Wednesday, October 5, 2011

When Boys Won't be Boys (Gender Nonconformity in Kids)

"A father has a feminine son who acts like a girl and says he wants to be a girl.  So one day this dad says to his son, 'Hey, come over here and tell me, are you a gay or are you a boy?'  The little boy says, 'I'm a girl, dad.'

The man grabs his son and shoves his head into a barrel full of water, holding him under.  When the boy comes up gasping for air, his dad says, 'One more time... You'd better change your answer... What are you?  A gay or a boy?!'  Again his son says, 'I'm a girl!'  'Oh really?' replies the dad, who proceeds to shove his child's head under the water yet again.

Then, after several dunkings, the father asks, 'What are you?  A gay or a boy?!'  The little boy says, 'I know what I am now,' to which his dad replies 'Good!'  The boy then says, 'Dad, I'm a mermaid!'"

I remember the first time I heard that joke in the Philippines.  My girlfriend and I were out at a birthday dinner with a large group of people.  After the end of the joke, most of the Filipinos we were with were laughing and found it quite funny.  My girlfriend and I just kind of looked at each other and remained silent, feeling rather uncomfortable about hearing such a joke.

We understood the lighthearted nature and the clever twist at the end, but a joke about a father holding his child's head under water in order to 'correct' his behavior, didn't seem very funny to us.  The saddest part of all is that this isn't just a joke; these kinds of things actually do happen in the Philippines and other parts of the world.  When trans and gay kids are treated with violence by their family, it's not really much of a laughing matter.

I recall another time, when I was buying some Christmas gifts in a toy store in the Philippines, when I witnessed an exchange between a mother and her young son.

The little boy, about the age of 5, was clearly interested in "girls toys" -- toy kitchen sets and princess items in particular -- but his mother would have nothing of it.  She repeatedly and sternly told him 'no!,' even grabbing him on the arm and yanking him to the "boys' toy aisle."  The somewhat effeminate boy couldn't understand what was so bad about the toys he wanted (there wasn't anything wrong with it, by the way).  Tears filled his little eyes when his mom sternly told him that he's not a girl he's a boy, and boys don't play with girl's toys.  "You're not a bakla!" she said to her child.

I wanted so badly to step in, but I had to calm myself down.  I know the Philippines is a different culture and I have to swallow my frustrations sometimes, and not make a scene.  But my heart absolutely broke for that little boy.  Having a mother like that, treating him like that, refusing to listen to her child or show even the slightest understanding or care... it angered me and was truly heartbreaking.

I fear that such things are not an isolated or rare event in many families with a gender variant child.

Confusion, and Correcting the Confusion

Many parents, when confronted with a situation in which their child doesn't fit the surrounding culture's gender conformity norms, believe it to be confusion in the child.  In the Philippines, this thought conforms to the teachings of the Catholic Church, whose system of morality (ironically called the 'Culture of Life') believes that every person's body reveals his or her God-given gender (i.e. "God doesn't make mistakes").  They also believe -- and teach -- that this 'confusion' can and should be corrected, either with therapy or with "corrective, positive discipline" from the parents, perhaps something similar to what the dad in the aforementioned joke did, or to the actions of the mom in the toy store.

But is gender nonconformity a sign of confusion in a child, or is it simply a sign of self-awareness?  It can be a highly individual experience from child to child.  It may be a phase of exploration that some children go through, or it may be early signs of transgenderism or a gay orientation.  Neither of these are necessarily 'confusion,' however, and should never be scolded or corrected by adult family members.

No 'therapies' attempting to correct gender nonconformity have ever been documented as changing even one child, because this is an inborn, biological matter, not a whimsical preference or state of confusion.  In fact, the only thing reparative types of therapy does is cause great turmoil in many kids and young people dealing with gender variant issues -- turmoil that, in far too many, has tragically led to suicide.

Children begin developing strong gender identities long before middle childhood.  A child's awareness of being a boy or a girl starts in the first year of life.  It often begins by eight to ten months of age, when youngsters typ­ically discover their genitals.  Then, between one and two years old, children become conscious of physical differences between boys and girls; before their third birthday they are easily able to label themselves as either a boy or a girl as they acquire a strong concept of self.  By age four, children's gender identity is stable, as is sexual orientation, and they know what and who they are.  They are unable to properly explain it because they have no understanding of sexual orientation or romance, but the inborn hardwiring is there.  It has been there since their fetal days.  Whether they know how to express it, or whether it will be met with acceptance by their family and their culture, is another thing.

