A local group of parents seeks to carve out room for tomboy girls and “gentle” boys.

At first glance, there’s nothing particularly unusual about the round-faced, curly-haired boy who smiles out at you from the 11-year-old photograph. Jeremy Jones, then 3 years old, seems healthy and happy, striking a pose for the camera. But instead of a cowboy hat or football jersey, Jeremy is dressed in one of his mother’s old shirts, a funky ’70s V-neck with diagonal stripes that hangs down almost to his ankles, like a dress. On his face, he wears a black-and-yellow mask that’s shaped like a butterfly and decorated with sequins. He looks a bit like a miniature Vegas showgirl.

Flip through the rest of the album and you see plenty of photos of Jeremy wearing long shirts or old dresses, a ribbon placed neatly over his head to mimic a girl’s long flowing hair. His mother, Karen Jones (the names are pseudonyms, to protect the family’s privacy), says Jeremy loved to wear his older sister’s long-abandoned ballet tutu and an old prom dress they had found at Goodwill.

“We thought, ‘No big deal—he’s only 3,’” says Jones, staring at the album in her suburban Maryland home. “I was sort of a tomboy, and I thought when you’re 3, it doesn’t really matter. Why shouldn’t kids be able to do that?”

Actually, Jeremy’s unconventional behavior started even before his third birthday. Jones says she noticed something different about Jeremy—now 14 years old—when she and her husband adopted him, at age 2. Jeremy was a happy, talkative toddler, but he seemed preoccupied with the female gender. He used the pronoun “she” to refer to pets or stuffed animals, regardless of their actual sex. He loved to draw and read stories with his parents, but he was always more interested in the female characters.

Jones and her husband assumed it was a phase that would pass. But Jeremy’s fascination with females, as well as his interest in activities usually reserved for little girls, persisted. Jeremy liked to run and climb trees and go swimming, but he also liked playing with My Little Pony and Barbie dolls. When he was 5, Jeremy started telling his parents he wanted to be a girl.

“We would say, ‘Why do you want to be a girl?’ And he would say, ‘I like their long hair,’” recalls Jones.

Concerned about Jeremy’s behavior, Jones and her husband took their son to a psychologist. But the doctor offered no explanations. So Jones started her own research, reading about other boys like Jeremy, who are called “gentle” or “gender-variant” by some mental health experts. She was searching for a rationale for Jeremy’s conduct and suggestions as to how she and her husband should respond, but Jones learned something else in her research: Some studies had found that gender-variant boys had a high likelihood of later identifying themselves as gay.

The Jones’ concern about Jeremy’s childhood behavior became anxiety about his future. Jones says she worried that if Jeremy were gay, he wouldn’t have a normal, happy life. As a mother, she wanted to learn more about how to help a gay son through his adolescence and into adulthood. “We didn’t think being gay was an illness,” says Jones. “We knew we’d have to work to accept it, but we knew we could do that.”

In 1998, Jones met Catherine Tuerk, a nurse psychotherapist who—along with Edgardo Menvielle, a psychiatrist at Children’s National Medical Center—wanted to start a support group for parents of gender-variant children such as Jeremy. Jones and her husband signed on. Now, they are one of eight sets of parents that meet once a month in a Unitarian church in suburban Maryland.

Anxiety that their children may eventually identify as gay or lesbian brings most parents to the meetings. Their more immediate concern, however, is helping their kids cope in a world with very strict definitions of appropriate gender behavior for children. Occasionally, children come to the meetings, although they gather in a separate area and spend the time talking or playing.

Jones and Tuerk say that discussions of recent day-to-day events often shape the informal sessions. (Tuerk would not allow a reporter to sit in on the meetings, to protect the privacy of those attending, she said.) Gathered in a basement room of the church, the parents take turns sharing stories or asking for advice from other parents, such as how to help a child cope with teasing and how to respond to criticism from relatives.

Seemingly simple parenting issues for other families can become complicated dilemmas for parents of gender-variant children, says Jones. One recent meeting featured an intense discussion about whether to allow children to have sleepovers with kids of the same gender.

