Transgender awareness has skyrocketed in recent years. That’s due, in large part, to examples in pop culture ranging from “Orange Is the New Black” actress Laverne Cox and model Carmen Carrera to the Amazon hit series “Transparent” and the chatter surrounding Bruce Jenner’s shifting appearance — set to reach a crescendo on Friday night as Diane Sawyer’s exclusive interview with the sports icon airs.
But along with the celebrity angle have been stories of brave, everyday moms and dads, who have publicly shared their experiences of parenting transgender children as young as 4 years old. In June, a video about Ryland Whittington, a California 6-year-old born female who transitioned to male with parental support, went viral. Also in the public eye has been the story of Jazz Jennings, 14, author of “I Am Jazz,” and of Coy Mathis, 8, who famously won the right to use the girls’ school bathroom when she was in first grade. This week, the world learned about Jacob, born Mia, through an NBC Nightly News profile of the 5-year-old and his supportive parents, Mimi and Joe Lemay.
“Her need to play boy roles and her need to be seen or spoken to as a boy at home became very persistent and very consistent,” Mimi told NBC. “Those are the hallmarks of a possibly transgender child: consistence, persistence, and insistence. And she was meeting all those markers.” In addition, added Dr. Michelle Forcier, a child psychologist with Brown University Alpert Medical School, “It’s not a fad or a phase — and I tell parents that, even though they may feel or want to believe that [it is].”
Along with its broadcast about Jacob, part of a series about transgender children, NBC posted a Q&A with Forcier on its Facebook timeline, inviting folks to ask questions on the topic. That inspired a slew of comments, much of it praising the Lemays, sharing personal experiences of being transgendered, and saying that they’d learned a lot from the piece. Others, meanwhile, insisted a child of 4 did not have the capacity to express being trans, that all the transgender stories were “getting out of hand,” and that Forcier and the Lemays were doing damage to children by “coaching” or encouraging them to say they are transgender.
But that sort of logic, notes Jenn Burleton, executive director of the national support organization TransActive Gender Center, based in Oregon, is flawed. “If you really think about it, we are always leading children down a path of one gender or another. Almost no transgender person alive [was able to escape from] the entire culture sending messages, either overt or covert, that they weren’t who they are,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. And despite the naysayers, transgender people are able to remain steadfast about their gender identity. “So to flip that script,” Burleton says, “is kind of weird.”
She explains she sometimes feels concerned that parents can be overeager to “identify and box a child into a gender category,” wanting to “define it as quickly as possible.” But the most important concept for parents to remember when dealing with gender-questioning children, she says, is this: “The key is not looking for signals so that you can define who your child is. It’s about remaining open to what your kid is telling you about themselves, either verbally or through another form of expression.”
So if a child enjoys doing typically gender-nonconforming things — a girl who only wants to dress up as male characters on Halloween, for example, or a boy who chooses Barbies over Legos — it’s best to simply allow space for such expression. From there, Burleton explains, “With kids who are transgender, if that safe space has been created, then at some point they will make it very clear that, ‘Hey, it’s not just that I like these things, it’s that I’m something other than you think I am.’”
Marvin Belzer, a transgender youth expert who is chief of adolescent and young adult medicine at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, agrees with Forcier that it’s important to look at the “persistence” and “insistence” on the part of the child who is saying his or her gender not consistent with his or her biological sex. “Is it one time, off the cuff? Or is it something they’re distressed about? With transgender children,” he says, “usually they become distressed because somebody is telling them they can’t wear these clothes or play with these toys or that their genitals aren’t right.” Kids in this situation may not always require the aid of a therapist — and it’s often the parents who are more in need of counseling. But support is almost always helpful, and for that Belzer points to organizations such as The Center for Transyouth Health and Development or Gender Spectrum. Burleton’s TransActive Gender Center also aids parents in finding local sources of support.
Regarding the folks who don’t believe that 5 is old enough to understand one’s own gender, Belzer asks, “When you were a child, how did you know what gender you were? Did somebody have to tell you to line up with the boys or girls?” Probably not, he adds, as “kids just know — and what we’ve learned is that it doesn’t always follow your anatomy.”
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