“Every day, we receive an abundance of messages regarding gender; simply living in our world exposes us diverse images and ideas about appropriate and desirable masculine and feminine identies. Gender is such a familiar part of our daily lives that it typically takes a deliberate disruption of our expectations for us to even question its very existence.”
“If we are going to eventually exist in a society of acceptance, we must work with the children of the growing generation. Developing acceptance for gender non-conformity requires much more than hurling definitions into children’s minds. It is necessary to model acceptance in our day to day lives as well as developing a sense of normalcy regarding issues of gender identity and expression.”
“In schools, this can be channeled through discussing self-confidence and diversity, as well as the significance of accepting individuals while recognizing their accomplishments and contributions. At home, parents and caregivers can have these conversations daily if needed. It’s important to remember that while definitions and labels have their place, cultivating awareness and sensitivity will go much farther. What’s great about kids is that you never have to tell them more than they want to know.”
Excerpts from Talking to kids about the T(ransgender 101 for children)
For the past several years I’ve been providing supportive and therapuetic care to transgender/gender-non-conforming youth; the youngest being four years old. In early 2011, I-in partnership with TransOhio at the time- began to facilitate the only known support group for trans/gender non-conforming youth in the state of Ohio. In the beginning, we faced multiple barriers in terms of locating a meeting space due to concerns within the community surrounding ‘liability’. For much of the group’s life we met at either a library or a park; the latter providing a wonderful opportunity for natural play and relationship building. Since that first day of group, I have been privileged to watch our community grow from just one family who faithfully attended, to over 10 families that have been regularly involved; some of whom have traveled as far as Indiana to find support. With youth, there is such a unique opportunity to create a strong sense of self before the harmful ‘inner critic’ is able to take root. This idea alone, is the sole motivation and focus for group. The members of our community have grown from feeling confused and ashamed, to advocating for themselves to their families and within their schools. Along with group work, I also provide counseling to trans/gender non-conforming youth and their families.
Over the years, many questions and concerns have arisen from parents, teachers, and members of the community; most of which stem from concerns for safety and privacy. The most pervading question/concern, however is “What if it’s a phase?” As recent as this morning on the Today Show, in reference to a story aired about a trans kid, the hosts discussed the idea of this being a phase for young children; and how a parent may handle that. Here the clinical response:
Transgender people experience a persistent and authentic difference between their assigned sex at birth, and the understanding of their own gender.
Now, here’s a different perspective…
What if it IS just a phase? What if after 6 months to a year (or more), a child has reconciled their gender? Is this okay too?
Where is the harm in providing unconditional love and support for a child that is exploring who they are and trying to figure it all out? Parents/caregivers do this in a multitude of ways around several areas of identity, yet for some reason the conversation door is closed around gender.
Our kids need to know that they are loved and accepted; no matter what. They need to know that hard conversations can happen at home. For many, transition is the goal; but we really aren’t focusing on the journey. I don’t know for sure whether all of the youth I see in group and/or therapy will engage in any type of transition, and that is absolutely fine with me. My purpose and my motivation are to ensure a space for conversation and affirmation. While gender identity is a huge part of our whole selves, there is also a soul on the inside that is doing their best everyday to navigate this life; and my role…my responsiblity is to help them develop the tools to do so as their best and strongest selves. In group, youth are able to enter a ‘space of knowing’ with their peers, where no explanation, justification, or defense is needed. They can be their full selves, no questions asked…a notion for which I believe we all are longing.
I know that everyone wants to understand the basis for being transgender. We are a culture of science, so we need the biological justification of why this is ok. Trans identities challenge everything we think we know and believe about life. It causes us to think about what we learned as children, and we have to move outside of absolutes. For some, we even have to question our understanding of God and the concept of creation.
Exploration is great. Seeking knowledge is even better. But let’s be mindful of the ways our seeking may impact others.
Lately when a parent/guardian asks what they should do about their trans/gender non-conforming child, my response is to love them. Love in a way that they can rest in their uncertainty. Take all of your fear, and possible embarrassment/shame and channel it into love. Love them unconditionally. Love them always.