A developmental perspective on health draws us back to early childhood, when our most basic identities are still being shaped. Children begin to be aware of differences in sex and gender in preschool and begin to assert their own (conforming or otherwise) gender identities at that time as well. At this stage, some children may not adhere to the strict classifications of the likes/dislikes of “boy” versus “girl.” Many parents may at that interval choose to minimize the differences of their gender creative or nonconforming child for fear of stigmatizing them, and may not address their concerns even with their child’s health care provider for that reason as well.
Of course, the vast majority of school-aged children who will eventually identify as LGBT have not yet come out to anyone or even to themselves, though there are some exceptions (Jazz, for example). The distinction between gender and sexual orientation continues to be confusing for some. The simplest definition that I have appreciated is that gender is who you are, and sexual orientation is who you want to be with as a partner. Gender nonconforming children are of course not necessarily going to end up as members of the LGBT community, but I do feel that there are commonalities between communities that help us to understand and identify with these children. Many LGBT adults report having been gender nonconforming children.
So what can we do now, as health care professionals or just as members of the LGBT community, to improve the health of gender creative kids now? Dr. Diane Ehrensaft, a leading researcher on gender nonconforming children, breaks down the family types of gender nonconforming children into three groups: transformers, transphobics, and transporters. Transformers celebrate and accept their child’s differences, transphobics respond negatively to their gender variant child, and transporters may be more calm externally but maintain that their child’s difference is “a phase.” Health care providers can fall into these categories as well, and it is important to find a health care provider who is a transformer for your gender nonconforming child. The mental health and well-being of our youth is of absolute importance.
Unlike other vulnerable types of children, gender nonconforming children with intolerant families may feel that there is no support for them and they are the only one who has ever had their experience. They may have no one to turn to. One caring adult, in the form of a teacher, health care provider, or other supportive adult can make the difference between suicide and health. By choosing not to shame a child, or humiliate them, or ignore them, you are increasing the chance that they will live to adulthood. By reaching out to their parents, educating them, supporting them, you are decreasing the risk that they will throw the child out of their house, abuse them, or make them feel like they are “bad” or “wrong.”
My second of three children is gender nonconforming, and we have had a variety of experiences with strangers, some wonderful and some not so much. I choose to focus on the wonderful ones, like the time at Disney World when a “cast member” at the Beauty and the Beast show praised our parenting for allowing our son to be dressed as a princess. What other place in the world would be more appropriate to be dressed as Rapunzel than Walt Disney World? How could we reign in his gender expression there, of all places? We so appreciated her support.
Photo credit: Jan Kaminsky
Another recent experience was at an airport layover in Atlanta. He was wearing his favorite Hello Kitty Crocs and a girl of about nine attempted to engage her father in teasing my son. This father defied my assumptions about him and proceeded to explain to his daughter that the character that an individual preferred had nothing to do with being a girl or a boy. I wanted to hug him, but stuck with a thankful smile instead.
There is good in the world, and there is good in the lives of gender nonconforming children. People are talking about them, bringing their issues to the fore, and that can only help to improve their outcomes. Isn’t that what we want for all of our children? Remember, you could be the one adult to tell them it gets better. Support a gender nonconforming child today, you’ll be glad you did.