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'My Son Wears Heels': One Mom's Experience Raising a Gender Nonconforming Child

Ken Hanson
Julie and Harry in 1993.

There is a growing cultural conversation about gender identity in the United States. Shows like TransparentOrange is the New Black, and I Am Cait have all put transgender issues in the spotlight, and explored what it really means to be trans or gender nonconforming. But these concepts of gender diversity and identity weren't really talked about until recently.  

Author Julie Tarney is a Milwaukee native and in 1992, her two-year-old son Harry made a loaded statement: "Inside my head, I’m a girl.” At the time, it was pretty uncharted territory and there weren’t many stories of other parents in her situation. That’s part of what inspired Tarney to write her new book, My Son Wears Heels, which discusses the trials and tribulations of raising a gender diverse child without a guidebook. 

"There were very few resources, there was a lot of misinformation, a lot of stereotyping, little knowledge," she says. At the time, she lacked the vocabulary to even begin the conversation. "The language was very inadequate then. There were no terms like 'gender nonconforming' or 'gender expansive', 'gender fluid', even 'transgender.' Maybe it was being used in the medical community, but I'd never heard it." 

Credit Julie Tarney
Harry in 2006.

When Harry first told Tarney he felt like he was a girl inside, she didn't know what to make of it. Her first inclination was that Harry might be gay. She says that looking back, she feel ridiculous for thinking that. "It wasn't about sexual orientation at all," says Tarney. "It was about gender identity, that is who you know yourself to be inside." 

While Tarney admits she didn't always make the right decisions when raising Harry, she always tried to make his self-esteem her top priority. It wasn't always easy, but she hopes her own experience can serve as a kind of example for others. 

"I realized that I could be a voice for other LGBTQ kids," says Tarney. "I know that my story may help other parents. And bottom line, I think I want those parents to know they're not alone."

Credit Wendy Ploger
Julie and Harry at Barnes and Noble, posing with her book.

In My Son Wears Heels, Tarney describes her feelings of anxiety and stress, trying to navigate her own beliefs and the cultural environment her son was growing up in. It was tough. Looking back, she says she has a lot of regrets; if she could do things over, she would worry less and just let Harry be himself. 

"I used to think, 'Well, maybe Harry was just confused,'" says Tarney. "But I realized that Harry was never confused... I think at the time he was just speaking his truth and what he knew about himself at the time. And it was really I who was confused, not Harry." 

*Originally aired in September 2016

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.