Op-Ed: Thank You, Angelina Jolie, For Celebrating Our Kids Who Are 'Different'
By Lori Duron
"Different is good," Angelina Jolie said Saturday night at the Kids' Choice Awards. "Don't fit in… don't ever try to be less than what you are, and when someone tries to tell you that you are different, smile and hold your head up high and be proud."
As the mother of a child who is different, I can't get enough of Angelina Jolie. Every time she publicly and proudly says or shows that it's okay to be different, I am grateful.
My son C.J. was born a few months after Jolie and her now-husband, Brad Pitt, welcomed their first biological child -- who was declared female at birth, based on anatomy, hormones and/or chromosomes, and given the name Shiloh.
As C.J. grew older and started donning dresses and fairy wings, I watched Angelina's child emerge in a polo shirt and cargo pants. Her child got a short haircut, when mine decided to grow his hair out as long as Rapunzel. Her child reportedly wanted to be called John around the time when mine would answer only to Rebecca. Her child wore a tux on the red carpet the same weekend that mine wore a flower girl dress to a friend's house.
At the Kids' Choice Awards, Angelina's child wore clothes that appeared to be from the boys' section, as mine watched while wearing a nightgown after doing his grandmother's makeup. Our children are different, happy, and all smiles.
With the freedom to be different, explore the whole world -- not just the pink aisles or the blue aisles -- and express gender in a way that feels most comfortable, Angelina's child has seemingly grown more masculine as my child has grown more feminine.
My son still prefers masculine pronouns -- such as he, him and his -- and has gone back to using his masculine birth name, even though nearly everything else about him is feminine. If you ask him, he'll tell you he's a boy who only likes girl stuff.
In recent months there's been much speculation and debate about which pronouns and name -- Shiloh or John -- to use when referring to or addressing Angelina's child. I say we wait until Angelina shows us what to do through her own actions and words as a mother who supports her child's gender identity and expression.
I trust that she'll tell us when the time is right for her family, because it seems that Angelina doesn't hide things -- including her own health challenges, or her child's gender nonconformity -- or assign shame or blame. She celebrates differences. She is honest about challenges. She educates. She inspires. She's a model for parents with children like ours.
She has said publicly, "I would never be the kind of parent to force somebody to be something they are not. I think that is just bad parenting. Children should be allowed to express themselves in whatever way they wish without anybody judging them because it is an important part of their growth. Society always has something to learn when it comes to the way we judge each other, label each other. We have far to go."
I admire Angelina most not for her gift as an actor or selfless humanitarian work, but for the way in which she mothers her differently-gendered child. She models unconditional love and support for her child. Which surprises some people -- though it shouldn't.
A mother's unconditional love should never shock or displease.
Angelina has shown families like ours that we are not alone on this unique parenting journey and -- more importantly -- she's a shining example of not caring about what other people think and ignoring the negative noise created by looky-loos and closed minds.
It takes a very tough skin and soft heart to raise children like ours.
Differently-gendered children have the highest rate of suicide attempts in the world and are nearly 10 times more likely to suffer from major depression, substance abuse and unsafe sexual behaviors. All report being bullied at school and a lot report being bullied at home.
Take Leelah Alcorn, for example, a transgender Ohio teenager who committed suicide last December. She decided that it was better to step in front of a tractor-trailer than to step foot in the home she shared with her unaccepting parents. If someone more like Angelina had mothered Leelah, would Leelah still be alive? Would she be thriving? What would she be offering the world?
Allowing differently-gendered people to express their authentic selves from the time they start to do so -- usually starting between the ages of 2 and 3 -- means that the person doesn't have to come out or reveal secrets later in life. There's less pretending, struggle, lying, hiding and suffering; there's more truth, hope, health, peace, positivity and productivity.
Imagine if Bruce Jenner was a child today. His mother recently told reporters that the two have spoken about Bruce's reported gender transition. "I said I was proud of him and that I'll always love him," she said. "It takes a lot of courage to do what he’s doing."
If Bruce had felt able to have that conversation as a child or teenager, would he have waited until age 65 to apparently consider speaking out? Or, would the openness to gender identity and gender expression set him free in childhood?
These are the things I ponder as I watch my beautiful, brave, creative, dramatic, gender courageous 8-year-old boy twirl in a dress, run in heels, play with dolls, paint his nails and sketch fashion designs. He likes music by Kesha and Katy Perry. Maleficent, for which Angelina was honored at the Kids' Choice Awards, is one of his favorite movies.
I explained to him that the woman who plays Maleficent is named Angelina Jolie, and that she too has a gender-nonconforming child.
"Does she let her kid be gender non-conforming and love her kid no matter what?" he asked, because he knows some parents don't do those things.