Tuerk says she and Menvielle don’t offer answers or therapy but instead serve as moderators, guiding the discussion and encouraging parents to come to their own decisions. A former president of the metro D.C. chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, otherwise known as PFLAG, Tuerk does her best to diminish parents’ fears about their children’s possibly being gay. She tries to focus much of each meeting on encouraging parents to appreciate the talents and interests of their children, regardless of the gender associations.

According to Tuerk, the meetings provide support for parents. But they might just as well be a grass-roots effort to expand perceptions of what is “normal” childhood behavior. There are plenty of parents and experts who still believe that children should fit within certain gender roles, and that if they don’t, they should be encouraged to do so. Tuerk and Menvielle are on the side of the debate that says children should behave how they want to behave—that boys will be boys, even if they play with dolls.

“We are concerned with kids fitting in, but we are most concerned about them feeling good,” says Tuerk. “We try to focus on not whether they’ll be gay or straight but how to help them get along in a world that only values one kind of boy.”

Tuerk is a trained mental health professional, but her most significant experience with gender-variant children came through parenting one.

Tuerk knew her son was more quiet and gentle than most boys when he was growing up in the ’70s. But it wasn’t until a teacher at the then-4-year-old’s nursery school called her and her husband in for a conference that they became concerned. The teacher said she was worried about the Tuerks’ son because he was more passive than most boys and spent more time playing with toys for girls than with trucks and blocks.

The Tuerks didn’t immediately see anything wrong with their son’s behavior, but they decided to seek out expert advice. They dutifully followed the recommendations—techniques that amounted to little more than “child abuse,” as Tuerk now calls it.

In the ’70s, most doctors agreed that drastic action was required to change behavior such as that exhibited by the Tuerks’ son. By the time he was 8, the boy was visiting a psychiatrist who intended to change the child’s behavior with intensive psychoanalysis. Tuerk and her husband were also encouraged to be “gender cops,” recalls Tuerk, “monitoring his every move so that he would be more typically aggressive.” They discouraged their son from playing with dolls and instead enrolled him in a soccer league and karate lessons that would teach him how to fight.

Such therapy didn’t have the impact that the Tuerks and their doctors expected, however. “The main difference I noticed was that he was becoming more and more unhappy,” says Tuerk.

Tuerk sought guidance from yet another doctor when her son was 12. “That doctor said he would be who he would be,” recalls Tuerk. “That was the first time I heard anyone say anything sensible. From that point on, we just left him alone, and we tried to be supportive.”

Three years ago, Tuerk started the support group to spread the message she had received from that doctor—that boys and girls who don’t fit into traditional gender roles shouldn’t be forced to do so. “People say you do this because you feel guilty,” Tuerk says. “I don’t feel guilty….I was trying to be a good mother. I tried to get professional help. But we were all victimized. There was the thought that therapy would make him different. That is unnecessary and abusive. That is abusive: to make anybody feel like the way they are is bad.”

During his teenage years, the Tuerks’ son tried dating girls but couldn’t find anyone who made him truly happy. When he was a junior in college, he finally told his parents he was gay.

A few years before the Tuerks’ son came out, psychiatrist Richard Green published a landmark 1987 study called The ‘Sissy Boy Syndrome’ and the Development of Homosexuality. In it, Green traced 44 gender-variant boys from childhood through young adulthood, and he found that about three-fourths of those boys—who, at a young age, liked to dress in women’s clothing and dreamed of becoming girls—grew up to be gay men.

Green’s study has held up for more than a decade, showing a strong link between gender variance and homosexuality, but Tuerk notes that not all boys who like to play with dolls turn out to be gay. She estimates that about one-fourth of heterosexual men recall being gentle boys when they were younger.

During meetings of the support group, Tuerk encourages parents to battle their anxiety about homosexuality. She reminds them that gay men can have normal, happy lives. Her son, now 33, is in a long-term relationship with another man, and the couple has adopted two infant sons.