During this same time of life, children learn gender role behavior -- i.e. do­ing things "that boys do" or "that girls do."  Before the age of three they can dif­ferentiate sex-stereotyped toys (trucks, dolls) that are identified with boys or girls.  By age three they have also become more aware of boy and girl ac­tivities, interests, and occupations; many begin to play with youngsters of their own sex in activities identified with that sex.

But a little boy playing with dolls or dressing up as a princess, or a little girl playing with toy trucks and dressing up like daddy, does not automatically indicate transgenderism or a gay orientation.  Many times they are simply kids being kids, playing with toys and having fun.  A parent shouldn't make a big deal of it or discourage it, and certainly never forbid it.  Give your child the freedom to be a child and to explore.

Bear in mind also that the vast majority of kids who have a gay orientation do not play with toys commonly associated with the opposite sex.  Some may, but most do not.  With children who are transgender, however, it is often the opposite:  most want to play with toys associated with the opposite sex, which is not surprising considering the fact that transgender kids (and adults) see themselves as the opposite sex of that which they were born.  Due to hormonal variances in the womb, the brain developed in one direction while the body developed in the other.  It really should be no surprise then that transgender kids would be drawn to toys and activities that match their brain, not necessarily their anatomy.

Toys may not be a cause of concern for some parents, but a child saying that he or she has a crush on a peer of the same sex may cause some parents to be uncomfortable and worried.  Surely this must be confusion...

But a little boy, for example, having a crush on or feeling an attraction toward another boy is not confusion.  It all comes down to the hardwiring of that child.  Just as little kids born with heterosexual orientations develop innocent crushes on kids of the opposite sex, kids born with homosexual orientations (or transgender identities) develop innocent crushes on kids of the same biological sex.  It isn't confusion, it's sexual orientation at work.

What causes confusion is when that little boy's parents tell him, "No, you don't like boys -- you're a boy, and boys like GIRLS."  That then takes his completely natural inclination and turns it into something 'bad,' something to be kept secret from his parents, something to be ashamed of.  It makes that little boy feel abnormal, and then too afraid to open up to his parents in the future.  The natural feelings aren't confusing to the child, they're completely normal and something he has no control over.  The confusing part is when mom and dad overreact, disapprove, and try to 'correct' those feelings, something which is impossible to correct.

If the hardwiring is there, it is out of your hands no matter how many times you say 'no.'  You cannot change your child's sexual orientation or gender identity, but you can psychologically harm them for life by trying to do so.

Gay, Trans, Gender Nonconforming, or Gender-fluid?

As early as toddler age, you can begin to tell that a child is going against the normative gender grain of the culture. For many children they will show it in toy preference, in movements and actions, so that parents who have a little girl, for example, will start to notice that she is wanting to play with the trucks more than the dolls.

But that can't tell you if the child is transgender.  He or she may be gay, may be gender nonconforming (doesn't care about the stereotypes of what is "for boys" and what is "for girls"), or may be gender-fluid (having a back-and-forth lack of consistency in gender expression).  Usually the earliest you can know comes a bit later when the child has language. Somewhere between 3 and 4, and sometimes between 2 and 3, a boy may begin to say "I'm not boy; I'm girl."  This becomes a clearer indication that the child is more than just curious or gender-fluid, and even more than gay.  An identification as the opposite sex at this early age is indicative of a transgender identity.

There are four components which go into a person's sexual identitybiological sex (the physical, genetic, and physiological sex of the person), gender identity (the person's feeling and perception of being either a man or a woman), gender role (a person's behavior in society, reflective of his or her gender identity), and sexual orientation (a person's erotic fantasies and emotional attraction -- in other words:  being straight, gay, or bi).  All are inborn and biological with the exception of gender role, which is culturally defined.  Gender roles can and do vary from culture to culture.  Also note that gender identity, while inborn, has nothing to do with sexual orientation.

Numerous studies in Europe and the U.S. have shown that the testosterone levels to which a fetus is exposed, affects not only the sexual orientation of the child but also social interests displayed within the first few hours of birth. (Simon Baron-Cohen.)  For a more concise explanation of the biological determinants of sexual orientation, you may read The Hypothalamus Doesn't Lie.

It is true that children are flexible and curious, but if a parent listens carefully to their child, the child will tell them:  "I know who I am.  If you let me be who I am, I will be a healthy person.  If you try to bend me in the way you want me to go, then I will be a repressed, suppressed, depressed person who will learn to do what other people expect of me and I'll hide who I really am."

Scientifically, in the vast majority of cases transgenderism is a biological phenomenon.  There are few, very rare cases of a parent who wanted to have a child of the opposite gender, so they raised their child as the opposite gender, basically twisting the child into a gender-morphed identity.  That then would constitute gender confusion, because the parent/s are overriding the child's natural identity and orientation.

