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Navigating Gender Roles With the Straight Dad of a 4-Year-Old Boy

02/24/2015 01:41 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

I am not the straight dad. I am the gay uncle.

The 4-year-old in question is my nephew, Nathan. In my unabashedly biased opinion, he is the most remarkable little fella on the planet -- smart, funny, cuter than most kids his age, and absolutely destined for amazing things. He is obsessed with hockey, Star Wars Legos, Rescue-Bots and Sponge Bob Square Pants. He loves cars, Iron Man, Transformers and R2-D2. His backpack is adorned with Spider Man, his t-shirts are branded with Avengers and his fairy wings are pink and green, with sequins that shimmer and dance if the light catches them just so...

It started in October, when his dad, Chris, took him shopping for Halloween. Nathan desperately wanted a Captain America costume, but also positively and absolutely needed to have a set of green and pink fairy wings. He is, like most 4-year-olds, prone to rash decisions and changing his mind at a moment's notice, so Chris was hesitant to shell out for a set of green and pink ferry wings that may or may not have been forgotten about in six or seven minutes -- no matter how fabulous they were. They decided to wait, check in with Mom, and come back in a few days.

Chris says he wasn't surprised that Nathan wanted the fairy wings because they had something similar at daycare that the kids ran around in all the time. "I know how quickly he changes his mind, so I thought it was best to wait. If he was still asking about them the next day, and the one after that, it'd be a different story."

It was a different story when Nathan announced that he wanted a dress.

Unfortunately, one of the first thing that crosses most people's mind when they hear that a little boy asked for a dress is that he must be gay.

We live in a rampantly heteronormative world, where little boys are supposed to do little boy things and little girls are supposed to do little girl things. Any deviation from this norm is, more often than not, greeted with derision and fear. Because nonconformity to established gender norms is highly stigmatized around the world, it is difficult to pinpoint exact numbers. However, most studies have found that a vast majority of men who wear women's clothing are heterosexual, not gay. The perception is far different. Attitudes are changing, but slowly, and definitely not quick enough for this protective father.

"Did it cross my mind? Of course it did. But not for the reasons you may think. I don't care if he's gay, I really don't. I care that he has an easy life and growing up gay is not an easy life."

Chris' brother, my husband, was mercilessly bullied as a child because he was different. More effeminate than the other boys, shy, quiet, and labeled as a "queer" at an early age, his primary school years were filled with physical violence and unimaginable torment.

"There's nothing crueler than a schoolyard full of kids, they're like a pack of hyenas circling their prey. I witnessed, first hand, the kind of Hell my brother went through and I don't want that for Nathan."

Chris is in no way homophobic or intolerant. He was his brother's best man when we got married and is the closest thing I have to a best friend. We jokingly call each other "fag" with no intent to harm and our differing sexualities have little or no consequence on our family's dynamic. He is a good man and a loving father whose only concern is for the well-being of his son. I admire and appreciate his honesty when talking about these sensitive things.

Eventually, after Nathan kept pressing, his mom Julie took him shopping and he now has a dress.

As it currently stands, with dad at least, Nathan is not allowed to wear his dress in public -- to be fair he's not allowed to wear his Optimus Prime onesie in public either. "They are costumes," Chris says. "And costumes stay at home."

He is not prepared for his son to be a social experiment. There is an inherent, biological need to protect his son. Whether Nathan is straight or gay, or some combination thereof, a cross dresser or a drag queen or just a little boy exploring what makes him tick, it only matters that he is allowed to do it safely. If leaving the dress or the fairy wings at home keeps him from being bullied, or teased or made to feel like there is something different or wrong with him, Chris is ok with the ramifications. "People can say whatever they want, that I'm ashamed or embarrassed or whatever. It's not about my reaction, because I honestly could care less. It's a boy in a dress, so what? It's about other people's reactions and how that affects Nathan."

It's a different story with mom. "I've taken him out wearing all sorts of things. I don't care. He wore his dress to the library the other day. He just likes to play dress-up. It's fun for him. Right now, he likes princesses and princess dresses because they are pretty and fun to play with. Next week it might be a Chewbakka costume. It's no big deal."

When faced with this dichotomous reality, Chris tries to explain why it exists: "Julie didn't have to deal with the same situation I did, with my brother. She's more inclined to believe in people's inherent kindness than I am."

They both understand that it is bound to happen, sooner or later, that someone bursts his bubble. It might be a group of kids his age that whisper and snicker and point. It might be a look of disapproval from a family that looks remarkably similar to their own. It might be an "in your face" sort of thing, where some obtuse troglodyte decides to stick their nose in where it doesn't belong. Eventually, some ignorant, narrow-minded, do-gooder is going to say to him little boys aren't supposed to wear dresses. It doesn't matter how, it matters that it is coming: "that moment" when Nathan is made to feel ashamed because he is not conforming to society's preconceived gender roles.

The collective "we" that make up Nathan's family are doing everything in our power to raise a well adjusted, free thinking, non judgmental young man, who is, above all else, happy. It's easy, within the context of our small group. It's when you bring in the rest of the world that it gets a little dicey.

"We can do everything within our power to protect him from ignorance," Chris says. "We can instill in him a strong sense of self and provide an unflappable support structure, but when "that moment" comes... well, it'll be up to Nathan... how he reacts. If he's made to feel ashamed or bad about himself, is it wrong to try to delay that as long as possible?"

He doesn't have anything to worry about, yet.

The other day, after some quality Uncle Robbie time, I asked Nathan about his dress.

"Do you pick out your clothes for school or does your Mommy?"

"Meow."

He's really into pretending he's a kitty right now.

"Hey kitty cat," I tried again. "Who picks out your clothes in the morning?"

"I do."

"Do you ever wear your dress to school?"

He looked at me like I'd grown a second head. "No."

"Why not?"

"It's too pretty. I don't want to ruin it."

A dad and his little girl just walked into the coffee shop where I am sitting and writing. She is wearing a black leather jacket and a pink tutu with tights. Two people in line have already smiled at her and remarked at how pretty she looks. She is lapping it up. Nobody bats an eye. Life goes on.

And now, a dad and his two sons... They are decked out in soccer gear; cleats with socks up to their knees, Man U jerseys, the whole nine yards. Someone just asked them if they can "bend it like Beckham." The boys are shy. Everyone is laughing. Life goes on.

Chris and Nathan are here now. He's wearing his dress and his nails are painted bright red...