A Parent's Dilemma, the Transgender Child
My readers, the preceding is a letter I recently received from a mother who felt deeply concerned for her child. Panic is frequently one of the first responses caring parents experience when they perceive something is amiss with their child. Questions are asked when gender or sexual identity issues arise. What did we do wrong? Is my child mentally ill? What will others think if they find out? How do I deal with this shocking news? Regardless of the child's age, most parents feel confused, angry, self-doubting, and deeply worried when they learn of their child's crossdressing or gender identity issues. These feelings are frequently exacerbated by the parents' belief that there is no place to turn for help.
Some parents in their search for answers turn to a school counselor, local therapist or even their church minister. Unfortunately, in most circumstances these persons are not familiar with gender identity or sexual orientation issues. If a child crossdresses or has gender issues the parents may assume or be misled into believing that their child may susceptible to having a socially unacceptable sexual orientation. It is true, particularly during puberty, that a child is likely to questions about gender and sexuality, however there are identifiers that differentiate these two separate but equally important components of self-identity.
In the simplest of terms, sexual orientation defines who a person finds attractive for sexual interaction. This may include persons of the same, opposite or both genders. Gender identity defines how a person identifies his or her role (male or female), and how he or she presents it to the world. While most adults are comfortable with their "birth" gender and sexual orientation, there are some persons who find themselves dealing with personal questions during different stages of life. Asking these types of questions is a healthy part of self-development, and may be engaged in by males and females at any age.
For people dealing with gender issues, some find their outward physical appearance does not match their internal gender identification. This happens to be the case for the transsexual and transgenderist individual. Transsexuals are those who transition socially, hormonally and surgically and live permanently as a member of the opposite gender. Transgenderists may live "in role" as a member of the opposite gender. Typically they are not interested in genital reassignment. Because transgenderists have a more fluid approach to gender, some are interested in hormones while others may seek cosmetic surgery. Within the transgender community, some persons may not wish to self-identity with either gender identity and choose an androgynous manner of dress or unisex presentation. This is particularly so for young adults, although as most progress toward adulthood they will adopt a firmer gender orientation leaving only a small proportion who permanently self-identify as androgyne individuals or as members of the transgender community.
There are also persons who feel perfectly comfortable with their gender yet need to crossdress in order to relieve anxiety, reduce stress or to get in touch with their opposite-gendered feelings. These crossdressers or transvestites, are rarely interested in hormones, surgery or living as a member of the opposite gender. Within transgender populations, crossdressers are the least visible individuals. Most are unlikely to express their needs openly to family or friends, and few are likely to go out in public crossdressed. Youth who are caught crossdressing and subsequently humiliated, are likely to keep their needs deeply hidden so as to not be found out again. Rather than dealing with this issue during childhood their crossdressing needs are more likely to reappear with adulthood, when they can no longer hold back and face times of crisis or major change.
Generally, most young adults find themselves examining many types of questions as they develop a separate identity distinctly rooted in their own needs and experiences. This dynamic is also true for children who have questions about gender identity. In fact, the largest proportion of these individuals frequently do not make firm "transition" oriented decisions until close to adulthood or later. As a result they are frequently referred to as gender-questioning youth. This group of young persons over time tomorrow's transsexuals, transgenderists, crossdressers, persons attracted to transgender individuals, those who repress gender issues as well as persons who develop non-transgender identities.
Understanding this dynamic suggest the frequently asked question, "Is this a phase?" I regularly hear this inquiry from parents of children and adults. In part, their may be based in denial, a cry, "No, not my child!" Overall, most parents really do want the best for their child, regardless of age. Most do not want to see their children unnecessarily suffer or care to have friends and family question their efficacy as parents. Some parents with adult children may ask whether gender issues is a phase out of a difficulty in allowing their child to build an identity and experiences separate from family or social expectations. Nearly all parents fear the awful stereotypes that the media uses when characterizing transgender persons. Most are not aware that transgender persons are with the exception of being differently gendered much like other persons they may know.
