt loved. It was a beautiful thing.

But not even a day after our return, I learned that a Texas-based online news-talk show had sent someone undercover to infiltrate the festival, fishing for a juicy, scandalous story about those crazy drag queens. What the reporter found was what you might expect: colorful, loud, brazen and, at times, crass drag queens.

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Big shocker there, right? But what the reporter also saw was children—lots of them—some in strollers, some sitting cross-legged on the floor up front, some in glittery costumes with technicolor wigs looking like the performers on stage. The reporter was beside herself with concern for these poor children, exposed by their parents to these filthy drag queens.

And at the center of the story was my own son.

As video clips of E flashed across the screen, the reporter and host bantered back and forth using really ugly terms to describe my son. Most bothersome, E was referred to as a “he/she,” as an “it.” That’s what hit me the hardest, that people would use such ugly language to describe the light of my life, as if my child was some kind of freak.

Of course, there was no mention of the beaming happiness on E’s face after he performed to the thunderous applause from a delighted audience. The reporter even went on to say that I should be reported to children’s services for abuse.

To let my child express himself in a way that brings him joy; for that, I am considered by some as abusive. Doing drag is a way for E to proclaim his femininity publicly, for the whole world to see. And he does it with grace, dignity, talent and pride.

Yes, at age 12.

As parents, we love and accept him the way he is, and we have always allowed him to express this feminine side of himself. By the way, for the purpose of this essay, E’s dad, my partner and I still use masculine pronouns for E, with his permission.

Publicly, E accepts any pronoun. He says he relates to all pronouns: masculine, feminine and neutral. He honestly doesn’t get uptight about one pronoun or another.

Our child is gender-fluid and has been demonstrating that to us since he was 3 years old. This was about the time when I found my highest, reddest pair of heels under E’s crib and then caught him shuffling around his playroom wearing only pull-ups and stilettos.

E has always had lots of feminine role models in his midst. I’m a performer myself, so E has grown up around flamboyant, over-the-top people. There has never been a shortage of diva inspiration in our house.

My mother thinks it’s my fault that E is so feminine, that E looks up to me and wants to be like me. First of all, that’s not a bad thing. But there are plenty of sons who grow up with uber-feminine mothers. Not all of them don feathers and rhinestones, I’m sure.

We’re fortunate. E is a student at CAPA, Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts School. As an artsy kid, E is able to go to school dressed in whatever he wants. Some days he “dresses like a boy,” whatever that means. Some days he wears a combination of gender-neutral clothing, but almost always accented with large, loud jewelry.

But most days he just wears feminine clothes. He has become known for his exaggerated “cat eye” eyeliner. I’m amazed and entertained when I see E bound down the stairs for school every morning, always amazed by E’s unique sense of style, mixing feminine with neutral styles. He wears clothes with confidence and pride.

E delights me. He’s such a creative and expressive little human. He understands clearly that he’s not like most kids, but he boldly presents himself to the world. Although it scares me in many ways, I can’t help but be proud.

Although E gives me hope about our future, it feels like our country is moving backward in so many ways lately. As much as I want E to be able to face the world with confidence, I also want him to be able to face the world with caution.

It’s hard to teach him to be careful without also giving him the sense that I’m afraid. The honest truth is that I’m scared out of my mind. E is so precious. The thought of people harassing him—or worse—because of who he is brings tears to my eyes. (I promise, they’re welling up right now.)

His dad and I comment often that maybe it’s time for martial arts classes, some self-defense techniques. I hate it, but thoughts of Matthew Shepard come up when I imagine what the world will be like when E gets to be in his 20s.

I immediately think to myself, “That kid is never leaving the city alone.” But you and I both know I can’t shelter him forever. As a parent, the best I can do is be truly honest with him and give him the tools he’ll need to be able to fend for himself in our sometimes-ugly world.

Easier said than done though.

He and I have regular “car talks,” the 20-minute drive between home and the bus stop. We often talk about gender, the harsh truths about our world, people’s insecurities, politics, human nature and the reality of being E. Heavy stuff, but important.

I have to mentally prepare him every day so he understands how special he is. And so he knows without uncertain terms that some people will never understand him. And that that’s OK.

He understands that it will sometimes be difficult to be true to whom he is. But that ultimately, it will always be worth it.

The bottom line is, I am thoroughly in love with my kid. He’s a mystical little human in a troublesome world. I want to shield him from pain and harm and just to allow him to be himself. We take it day by day.

Although I want to take baby steps, E is already running a sprint. As a parent, I chase after him, pretending not to want to protect him, while giving him the space to be the gender-fluid phenomenon that he is.

What a world we live in now, right? Whether or not they’re ready, I’m glad my beautiful E is going to be out there, helping the world learn a little bit more about tolerance and acceptance.

Dre’ Varela is a Bowling Green native and OSU graduate who now resides in Pittsburgh. She is the founder of Columbus’ and Pittsburgh’s queer burlesque and drag troupe, the Velvet Hearts. “You can take the girl out of OH!,” she says, “but her Buckeye heart will always say IO!”