I can still hear my grandmother’s voice clearly from over fifty-five years ago when she found me playing with dolls.
Here’s the scene, I was six and my sister was four. My sister and I were on the carpet in her room playing with a set of barbie like dolls acting out an elaborate story we were making up. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, who regularly took care of us, peeked her head into the room. “What are you doing? You are a boy. Boy’s don’t play with dolls. Do you want me to tell all your friends that you play with dolls?”
What was I doing wrong? My grandmother and aunt were the ones who had given me the boy doll less than a year earlier. What had happened in the months since Christmas morning? That day my grandmother and aunt arrived early with two bags of presents for my sister and me. I remember they opened up the card table and put playhouse covering on it, which my grandmother had sewed from a pattern, complete with windows and a door, to make a wonderful place for us to hide out and play. They brought us beautiful Steiff hand puppets made in Europe, and they brought us dolls.
I was given a boy doll and my sister was given two girl dolls, complete with different outfits to wear. I wasn’t playing with my sister’s dolls, I was playing with my doll and my sister’s dolls which my grandmother had given us. What had changed over the past year? I was clearly doing something wrong in her eyes.
About a year earlier, as I lay on the couch watching TV, with my hands down my pajama pants playing with my penis, my grandmother, with displeasure and disappointment in her voice, commanded me to stop what I was doing or she would tell all my friends. “Do you want me to tell all your friends that you play with yourself?” I was in kindergarten and believed her. While I could not understand exactly what the problem was since it felt so good, I did not want my friends to know. I waited and watched as the weeks passed to see if my friends were any the wiser, but they never said a word. I began to understand that my grandmother’s threat was meant to scare me but not to be acted upon. While I was more careful about touching myself lying on the couch in our family room, I never stopped touching myself in private.
So when my grandmother commanded me to stop playing with dolls I remember thinking in my six-year-old brain how wrong this was. By this time I knew that my grandmother’s threat was not going to happen. I also saw something false in my grandmother’s words since she the one who had given me the male doll, the doll which she now found unacceptable for me to play with. Was it the transition from kindergarten to first grade that made the difference in her expectations? I suspect it was more the fact that my grandmother was raised in the hotel her parents owned, and was always very conscious of how she appeared to other people and what they might say about her.
My grandmother was one of the people in the world I loved the most and her opinion of me mattered a great deal. So while I knew she would not tell my friends I played with dolls, I was still upset and hurt that she was angry and disappointed in me. I never wanted her to be angry with me and would always work to make things right.
One of the joys of my childhood was to create elaborate dramatic stories with my sister using our dolls. I began to understand, triggered by my grandmother’s disapproval, that there was something bad about me, a boy, playing with dolls, just as I had learned earlier not to play with my penis.
I also felt more generally there was something wrong with me as a person, that I wanted to do these things that were seen by adults as bad. I had this off-kilter feeling through much of my childhood, finding myself on the wrong side of other people’s displeasure, including my father and many teachers, and usually not understanding why. It was not until a few years ago that I understood a gay child, with behaviors and traits outside society’s gender norms, could make adults uncomfortable and at times angry.
Following a few encounters with my grandmother about the dolls, my sister and I stopped playing dolls with each other. Our play at this time became more separate. At the time I felt like a great joy of my childhood had been cut short. I remember feeling a sense of loss that we could no longer make up elaborate stories using our dolls. I certainly began to feel a sense of shame about playing with dolls, brought on by my grandmother’s abhorrence at what I was doing.
My fantasy life turned more inward. I continued to sleep with my stuffed animal, Mr. Dog, and created elaborate stories in my mind, as I drifted off to sleep. But the days of playing dolls with my sister had come to an end.
This post was inspired by another story of boys playing with dolls by Miss Coco Peru. See her video post, Coco Thoughts While in Solitude #19.