Transgender Kids: What Parents Need to Know

Some boys want to dress up as girls. What should parents do?The question is "What's so bad about a boy who wants to wear a dress?"

That's the teaser for a story in this weekend's New York Times Magazine.

There's no way to write about this subject without acknowledging that for probably 99 percent of Americans, the answer is self-evident: Boys don't wear dresses. A boy in a dress will be ridiculed by his peers and it's mom and dad's job to protect him from that. Even assuming you're in favor of (or indifferent to) adult men in a free society wearing dresses if they're so inclined, it doesn't seem like a choice a child is ready to make. And so on.

All of that makes sense, but, increasingly, as the Times article reports, this conventional wisdom is going out the window when real parents are confronted with real children who don't conform to the gender identity they are born with. (This is mainly a problem for boys, since little girls being "tomboys" is much more accepted.) The story introduces us to Susan and Rob:

The night before Susan and Rob allowed their son to go to preschool in a dress, they sent an e-mail to parents of his classmates. Alex, they wrote, "has been gender-fluid for as long as we can remember, and at the moment he is equally passionate about and identified with soccer players and princesses, superheroes and ballerinas (not to mention lava and unicorns, dinosaurs and glitter rainbows)." They explained that Alex had recently become inconsolable about his parents' ban on wearing dresses beyond dress-up time. After consulting their pediatrician, a psychologist and parents of other gender-nonconforming children, they concluded that "the important thing was to teach him not to be ashamed of who he feels he is." Thus, the purple-pink-and-yellow-striped dress he would be wearing that next morning. For good measure, their e-mail included a link to information on gender-variant children.

People will have all kinds of reactions to the story, from suspicion and outrage to recognition and empathy. I personally am sympathetic to anyone struggling with a kid who has vehement opinions about their wardrobe, since my 4-year-old daughter has defeated me on the field of sartorial battle and now exclusively wears pink princess dresses (sigh, and about 26 barrettes in random locations all over her head).

Yahoo! Shine talked to expert Kim Pearson to find out what parents should know about the topic of transgender. Pearson is a Los Angeles-based parent of a transgender child and her organization, TransYouth Family Allies, is devoted to outreach and awareness-raising of trans issues.

Pearson explains that 'transgender' is when a person feels that their gender (a social construct) is different from their sex. "If your sex and your gender agree, you've never thought about this before," Pearson told Yahoo! Shine. "It's probably never crossed your mind." However, she says, "Sex and gender are two different things. Your sex is about if you have a penis or a vagina, your gender is in your brain." She acknowledges that every time she goes to a school or new locale to raise awareness on the topic, "I have to spend the first 30 to 45 minutes talking about why this makes people crazy because we all think it's black and white." Some parents, she says, never get it, but many eventually come around to seeing that this is a real state of being and not something made up or that doesn't make sense.

The first thing Pearson stresses that parents should know is "If you're talking about young children, you're calling them 'gender non-conforming' or 'gender-creative', not 'trans-gender'." Little kids go through all kinds of phases, Pearson says, and even a strong gender atypical preference for trucks or sparkles could mean nothing. "It is sorted out at puberty, very clearly," she continues. "If a child persists with a gender-atypical identity into puberty, all the studies show that that's going to persist into adulthood."

So, shouldn't parents play it safe and force gender non-conforming children, especially boys, to wait until they're older to start experimenting, especially if they're likely to grow out of it? Pearson says no. "There's no evidence to support that allowing a child to express their gender differently causes harm, but we do know that forced conformity causes harm."

Parents have a hard time accepting this, Pearson says, because they often worry that the child won't find anyone to love them, or will be anywhere from bullied to endangered in the wider world. There's no easy answer to that. For her, and most likely for the parents who participated in the Times article, the best way to keep their kids safe both psychologically and physically is to try to make the concept less stigmatizing and taboo through spreading the word.

More on Shine:
Celebrity kids: Gay, straight, transgender, it doesn't matter to mom
Medical treatment for transgender kids. Is it ethical?