December 5, 2006

Going Back to School on Gender Identity and Children

Accepting children “who do not conform to gender norms in their clothing and behavior” is becoming more common, but integrating those children into school is fraught with conflict, according to this story in The New York Times.

The author, Patricia Leigh Brown, does a good job, through interviews with well-informed pediatricians and school officials, of respecting and validating the experience of transgender or gender-variant children — and their parents’ attempts to affirm, rather than dismiss or demonize, that identity.

But it almost feels like she is tackling a little too much, especially when she discusses, only in passing, the use of “blockers” (“hormones used to delay the onset of puberty in cases where it could be psychologically devastating”) or one doctor whose goal is to “help these kids be more content in their biological gender,” at least temporarily.

Ultimately, the most revealing and worthwhile aspects of the article come from caring parents who respect their children’s sense of their own identity — but fear the intolerant world those children are about to enter. Brown writes:

Ms. B., 41, a lawyer, accepted the way her son defined himself after she and her husband consulted with a psychologist and observed his newfound comfort with his choice. But she feels the precarious nature of the day-to-day reality. “It’s hard to convey the relentlessness of it,” she said, “every social encounter, every time you go out to eat, every day feeling like a balance between your kid’s self-esteem and protecting him from the hostile outside world.”

For other parents, it was a longer road:

Catherine Tuerk, a nurse-psychotherapist at the children’s hospital in Washington and the mother of a gender-variant child in the 1970s, says parents are still left to find their own way. She recalls how therapists urged her to steer her son into psychoanalysis and “hypermasculine activities” like karate. She said she and her husband became “gender cops.”

“It was always, ‘You’re not kicking the ball hard enough,’ ” she said.

Ms. Tuerk’s son, now 30, is gay and a father, and her own thinking has evolved since she was a young parent. “People are beginning to understand this seems to be something that happens,” she said. “But there was a whole lifetime of feeling we could never leave him alone.”


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