When Martie Todd Sirois took her 10-year-old son, Charlie, to a popular girls’ clothing store to shop for school clothes, she never expected it to make waves worldwide.
Sirois posted an open letter on Facebook on Sept. 10 thanking Justice for letting Charlie, who is gender nonconforming, try on and buy clothes he feels comfortable wearing.
Her post has been shared nearly 25,000 times, and the Raleigh family’s story has drawn international attention.
Sirois said she has received hundreds of emails and Facebook messages from people all over the world. She heard from teenagers who said they were afraid to tell their parents they were gender creative, which means they don’t conform to society’s gender norms. Older people who were shunned by their families shared their experiences.
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“I’ve heard from so many different people who have said, ‘Me too. This is my story or my child’s story,’ ” Sirois said.
The family has welcomed the attention and the opportunity to support others, but it has been a bit overwhelming for Charlie, a fifth-grader at York Elementary School.
Charlie, who started wearing girls’ clothes to school last year, said he has been teased by his peers. When his classmates ask if he is a boy or a girl, he tells them he is gender creative.
Charlie says kids should wear what they want, despite what others think or say. He carries a glittery backpack to school, and sometimes he wears sparkly shoes, leggings and pink tops.
Don’t be afraid to wear them, and if people laugh at you, just ignore it. ... Just be yourself.
10-year-old Charlie Sirois
“Don’t be afraid to wear them, and if people laugh at you, just ignore it. ... Just be yourself,” Charlie said recently at his family’s home, lounging in gym shorts, a sequined top and flowered socks.
Sirois and her husband, Matt, started looking for a support group for gender nonconforming children when Charlie was 4. But they couldn’t find a group in North Carolina that catered to kids his age.
When the General Assembly passed House Bill 2 in March, the couple started S.E.A.R.CH., a group for families with gender nonconforming children that meets once a month at the LGBT Center in Raleigh.
HB2 requires that people use the restrooms and locker rooms at government facilities that match the gender on their birth certificate. Some people view the law as discriminatory.
Five people showed up for the first meeting in July of S.E.A.R.CH., which stands for Safe Environment for the Acceptance of Rainbow CHildren. The second meeting drew 25 people, and more than 100 have joined the Facebook group.
“It’s not like there’s this little handful of gender nonconforming kids,” Sirois said. “There’s a lot more of them than probably anyone realizes.”
Jessica Rotenberg is a Raleigh mother of two sons who are cisgender, meaning they conform to the gender norms corresponding to their biological sex. She has attended several S.E.A.R.CH. meetings, partly to find out how to teach her children to be accepting of everyone.
“I wanted to go to find out how we can support these families who may feel very alone,” Rotenberg said. “I’ve learned a lot.”
As for her own children, Rotenberg said, “Our society will send them all kinds of messages that may not be best. More than anything, I want them to stand up for people.”
As a toddler, Charlie was drawn more to his sister’s dresses and ballet costumes than his brother’s toy trucks.
During a trip to Target when he was 2, Charlie led his mother to the dress-up aisle and pointed to a large oval mirror like the one in “Snow White.” He looked up at her and said, “I want this.”
His parents thought it was a phase, but then they realized Charlie wasn’t growing out of it.
“It’s only been the past few years that I’ve come around to full acceptance, just because I’m a guy and he’s my son,” said Matt Sirois, Charlie’s father. “It really hit me when Martie said to me once, ‘Just let him be happy and do what he wants to do.’ And he was happy (wearing dresses).”
The Sirois couple assumed Charlie was gay or transgender for many years before realizing the labels were inaccurate. Charlie enjoys wearing princess costumes, but he hasn’t expressed a desire to change his sex, Sirois said.
After school, Charlie likes to play “Minecraft” and other games, and he also keeps a bin of gauzy costumes for when he wants to play dress-up. His favorite is a teal Elsa dress from the Disney movie “Frozen.”
Charlie’s favorite things are “bracelets, necklaces, rainbow looms. ... sparkly things, shoes that light up, plays that involve shoes and cool outfits,” he said.
Charlie had always wanted to shop at Justice, whose slogan is “Just For Girls!”
Martie Todd Sirois wasn’t sure if the company would let Charlie try on clothes, but a family friend called the store in Triangle Town Center to ask.
The manager welcomed them, acting as Charlie’s personal stylist as he tried on sequined shirts and sparkly skirts, twirling in front of the mirrors and modeling for his mother.
Charlie was thrilled, bringing armfuls of clothes back to the dressing room. Two hours later, they left with several new outfits.
His mom still chokes up when she recalls the shopping trip. That day, he was “in his element” and content, she said.
It was just such a happy moment, as a mom, because I got to see him being completely comfortable and not on guard, wondering what are people going to say.
Martie Todd Sirois
“It was just such a happy moment, as a mom, because I got to see him being completely comfortable and not on guard, wondering what are people going to say,” she said. “It was just a joy to watch that. That’s who he is.”
Charlie has worn his new clothes to school several times. Some classmates have teased him, he said, but most leave him alone. He prefers it that way.
“People are too busy on what they’re doing,” Charlie said. “They just want to do their own thing, they just want to play with their own friends, and I’ll just let them be if they let me be.”
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler