What would you do if your two year old little boy informed you that he wanted to be a girl? What if, no matter what you did to dissuade such behavior, he continued to insist through the years? Where do you draw the line between being a loving, supportive parent who wants their child's happiness above all other things, and one who is responsible (and why not be both?)? Some families are currently dealing with the dilemmas that accompany what experts call "Gender Identity Disorder."
In fact, it seems like parents of transgender children are suddenly coming out of the woodwork. NPR just did a two-part series about the subject, and this weekend, it was reported that Pennsylvania elementary school officials "angered parents by giving them one-day's notice of planned counseling sessions with 100 third-grade students to explain that one of their male classmates would soon begin wearing girls' clothing and taking a female name and to ask that they accept him as a girl and not make unkind remarks," according to World Net Daily.
The topic is obviously a hot button issue and both parents and doctors are understandably divided on where to stand. One school of thought mandates that children should be persuaded to embrace their god given sex through intense therapy, while another recognizes the disorder as not a disease but a biological fact that should be as well supported as a child that identifies as being gay.
One couple, whose male child, Bradley, identified as female, were referred to a Toronto psychologist and expert in gender identity issues, Dr. Ken Zucker. After several months of evaluation, Zucker explained what he called Bradley's gender identity disorder.
"Gender identity disorder is a label given to children who believe themselves to be born into the wrong biological body. This diagnostic label encompasses a range of behaviors - and the label itself is controversial. But, in general, what characterizes children like Bradley is that they are more than just effeminate boys, or masculine girls, who are gay. These are children who genuinely believe they are girls even though they have a male body - or boys, even though they have a female body."-NPR
Zucker's rather controversial approach is to treat children younger than 10 by persuading them to comfortable with the sex he or she was born with.
However, yet another a prominent pyschologist and gender specialist Dr. Diane Ehrensaft disagrees, calling Zucker's approach "coercive." Among others, she treated a young man who felt he was female, and claims this resulted in the patient, "Jonah" being much happier and healthier.
"In fact, Diane Ehrensaft's approach could not have been more different than the approach of Bradley's therapist. Like Zucker, Ehrensaft is a gender specialist. She says she has seen more than 50 families with children who have what Zucker would describe as gender identity disorder... Ehrensaft, however, does not use that label. She describes children like Bradley and Jonah as transgender. And, unlike Zucker, she does not think parents should try to modify their child's behavior. In fact, when Pam and Joel came to see her, she discouraged them from putting Jonah into any kind of therapy at all. Pam says because Ehrensaft does not see transgenderism itself as a dysfunction, the therapist didn't think Pam and Joel should try to cure Jonah."
In order to buy some time, some pediatricians administer hormone blocking medication to delay the onset of puberty, at which point the child can choose whether he or she truly wants to alter their sex.
Those who vehemently disagree with Zucker's approach compare the stigma and lack of awareness when it comes to transgender kids to the famous brainwashing gay camps homophobic parents sent their "confused" children to in hopes that they'd be cured of the so-called "disease."
"[Ehrensaft] says that professional opinion on this subject is in incredible flux - that the treatment of transgender children is becoming a kind of civil rights issue, in the same way that the psychiatric treatment of homosexuals became a civil rights issue in the 1970s."
And some say a basic civil rights issue is at the heart of parental uproar regarding the practices of a Haverford, Pennsylvania elementary school. In order to deal with a third grade male's gender identification as female, the school employed a counselor to meet with children to prevent social stigma. "The exercise in 'social transition' was initiated by the boy's parents who approached the administration at Chatham Park Elementary School in Haverford Township asking that the school help in having their child's female identity find acceptance among his peers. After consulting experts on transgender children, the Haverford School District sent letters to parents advising them the school guidance counselor would meet with their children, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer."
Some parents were furious: "Why is the school introducing this subject to 8- and 9-year-olds?" wrote an angry parent who started a discussion on the Haverford Township's blog site. "Why were we not notified sooner. We received the letter today, the discussion at school is tomorrow."
Still others claimed the counseling was unnecessary, as other students seemed to be very accepting of the little boy, who has not received sex-changing treatments, but sees himself as a girl and prefers to wear girls' clothes. (But um, I don't know, maybe that's because they did their research on how to talk to kids about this?)
I know that some people out there will disagree with me when I say that I think the school did the right thing, although they should have given more notice, so that parents who didn't want their children to participate could have made alternate plans. I just remember growing up and having gay schoolmates (and even teachers), that experienced so much trauma at the hands of ignorant folks who couldn't accept someone different, and I can't even imagine how difficult things must be for transgender children. Deciding how to deal with a child who has such issues is clearly a personal decision. I'm not sure how I would approach such a situation, but I hope I would try to be as open, loving and informed as possible, and would appreciate a school board's support. What do you think? Did this school do the right thing?
America has come a long way when it comes to gay rights (although arguably, it's got a long way to go), and though the two issues are often compared, it's important to recognize the distinction: Transgender is, in some ways, not necessarily a sexual orientation issue. But on the whole, do you think we're simply still largely uninformed when it comes to transgender individuals?
See also: "A Parent's dilemma" by Charlene in Parenting.