01/27/2012 12:28 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2012

Veronica Rhodes : Toeing the Gender Line

By Veronica Rhodes

My daughter was on the floor, arms raised in self-defense, as the two boys stood over her with baseball bats.

Did your blood run cold just reading a description of that scene? Mine certainly did when I walked in on it -- even though the bats were inflatable, the boys only 6 and 8, and all three kids were giggling madly as they re-enacted a zombie scene from the TV show they'd just watched.

I wasn't laughing. Even as I broke up the scene with a casual "okay, that's enough now" and scooped my daughter to her feet, I knew that mental image would be indelible. Ann* is a dream child -- loving and generous, easy to satisfy, eager to please. She loves to snuggle up next to me at night and tell me all about how she's going to be a police officer and a doctor when she grows up, and how I can come over any time and use her pools (indoor and out) any time I want. So why do I just know, with every fiber of my being, that there's a bully in her future?

Because Ann likes to keep her hair cut short, wear boys' clothes, and play sports instead of Barbies. It's just who she is, nothing more or less than that. As we often say around here, you like what you like, so go ahead and like it and don't pay any attention to anyone who has anything to say about it.

Not that we haven't paid attention to it, or spent time agonizing over what it means that she likes what she likes. We started to realize that this might be an "issue" when Ann was about 5, when her not wanting to wear frilly dresses progressed into her not wanting to wear girls' clothes at all. In the playground, she gravitated toward the boys and their pickup soccer games while the girls chatted on the swings. Still, in her warm and fuzzy school, with kids she'd known since babyhood, nobody seemed to care.

For the most part we've taken this day by day, trying not to sweat the small stuff. But since the small stuff adds up to the big stuff -- her very identity -- at every step we've talked and negotiated and obsessed about how far to let this go. We don't want to push her into anything by encouraging her, but we also don't want to pull her back and make her feel ashamed of who she is, or force her into the mold of someone she's not. It's not as easy as it sounds to just let your child be, and not push or pull in any direction.

I've read everything I can get my hands on about gender variance in children, and I know Ann is a little bit unusual, but not terribly so. Lots of other kids march a little (or a lot) to the left or right of their expected gender line, and most experts agree that love and support are a parent's best reaction. The therapist we consulted assured us that Ann's evolving gender identity has nothing to do with us -- she will be who she will be, no matter what her two moms do or say, and the only choice we have to make is how we make her feel about it.

I can't imagine why Ann wouldn't be happy with herself the way she is, and I tell her every day that she's perfect, that she is lovable exactly the way she is, and that nobody, but nobody, should ever make her feel otherwise.

But middle school is coming, with all its drama and social stress. I know you don't need a bat to inflict deadly harm -- taunts, exclusion, and online ridicule can do plenty of damage.

The kids at Ann's elementary school accept that she's the girl who looks like a boy, just as they accept their male classmate with near-waist-length hair -- they've all known each other so long that they barely notice. But two years from now all these kids will move up into the larger, district-wide middle school. A whole new crop of kids will get to know Ann there -- and whether they accept her for who she is or decide to torment her for it is what keeps me up nights already.

Will the neighborhood kids she now counts as friends stand by her if she gets labeled a "loser" in middle school? What if new classmates decide she's "queer" or "weird" or any other deadly social label they may apply? Will she stand alone against the mean kids, or will she find her niche and find her own little protective cluster of buddies to fit into?

On her May 25, 2011, Facebook post Gloria Steinem lamented that kids enforce gender roles on each other even more strictly than adults impose them -- the most feminine of the girls are the meanest to girls who don't adhere to their rules on fashion and makeup, and the toughest of boys are the hardest on those who don't meet their definition of masculinity. I look at Ann and see a unique blend of boy and girl - she may not feel much like a girl, but she's hardly a tough little tomboy. I don't even know what bully to fear, boy or girl?

All we can do as we continue down the road is hope that our love creates so much self-esteem in Ann that the inevitable middle-school hurts don't do too much damage. That love -- and the martial arts classes she takes twice a week -- will have to protect her until she emerges into adulthood and finds her own identity and place in the world. Because if she can't ignore the bullies, I want her to be able to take them down. Hard.

*All names have been changed to protect my family's privacy.

Veronica Rhodes writes about gay parenting under this pen name. To find out more about her, read her blog on Red Room.