To answer the question posed at the beginning of the article, there several criteria which help determine if the child really has crossgender issues or is going through a phase. Do the child's questions about gender arise regularly? Does the individual consistently express he or she has gender issues or has adopted an opposite gender identity? Are attempts to crossdress made regularly? If, "yes," is the answer to any of those questions, there is a strong possibility that this is not a phase. The individual may likely have special gender issues and needs. These criteria are generally applicable to both youth and adults, except for closeted crossdressers who are the least likely to bring gender questions to the forefront unless actually in crisis or caught in the act.
When a child begins asking questions about gender identity or starts crossdressing parents frequently begin looking for a cure. There is, however, no cure for having a transgender identity or an individual having the need to crossdress. As mentioned previously, the first place parents of children with gender issues turn for help is usually within their local community. Unfortunately most mental health professionals are not familiar with gender identity issues. This is because with the exception of actively practicing gender specialists or clinical sexologists, the vast majority of mental health professionals have no training or experience working with transsexuals, transgenderists, crossdressers or gender-questioning youth. Subsequently many parents invest large amounts of time and money into psychotherapy for the child.
Tragically, like young gays and lesbians of previous years, today's transgender children may fall victim to a mental health professional's insistence that such behavior is abnormal or transitional. Some professionals may also claim that a transgender behavior can be cured or reprogrammed. There are documented cases of children and adults being subjected to noxious methods including: shock therapy, confinement, institutionalization, violence, verbal abuse, etc. No matter how well-intended these activities amount to nothing more than human rights' abuse. No adult or child should be subject to such abuse in effort to make him or her conform to social stereotypes, particularly when varying gender identities are part of the human experience.
If there is any "cure" for children or youth with gender identity issues, it can be found within the keywords acceptance, androgyny, compromise and communication.. It is important for parents to recognize that children need to be accepted for who they are, not for what others perceive they should be. This is also true for children with gender identity issues. There is a variety of gender specialized material which indicates that having a transgender identity or crossdressing needs is not mentally disordered, mentally diseased or abnormal. Once that fact is recognized, it is easy to understand that the majority of difficulties transgender persons face do not originate internally or from their own question-asking process. Rather, the origin of their difficulties is external, resulting from the abuse, harassment and violence transgender persons face from people who cannot accept differences in others.. Parents can play a major role in teaching children how to communicate effectively and counteract abuse from others who cannot accept differences.
Looking at gender issues from a larger perspective, all cultures have varying degrees of acceptance and permissiveness toward androgynous individuals. Adopting a unisex or bigendered presentation is a safe option for children and adults who need to explore gender identity issues, are in the beginning stages of transition, or are unable to crossdress publicly because they have not built sufficient opposite-gendered presentation skills. While many adults are locked into gender-specific social stereotypes, youth often embrace androgyny as a form of self-expression, whether or not they have questions about gender identity. Remarkably those youth who do adopt an androgynous presentation, as well as those who openly explore issues of gender and sexuality, frequently have an advantage over their peers who simply conform to stereotypes. In establishing independence in dress and presentation they also build communication skills and coping strategies that will be advantageous later in life.
Many parents are surprised initially when they hear a gender specialist state that compromise is the best approach to supporting children or youth who have strong transgender needs and feelings. After all, aren't parents supposed to know what is best for their child? Not always. Parents are not provided a "training manual" when they have children, whether their children have gender issues or not. Building mutually acceptable compromises can include asking the child to dress in original gender clothing for formal events such as weddings but allowing the child to dress androgynously for school and peer activities. Or, children who insist on using opposite gender names can be encouraged to adopt an androgynous name until they are old enough to be certain they want to change their name permanently. Examples include: Mickie, Bobbie or Joni. More fully developed gender transition plans or crossdressed presentations should be adopted only after both parent and child have consulted with a gender specialized therapist or sexologist.
