It started with a manila envelope filled with scraps of paper — torn corners and Post-It notes collected over time. These held memories of when Harry made her laugh or said something unordinary, like when he was learning about planets in preschool. She had asked little Harry to name some planets and he had said, “Mars, Pluto and Snoopy.”
Although most scraps of paper were simple and funny, some of them were more complicated. For Julie Tarney, Harry’s mom, these timestamps reminded her of Harry’s youth. They reminded her of raising Harry, who at a young age, had a powerful sense of self identity.
When Harry was just two-years-old, he asked Julie, “How do you know I’m a boy?”
After a brief anatomy lesson, Harry said he understood but it seemed like something else was on his mind. He looked at her and said, “Inside my head, I’m a girl.”
When this happened back in 1992, Julie scribbled it down on a piece of paper and stuffed it into the envelope. Harry’s exclamation lived on paper but also lived on in Julie’s mind.
“It was in a time when there were very few resources. There was little knowledge and a lot of misinformation and stereotyping. When I ask Harry about that now — because he doesn’t remember saying that — he thinks that what he was probably trying to communicate was that he was attracted to things that had been labeled feminine,” Julie said.
For Harry’s 18th birthday, Julie separated the funny memories from the more complex ones. She typed them up, cut them out and glued them into an empty journal. The leftover memories were stories when Julie, as a first-time mom, felt confused or worried about things Harry was telling her.
“My Son Wears Heels” is the story of a mother and a son. It’s about how Julie raised a colorful, expressive child in a time when pink was firmly feminine.
“The things that he liked to play with or things that he liked to wear, those things were challenging to me as someone who wanted to be liberal mom and give my kid the freedom to explore himself,” Julie said.
When Harry was two, he wanted to be Wendy from “Peter Pan” for Halloween. Julie was worried. Would the other kids make fun of him? Would the other parents judge her for putting her son in a dress?
“Look at this big orange feather!” Julie had said after she had brought home a Peter Pan costume to entice Harry out of his Wendy decision. It worked. Julie felt awful. She felt she did a disservice to her son by barring him from truly expressing himself. However, when Harry got older, it wasn’t a big deal.
“Years later, Harry really laughed at me about that because he said, ‘Mom, Peter Pan is like the gayest costume ever.’ I said, ‘Really?’ And he said, “Yeah, think about it — Peter Pan is almost always played by a woman!’ So, we had a good laugh over that,” Julie said.
The stories on these pages are a personal account of a mother and her gender-creative son. As readers, we’re right alongside Harry when he is excited about a box of dress-up clothes and when he studies abroad in high school and is challenged by a school nun because of his appearance and gender identity.
We get to attend his high school graduation where he accepts his diploma while wearing red stilettos. These stories are a resource for kids and parents who are experiencing the same kinds of things.
“There are so many universal aspects to a parent-child relationship. This isn’t just a book for parents of gender-creative children; this is a book for every parent,” Julie said.
Raising a child doesn’t have any distinct rules but “My Son Wears Heels” makes a couple things plain: it’s important to let your kids be their authentic selves and to understand that society’s expectations aren’t valid in the realm of personal expression.
“We’re here to help our children be themselves and take on the world. We’re not here to make them into what we think they should be or what the world expects them to be,” Julie said.
Allowing your child to lead the way and find their own path of identity and self-expression is the most supportive form of parenting.
“I think one of the most important things for parents is to examine society’s expectations for kids and how engrained those can be. Realize not all children are going to fit neatly inside a ‘gender box’ that’s either pink or blue. And until that’s on your radar, you may not even think about it. It’s really big,” she said.
As most parents do, Julie learned more about herself in raising Harry the way she did.
“I learned from Harry that fitting in doesn’t mean being like everyone else. It means being accepted for who you are,” she said.
Harry’s story speaks volumes for individuals going through a similar journey of gender identity and self-discovery. There is no right or wrong way to be who you are.
“Tap into your inner strength and your own personal power. Do what you love; find the things that make you happy,” Julie said.
This story also reminds us what it means to be allies and advocates of the LGBTQ community. It takes a strong, consistent voice to spread acceptance and empathy.
“Being an advocate of the LGBTQ community means standing up, showing support, identifying yourself as a supporter, speaking out and speaking up against transphobia and homophobia — whether it’s at a shop or a restaurant or at Thanksgiving dinner with the family,” she said.
There are simple ways to get involved and strengthen your role as an advocate.
“Share an interesting article about LGBTQ issues online. Sign a petition. Donate a book of LGBTQ children’s literature to a school library. There are many small ways to be an advocate,” Julie said.
Julie Tarney was a longtime resident of Milwaukee and currently lives in Brooklyn. She says, “I used to have a ginkgo tree in front of my house in Milwaukee and there are ginkgo trees in my neighborhood in New York so it feels very familiar to me here. I feel right at home.”
Harry also lives in NYC (although not with Julie). He is a creative director, videographer, photographer and drag performer.
“My Son Wears Heels” is available in bookstores and online. Julie’s first stop on her tour will be Boswell Books on Downer for a reading on September 21st at 7pm.