Editor’s Note: While The Telegraph recently reported a story using a Brad Pitt quote from 2010 stating Shiloh prefers to be called “John” and use male pronouns, more recent interviews with Angelina Jolie have seen her referring to Shiloh as “Shiloh” and using female pronouns, so that is what we used in this piece. Regardless, this is an essay about acceptance, no matter how one identifies.
Growing up a preacher’s kid, there were expectations. I had no idea where they came from—I assumed from God, and that’s probably still an accurate guess. But why, I wondered, did God prefer me in a dress on Sunday mornings, and not in pants? Was it written someplace in Luke that I had to maintain the gender expression of a Precious Moments figurine? Or, worse: Is it written that I had to wear matching dresses with my mother and the sun on Easter Sunday? Or dresses at all?
I stand in awe of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie allowing their daughter Shiloh to wear clothes that are an expression of her truest self. I wonder where I’d be now if I were allowed to dress that way back then. Would I have been able to avoid the fashion faux pas of wearing a sequined dress to senior prom? I’m almost 30 and the debate over whether or not I should wear a dress to certain occasions to make others comfortable or pants to make myself comfortable, is still showing up in my life. Not a debate with myself, mind you: I am unapologetically who I am. But it’s a trope that’s stayed close by.
My mother loves to tell the story of the first time she put a dress on me. I was two. She says I angrily stripped it off and ran outside naked—in circles, in the front yard for all the neighbors to see. (Before you chastise my mother for allowing her child to breakout of the house naked, she also dropped my little sister on her head once but to stop someone from stealing my bike out of the driveway. She is a HERO.) Alas, this was back in the ’80s, before the internet, when mothers judged each other in secret, so she’s safe.
My mother wanted for me what all Southern Baptists mothers want; pink and pink and frilly and to be saved. Oh yeah, and to be healthy. In that order.
Just as all the discussion around Shiloh shows, when you come out of the closet as something different, your family comes with you. For me, it was that I am gay. And for my parents, that means fielding questions.
Does she have kids yet? A husband? Is she on Facebook?
My father, the Southern Baptist Minister, had always harbored conflicted feelings on whether or not being gay was a sin. He never told me that—I just assumed how he treated my Uncle Larry was pretty close to how he felt. He treated him how you’d imagine a Southern Baptist would—prayerfully.
When I came out I was 16, my dad said, “I don’t know if it’s a sin or not,” speaking slowly like he was forming the thought for the first time. He’d agonized over this since my Uncle passed away from AIDS. Mostly, the way he treated him in his final years. Prayerfully.
I like to think in that moment when I came out, that he was praying, too, for guidance, for the right words. He spoke deliberately and somewhat miraculously to my ears, “I hope you follow your heart, I want you to be happy. l will always love you no matter what.”
I have this theory and, not surprisingly, my mother will disagree. One day, when I was 11, I’m pretty sure she tried to tell me that she thought I was going to be gay. She will deny this until the cows come home. She did it in the most Christian-eze, bless-her-heart, all the manners of the South kinda way. In other words, she was passive aggressive as a mudda fudda. She said to me, right in the check out line of the Target, “I have a feeling that your little sister will marry before you.” She said it like we were in Downton Abbey, but we weren’t—we were in downtown Target. I was appalled at her statement because was she blind? At 11 years old I was surrounded by boys. Little league soccer, little league basketball, little league baseball. I was also MVP! What guy wouldn’t want to marry me? Can we say trophy wife?
I “dated” the same boyfriend through elementary and middle school. He was a cutie, with a blonde birthmark the size of a dollar coin on the back of his otherwise dreamy brunette head. We broke up so many times though because of life’s challenges. He wasn’t allowed to talk to girls on the phone yet.
When lunchtime came at my Christian School, I felt completely enamored feasting on my microwaved pepperoni pizza Luncheable next to him. We’d talk about all sorts of things, like breaking up and water skiing and Jesus.
One Friday we got into a particularly heated lunchtime discussion. PE had just ended and I had just collected the most Popsicle sticks for running laps around track. The way I remember it in my dreams and how it actually happened are one in the same: I set the school record and qualified for the Olympics. OK–so my imagination was wild. But this I know for sure: I had beaten *Kyle that day.
“We have to break up,” Kyle said, sighing into his string cheese. “The Bible says a woman is to submit to the man, and you should not beat me in P.E.” I pleaded with him. Did submission really mean I would have to stop slaying all the boys in everything? “I mean, I’ll get you a juice!” was my response.
Kyle went on to marry one of the first few girls he dated after me. His high school sweetheart. I don’t care if it happens in 8th grade; it’s a weird feeling when they marry someone they date right after you. To know you were holding him back all those years. Even if it was just elementary school.
My little sister is getting married this year. I’m almost 30; she’s 26. Yes, she is marrying first. My mom was right. (And as a bonus, I’m also a lesbian.) With the wedding comes the question that has been prevalent since I was two: am I going to wear a matching bridesmaids dress to the wedding? Or am I going to wear my mother and God’s most hated article of clothing, ever: pants.
This discussion in 2014, contrasted with a picture of Shiloh Jolie-Pitt—an 8-year-old wearing what she wants.
“We’ll have to tell the minister your sister is gay,” words fly. “That’s fine!” I say, “But who is going to warn me that he’s a Southern Baptist?” I crack, on twitter, because the audience is better there.
“You really want me to wear a dress, Mom?” Maybe I was really asking, “Will you accept me for me?”
“Will you help me with my cleats, mom?” It was Saturday morning, damp and cold, but in Florida. It was time for my first softball game. My mom tucked my long curly hair underneath my Astros hat, a team I was certain I’d play for in the major leagues one day. She had played softball in high school, too, and hoped I’d follow in the trail of her cleats one day.
My mom would teach me how to grease my glove. She would patiently drive the family car forward and backwards over my glove in the driveway. I would count with my hands in sign language so she’d see through the window: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 500.” After greasing the glove up, we’d play fetch. I know it’s called “catch,” but looking back we were playing fetch. She pretended to be constantly in awe of “my arm” when I’d purposefully throw as high as I could and into the neighbor’s yard. I didn’t quite get yet that I was supposed to throw the ball to her; that a successful throw also meant a successful catch.
These days my pitches are more direct. What if it doesn’t take matching dresses anymore to match the sun (or the “son”— that is real terminology) on Easter Sunday. What if it takes someone like Shiloh simply being themselves. Or better yet: What if moms held space for their kids like Angelina Jolie does for her kids to be themselves, even with an international spotlight? How bright would that be?
For me, as it’s always been, it’ll be wearing pants to the wedding. My mom knows that ultimately I am in control of it. But it doesn’t stop me from wanting to respect her wishes.
So Mom, I will wear a dress but only if I may promptly strip it off and streak naked again. What’s that, I should wear a suit? I think so, too.
Lianna Carrera is a stand-up comedian and comedy writer in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter: @liannac