Communication is the final keyword for a healthy relationship between parents and children, and is a crucial component to dealing with gender identity issues. Even if parents cannot fully understand what their child is experiencing, children of all ages need their parent's love, acceptance and compassion. If you have a transgender child, remind him or her that your love is unconditional, regardless of whether you find their experiences or identity difficult to understand or accept. Relationships are most fragile when talking stops, becomes unproductive or one-sided. While parents may be charged with the responsibility of caring for their children, as children move through youth and into adulthood they need the opportunity to build social skills and an separate identity in order to survive independently.
The price of not talking about these processes or encouraging children to become independent is very costly. Youth who are continually forced to comply with social stereotypes may develop behavioral problems or depression. Like adult transgender persons, they may also become estranged from family relationships. Youth who become disillusioned with their families may end up homeless and at risk of victimization and disease. Some may commit suicide, leaving others with no explanation or insight into the pain they were suffering. As adults, those youth who were not permitted to give voice to gender identity issues may find themselves in tremendous anguish later in life. Tragically, these children frequently become the very stereotype the parent had hoped to prevent...a gender conflicted adult who self destructs careers and relationships as well as their own children.
Occasionally parents respond with shock or dismay upon finding out their son or daughter has gender identity issues or crossdresses. While some parents may have suspected or denied it, many never imagined such a possibility. This is particularly true in situations where the grown children adopted stereotyped roles and socially-acceptable gender behaviors in order to mask their gender identity issues or crossdressing needs. While it may be difficult to accept that your child has these issues, and it may not initially be possible to offer validation or acceptance, please remember that your child needs your love and compassion. Do not reject your son or daughter because this may result in unresolvable differences.
While some parents may believe that their child is not well and needs help, others may think they themselves need help. In addition to looking for a cure, these parents frequently ask, "What did we do wrong." Chances are, probably nothing. After all, if a child is asking self-examination questions, a parent is likely to have done more right than wrong. While parental self-doubt is not be useful to anyone, asking questions is healthy. The following are some useful questions to start with: How can I keep communication lines open even though I am not familiar with gender issues or crossdressing? Where can I send my son or daughter for support and validation, particularly when I don't know how to offer it right now? Which is more important, fulfilling social stereotypes and other's expectations or giving my child an opportunity to develop a healthy, gender identity?
If you are a parent with a son or daughter who has transgender issues, whether or not he or she lives under your roof, I advise you read about gender issues from recognized sources of current information. Do not rely on television talk shows or uninformed persons, it is likely their facts are sensationalistic or extremely biased. Instead, seek advice from a gender-specializing counselor or sexologist. If your child has questions, refer him or her to gender-specialized help, also. Additionally, many gay, lesbian youth groups will welcome a transgender child. Even though gender identity and sexual orientation are different, many of the questions and concerns are similar. Finally,. parents can receive support through organizations such as PFLAG, (Parents & Friends of Lesbians & Gays) who also welcome parents of transgender individuals. Your closest PFLAG group can be located by writing PFLAG National Office / 1101 - 14th Street, N.W., Ste. 103, Washington D.C. 20005. You may also call PFLAG at (202) 638-0243 or inquire by e-mail at Pflagntl@aol.com.
GENDER ARTICLES. This educational column authored by Gianna E. Israel is regularly featured on the 3rd Monday of each month in Tg-Forum, the Internet's most up-to-date, weekly Transgender Magazine <http://www.tgforum.com/>. Several weeks later each article is forwarded to Usenet and AOL <Keyword TCF>. Each column has been written to inspire contemplation and dialogue. Columns may be reprinted in any medium insofar as each article, its introduction, and the author's contact information remains unaltered.
GIANNA E. ISRAEL provides nationwide telephone consultation, individual & relationship counseling, evaluations and referrals. She is principal author of the Transgender Care (Temple University / in press 1997). She also writes Transgender Tapestry's "Ask Gianna" column; is an AEGIS board member and HBIGDA member.She can be contacted at (415) 558-8058, at P.O. Box 424447 San Francisco, CA 94142, or via e-mail at Gianna@counselsuite.com.
Copyright © 2001 by Diane Wilson. All rights reserved.