But that is extremely rare, and those aren't the kids we're discussing here.  If you ask parents, they repeatedly say, "My child just came to me that way."  Culture (especially heavily religious or macho cultures) often blame the parents for causing it.  By allowing the child to follow their own lead, some may wrongly assume the parents are encouraging a perverted outcome.  This is absolutely untrue.  Gender identity is not defined by what's between our legs but by what's between our ears.  It's hardwired in the same way that sexual orientation is hardwired.

What's a Parent to do?

Our children's gender identity is out of our hands, but their well-being is not.
Sexual orientation cannot be changed, and neither can gender identity.  A child's heterosexuality or homo­sexuality is deeply ingrained as part of them.  As a parent, your most important role is to offer understanding, respect, and support to your child.  A non-judgmental approach will gain your child's trust and put you in a better position to help him or her through these difficult times.  You need to be supportive and helpful, no matter what your youngster's sexual orientation or gender identity may be.

We've had great success with this approach in Scandinavia.  Our preschools, which are government-run and which virtually all children attend in their earliest years, are generally gender-neutral environments.  This allows the children to discover who they are, without imposed gender roles or conformity.

Children who are gender nonconforming or gender-fluid need a place where they can express what they want to.  For some it's a passing phase.  Some grow up to be straight, some grow up to be gay, some grow up to be trans.  We don't know the outcome, and we don't need to.  If you force a child to be something they don't want to be, they'll be miserable...not to mention confused.

I had one rather zealous Catholic Filipino fellow tell me that we're insane in Scandinavia because we're trying to eradicate gender differences, something which, in his opinion, is ineradicable.  He was confusing gender with sex, however, something that many people do.  Gender is not synonymous with sex; see the Definition of Terms page for further clarification.

We are not, for the record, consciously feminizing boys and masculinizing girls, or attempting to make a new, singular sex.  On the contrary we're simply removing any effort to force boys to be masculine and girls to be feminine, not replacing it with pressure in the opposite direction.  This doesn't deny that gender exists.  It peels away the social reinforcement of gender roles so that the natural inclinations of the children, whatever they may be, can manifest.  It's not an attempt to create a race of androgynous or asexual humans.  The girls know they're girls and the boys know they're boys.

I understand that this approach may be decades away for the Philippines and may cause great controversy, but there are some very simple things that every parent can do, no matter where they are.

At all costs avoid parenting tactics that can be damaging to your child.  These are known as behaviors which foster rejection -- they undermine a child's self-esteem and self-worth.  For example:
  1. Physical and verbal abuse (as in the 'joke' at the beginning of this post)
  2. Exclusion from family activities
  3. Blocking access to trans, gay, or lesbian friends, activities, or supports
  4. Blaming the child for the discrimination he or she faces ("If you acted/dressed normal it wouldn't happen")
  5. Denigration and ridicule
  6. Religious-based condemnation
  7. Distress, denial, shame
  8. Silence and secrecy
  9. Pressure to conform to your culture's gender roles

Remember:  rifts that develop between LGBT kids and their parents aren't the fault of the LGBT kids.  They are no more to blame than a left-handed person can be blamed for being born left-handed. More often than not it's the parents who unwittingly push their LGBT child away, due to ignorance/fear of the unknown, social stigmatization, or religious beliefs.

The very best thing you can do is to give unconditional support, understanding, and love to your child, and treat them no differently than you would your straight child.  And in the case of transgendered kids, when the time comes that they decide to transition (change outwardly from one gender to another and live according to their gender identity, either through social changes or medical changes*), be supportive every step of the way.

If you have worries or feel uncomfortable about it, that's perfectly all right.  It doesn't mean you're a bad parent, it just means you may not know everything (surprise, you're a human after all!).  There are dozens of resources, support groups and forums available online to help parents of LGBT kids (such as PFLAG, PFLAG Philippines, HRC, and API), so information is always just a click or a phone call away.  Just take a deep breath, smile, and realize that you've done absolutely nothing wrong in your parenting, that your child is 100% normal, is no different than anyone else, and is deserving of the same rights, quality of life, and happiness as everyone else.

Society might be bigoted, but that doesn't mean your home and your family have to be.

*Social (non-permanent) transition includes changes in clothing, hairstyle, name and/or pronouns.  Medical transition is transition through the use of medicines such as hormone 'blockers' or cross hormones to promote gender-based body changes, and/or through the addition or removal of gender-related physical traits surgically.

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