Earlier this month, a mother took her 10-year-old son into a clothing store in Raleigh, N.C., whose motto is "Just for Girls!"
He wanted to try on the glittery shirts and poofy skirts. Without hesitation, the store manager on duty guided him to the racks and stayed with him as he put on the clothes in a dressing room.
That afternoon was the happiest Martie Todd Sirois has seen her son.
Every day of his life, since he was very young, Sirois' gender-nonconforming child has struggled for acceptance.
When Charlie was about 2 ½ years old, she took him and his older brother and sister to Target to pick out a toy with their Christmas money. She directed Charlie to the aisle with the toys for young boys, but he had no interest in them. Then she took him to where his older brother was choosing between trucks and LEGO sets, but Charlie just sat on the cold floor tugging at the Velcro on his shoe, she said.
Then she asked him: "Charlie, which aisle do you want to look at?" His face brightened and he led her to the aisle filled with princess toys and pointed to a big oval mirror like the one from Snow White that responds when asked, "Who is the fairest one of all?" He looked up at his mom and said, "I want this."
For many years, Sirois assumed her son was gay, never considering that he was actually struggling with his gender identity. But as he got older, it became clearer that Charlie was happiest when wearing and playing with things made for girls. At home, he would wear her old dresses and princess costumes, lying around the house in them while watching TV.
It wasn't until he was in the fourth grade that Charlie began to wear his girl things in public. His parents took him to buy a new backpack for school, and he led them to one that Sirois describes as a "glittery explosion of rainbows and hearts." At first, her heart sank, imagining the cruelty her son would endure by carrying it. But she bought it for him. She couldn't reconcile telling him to be himself, and then telling him he couldn't have the bag he really wanted.
"We have to embrace him everywhere, not just behind closed doors in our home," Sirois said she and her husband agreed.
As she feared, kids pointed and laughed. They asked why he wore a backpack for girls. The taunts and sneers have only gotten worse as Charlie has become more brave. Just last week, Sirois said she picked him up from school, and overheard kids waiting for the bus yell, "There goes the boy that wears girl shoes."
He sits alone most days at lunch and spends most recesses playing by himself. He has sat on the school playground's "buddy bench," which is supposed to be a signal to other kids that he's looking for someone to play with, but no one has come over to ask him. Once he told his mom he walked around the track, trying to look like he was having fun, so the other kids wouldn't know he was sad.
"It hurts so bad when your child says, 'I didn't play with anyone today,' " Sirois said. "I am blown away by the bravery he shows. He could take his old blue backpack, but he straps on the girls' backpack like a piece of armor."
Sirois, in advocating for her son, has become a resource for other parents with kids who are gender nonconforming. She started a local group in Raleigh called S.E.A.R.CH. (Safe Environment for the Acceptance of Rainbow CHildren) and blogs openly about her experience. She receives hundreds of emails, many from parents thanking her for her support, but some from kids who are suffering because they know they are transgender, but are scared to tell their parents.
Charlie loves the group, where he can meet other kids like him. He has adopted the term "gender creative" to describe himself and has recently taken to asking his family to refer to him as "they." But that's still an adjustment; when Sirois talks about him she still uses male pronouns.
"I don't feel like a boy or a girl. I just want to be a person," she said Charlie told her. "I took his lead and listened to him and tried to support him as best I can," she said.
So, last spring when he started asking about shopping at Justice, she decided she would take him. But the day before she planned to go, her state made it a law that transgender people had to use the bathroom that corresponded with their gender at birth and not the gender they are now. To Sirois, it was just another painful reminder of the discrimination her son faced, not just from adolescents in his school, but from his government. Tensions around LGBTQ issues were high in her state, so she put off the trip to the girls' clothing store. She didn't know if they could legally ban Charlie from using the dressing rooms.
Months later, with the help of a mom in her support group calling the store ahead of time to determine whether a boy would be turned away, Sirois finally took Charlie shopping there on Sept. 9 after school. The manager took Charlie around the store, as though she were his personal shopper, and stayed past her shift to help him feel comfortable.
Sirois shared their shopping experience on Facebook, a post that has now been shared nearly 25,000 times:
"After getting a feel for what colors, textures and patterns he liked, Stephnie showed us several possibilities, from sequined mini skirts to slim jeggings. My son LOVED them all. We went to the changing room, and my son couldn't get those clothes on fast enough. Once that first outfit was on, he posed and admired himself in the mirror, spun around in circles to see the skirt poof out, and studied himself from all angles in every possible combination of outfits. It was pure joy. My son dropped his frequent doom and gloom look and suddenly sprang to life in these clothes. There was no denying he became a different, more confident, and happier child when wearing pretty things."
A different manager who answered the phone at the Raleigh Justice store on Sunday declined to comment.
Since their shopping trip, Charlie has worn his Justice shirts to school with his Twinkle Toe sneakers and lunchbox shaped like a purse. He told his mom he's not ready yet to wear the skirt. He confided in her that on the first day he wore the sparkly shirt, kids in the cafeteria pointed and laughed. He's strong most of the time, but he cried when he shared that.
"He really just wants to be himself," Sirois said, "but at the same time, he wants to be accepted by others."