The first time I wrote about my little friend Francis he was three years old.
Remember Francis, the little boy who liked to wear dresses? The middle son of one of my most beloved friends, the fearless fairy child who provided me with living, pirouetting proof that gender outlaws are just born like that, even in cabins in the bush with no running water or satellite television.
He confirmed my theory that some of us come out of the factory without a box, or with parts that don’t match the directions that tell our parents how we are supposed to be assembled.
Watching Francis grow up taught me that what makes him and I different is not the absence of a father figure or a domineering mother. It’s not being exposed to too many show tunes or power tools at an impressionable stage in our development. We are not hormonal accidents, evolutionary mistakes, or created by a God that would later disown us.
Most of us learn at a very early age to keep our secret to ourselves, to try to squeeze into clothes that feel like they belong on someone else’s body and hope that the mean kids at school don’t look at us long enough to find something they need to pound out of us. But Francis had a mother that let him wear what he wanted, and Francis had evidence that he was not alone, because Francis had me.
He is 11 now, and I got to hang out with him and his brothers last January, up in Dawson City. He doesn’t wear dresses anymore, and I didn’t see much of his younger self in the gangly boy body he is growing into.
He is a tough guy now, too cool to hug me when his friends are around, full of wisecracks and small-town street smarts. He can ride a unicycle, juggle, and do head spins. He listens to hip-hop and is not afraid to get in a fistfight. He calls other kids faggot, just like his friends do, but only when his mother can’t hear him.
I can’t help but wonder if the politics of public school have pushed him to conform, or if he has just outgrown his crossdressing phase and become as butch a son as any father could hope for.
I try to imagine what it would be like for him to be the only boy in a dress on a playground full of kids whose parents are trappers and hunters. To be labelled queer in a town of 1700 people and more than its fair share of souls who survived residential schools, families with four generations of inherited memories of same-sex touches that left scars and shame and secrets. I don’t blame him for hiding his difference here, for fighting to fit in.
I walk past his school one day on my way to buy groceries, and watch him kick a frozen soccer ball around in the snow with his buddies. He sees me, and stands still for a second, breathing silver clouds of steam into the cold. When he was little he used to fling himself through his front door when I came to visit and jump on me before I was all the way out of my truck.
He would wrap his whole body around my neck and hips and whisper wet secrets and slobber kisses into my ear. Now he barely returns my wave before he turns and disappears into a sea of snowsuits and scarf-covered faces.
I find myself searching the crowd for a boy I barely recognize, a Francis who has outgrown my memory of him. I miss the Francis he used to be, the boy-girl who confessed to me when he was five years old that I was his favourite uncle because we were the same kind of different. Now I can’t tell him apart from all the other boys wearing blue parkas.
I realize later I am doing to Francis exactly what I wish the whole world would stop doing to our children: wanting him to be something he is not, instead of just allowing him to be exactly what he is.
I don’t want Francis to spend his lunch break being tormented and beaten up. I remember growing my hair in junior high and wanting everyone to like me, and I will never forget the blond boy from school who walked like a girl, and that time in Grade 8 someone slammed his face in a locker door and gave him a concussion because he wanted to try out for the cheerleading team.
By Grade 10 he had learned to eat his lunch alone in an empty classroom and wear his gym shorts under his jeans, but everybody acted like they were his best friend after he shot himself in the head with his stepfather’s hunting rifle during spring break the year we all graduated.
They hung his school photo up in the hallway, and all the kids pinned paper flowers and rest in peace notes to the wall around his picture, but nobody wrote that they were sorry for calling him faggot or sticking gum in his hair or making fun of how he threw a ball.
I made a silent promise to Francis the day I left Dawson City, to always love what he is right now as much as I loved who he was back then. Whether he grows up to become a textbook heterosexual he-man or he one day rediscovers his early love for ladies garments, I will always be his favourite uncle, no matter what he’s wearing.