But developing the open-minded and flexible attitude Tuerk advocates seems particularly difficult for parents of young boys. Menvielle notes that, generally speaking, parents are more sensitive to atypical behavior in their sons. “Girls are much freer to cross gender lines. It doesn’t meet with the same degree of stigma,” says Menvielle. Tuerk’s support group is open to parents of gender-variant boys and girls, but only one mother of a tomboy girl has attended a meeting. Still, Tuerk hopes to start a separate group for parents of gender-variant daughters sometime in the future.

Tuerk’s way of thinking has not gained universal acceptance. Generally speaking, parents and mental health experts have become more open-minded about the norms for children’s behavior. But some mental health professionals still believe that gender variance needs to be controlled.

“The majority of kids can be helped to feel better about being a girl or being a boy, so that the situation doesn’t persist into adolescence,” says Ken Zucker, head psychologist at the Child and Adolescent Gender Identity Clinic, a Toronto-based office that has counseled more than 500 youths on gender issues. “Helping a child feel good about [his or her] gender is a legitimate therapeutic focus.”

Zucker believes that parents’ tolerance of their children’s cross-gender behavior may help to perpetuate it. He suggests therapy for parents with gender-variant kids, so that they can identify the source of their child’s behavior and seek to change it.

Therapy programs vary from family to family, says Zucker, but most consist of separate counseling sessions for the parents and their child. Zucker also urges parents to limit their child’s gender-variant behavior and instead push them to play games associated with their sex with kids of their own gender. Zucker says he also stresses that parents must combine the limitations with an open dialogue that encourages children to be proud of their gender.

“The overall goal of therapy is to help these children resolve the conflict they have and to help them feel better about being a boy or being a girl,” says Zucker. He doesn’t expect, however, that his therapy will alter the sexual orientation of the children he treats.

Menvielle argues that treatments like Zucker’s usually have little impact on a child’s immediate behavior. “On the surface, that sounds like good grandmotherly advice,” says Menvielle. “What we’ve found is that it doesn’t work. All that it does is it makes the child feel more responsible for not fitting in….The child hides the behavior, but he does it at the cost of hurting himself.”

Eleven years later, Jeremy Jones has lost the Vegas-showgirl look. Today, he has a medium, stocky build. He wears his hair short and neatly trimmed. He gets good grades. He’s smart, friendly, and talkative. His favorite books are “fantasy books,” as he calls them, such as the The Hobbit and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. On nice days, he likes to in-line-skate.

On the surface, it’s not an abnormal teenage life. Karen Jones says her son has stopped dressing up in his sister’s clothing. But he still likes to draw elaborate pictures of women dressed in sweeping ball gowns or displaying superhero muscles. He hasn’t given up buying Barbies, either. It’s a hobby that doesn’t thrill his parents.

“I think if you would have asked us four years ago, ‘Do you think he’ll still be buying Barbies when he’s 14?’ I think we would have said no,” says Jones.

Jones says that attending the support group sessions has taught her to be tolerant and understanding of her son’s interests. She and her husband remind Jeremy of what can elicit teasing—a “reality check,” as she calls it—but, for the most part, they let him make his own decisions about his activities and his friends.

“There’s been a whole process of learning to hide some of this and him deciding what’s important to his own self-worth,” says Jones. “He’s become very adept at covering, so that he wouldn’t stand out as being abnormal.”

Jeremy has learned, for better or worse, to reveal only what he knows is acceptable in certain situations. He’s learned to hide his Barbies. He shares his drawings, but only with his closest friends. Sometimes, he’ll tell other boys that he has a girlfriend, even though he doesn’t.

Jeremy’s mother says that he hasn’t started dating. He claims to have crushes on girls, and a few have had crushes on him, but the relationships never flourish.

Although he has plenty of male friends, Jones says that Jeremy hasn’t mentioned anything about crushes on boys. Nevertheless, Jones tries to keep discussions of potential relationships gender-free, so that Jeremy will feel more comfortable revealing any love interests, whether they’re boys or girls. Jones says she can do nothing more, except wait.

“He still hasn’t put it together. From his point of view, he likes girls,” says Jones. “I don’t think he knows what he wants. He’s not attracted erotically, sensually to girls. Whether he is to boys, I don’t know.” CP