36-year-old Jemma Lovell is mum to 11-year-old Oz, who is gender fluid.
Oz is a perfectly normal child, and loves dressing up, watching TV, and playing with their friends from theatre club.
However, for some parents, Oz’s love of drag performance is not appropriate, and they’ve even threatened to call social services on Jemma for allowing them to participate.
The family, consisting of Jemma, her husband Richard, 39, Oz, and Willow, five, have faced criticism from people who think the world of drag is too sexualised, after Oz started performing as their drag alter-ego Ben TrulyOutrageous at local talent shows and to friends.
Jemma, who is a pharmacy technician from Shrewsbury, Shropshire, says Oz first found out about the world of drag after catching snippets of their mum watching RuPaul’s Drag Race on TV.
In time, Oz told her, ‘I understand how they feel. I don’t feel like a boy, Mummy.’
From the age of eight onwards, Oz had been experimenting with make-up, mostly during theatre lessons, before finally coming out as non-binary last year.
But Jemma wants critics to understand that Oz’s drag is a form of expression, and not something that’s solely for adults or anything to judge.
She explained: ‘People tend to automatically sexualise drag, assuming Oz will come out dressed in hip pads and fake breasts, but we carefully vet everything to make sure that nothing is age-inappropriate. We make it clear Oz is still a child, no matter how high the heels or big the wig.
‘When Oz puts on that dress and becomes Ben, it’s awe-inspiring to watch. I can see our child visibly glowing. It’s like they’re free, almost a heightened version of themselves.
‘As parents, we don’t want Oz to be stigmatised for feeling different. Even if this is just a phase, we have allowed them to explore those feelings.’
A major change for Oz was when, in April 2018, aged 10, they asked Jemma for a dress to wear day-to-day, and the pair went out an picked out a t-shirt style dress.
‘As soon as Oz tried the dress on, they just looked so comfortable. I’ve never seen a smile like it,’ Jemma said.
From there, Oz began to wear more feminine clothes, usually either dresses or leggings and t-shirts.
And, a couple of months later in August 2018, the family went along to Chester Pride celebrations, where the then 10-year-old had an epiphany.
‘We were in one of the tents, and Oz spent ages reading over posters that had all the different explanations of gender,’ Jemma explained.
“Eventually, they came and got me and pointed to one about being non-binary, telling me they didn’t feel like a boy or a girl and didn’t want to be a ‘he’ anymore, but rather a ‘they.’
‘It’s never been an issue in the family. We don’t know what’s going on in Oz’s head, but we want them to feel free to explore who they are.’
That day at Pride, Oz also decided to dip their toe into the world of drag, and Jemma bought them some wigs and fun makeup they could experiment with. She also helped Oz to find out more about other drag kids online, and they came up with a drag name.
The name blends nods to Oz’s favourite RuPaul queen, BenDeLaCreme, and Jem TrulyOutrageous, one of Jemma’s favourite TV programmes when she was little.
Although there’s little by way of gigs for Oz, they perform at Ben for local events and friends and family.
In September last year, before Oz returned to school to start year five, Jemma decided to tell their teachers that they were non-binary, to help ease their return in more feminine clothes, and ensure everybody knew about Oz’s they/them pronouns.
Jemma was delighted with the reponse, saying: ‘I told them that Oz had been wearing feminine clothes and would like to do so at school.
‘Not only were they fine with that, but they also put staff members on training courses about non-gender conforming people, printed off books to put in the libraries so other children could read about what it means to be non-binary and even asked Oz what bathroom they’d like to use.’
Some of the other parents were less accommodating, though.
Jemma said: ‘I have had some negativity. People have said I’m pushing Oz to grow up too quickly, and even threatened to call social services.
‘But we are so careful that lines aren’t crossed. All costumes are chosen really carefully, and if there was any hint of any sexualisation whatsoever, we wouldn’t let it happen.
‘We want it to be clear on stage that Oz is still a child. Some people may look at the costumes and say that the make-up makes them seem older – but confidence does that too.’
Another thing that people tend to struggle with is the correct pronouns to use when talking to Oz.
‘People can be wobbly on the pronouns, and I do understand that using they and them isn’t the way you’d naturally refer to a person,’ said Jemma.
‘It can feel strange when you first start to use them – especially to those that have known Oz since birth and as a ‘he’ for years.
“It is a lot to get your head around – the idea that someone feels so different to you that they use completely different pronouns.’
Jemma doesn’t hold a grudge against people that are trying their best and slip up, but says that people who misgender them deliberately make Oz ‘cringe’.
She continues: ‘There’s a big difference between somebody genuinely trying but just struggling with the syntax, and somebody shaming my child for being different and expressing themselves.’
Although she knows that this negativity might persist as Oz gets older, Jemma has no plans to make her child retire Ben TrulyOutrageous.
She said: ‘I hope I’ve instilled enough confidence in them that they know they aren’t the problem or the one at fault – it’s the person belittling a child that’s uneducated.
‘At the end of the day, Oz is still Oz, no matter who they are and what they wear. They may be in leggings and a jumper, they may be in a dress – they are still the same person inside.’
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