by Dallas Denny
What should you do if you have a child who is gender nonconforming– or one who does conform to a gender role, just not the biological one? What if the doctor recently told you your child is intersexed? What if your child is telling you she wants a sex change?
As a parent you want the best for your child. Sometimes, though, it’s difficult to tell just what best is.
I was trained in psychology, not parenting. I don’t have children, so I have no special expertise in that field, but as a former child and someone who is transsexual, here are my suggestions for parenting a gender-nonconforming child.
1. Be honest with your child
Children have difficulty enough figuring out the complexities of the world—and of themselves. Don’t make matters worse by deceiving your child. If you’re less than truthful your child will figure it out. To maintain trust, you must be honest.
This doesn’t mean you should be brutal. When something can’t be answered properly with yes or no, take the time to explain the situation and offer qualifying statements. If your ten-year-old daughter were to ask “Are transsexuals discriminated against?” the honest answer is yes, but a better answer is “Yes, transsexuals sometimes experience discrimination, but they have many allies and have legal protections in many places” or “yes, but many types of people are discriminated against. Can you name some of them?
If your son’s crossdressing bothers you, you might say, should the issue arise, “It does, but I’m working on it. I support your right to wear what you want.” Be careful not to show disgust or disdain; the child will sense it and feel shame and guilt—but it’s okay to let him know it sometimes makes you uncomfortable.
If your child should happen to be intersexed, it’s important to tell him the real reason he’s seeing a doctor or having a medical tests. I don’t know of any actual studies on this, but hundreds of intersexed people have testified that lies told about scars on their bodies, embarrassing and painful visits to doctors, disappearing medical records, and the refusal of their parents to talk to them about their bodies have left them confused, angry, ashamed and guilty. I should note that sometimes even today parents of intersexed children are told by their doctors to do everything in their power to keep the child in the dark about her condition. Intersexed adults who experienced such treatment have been telling us for many years how painful and damaging such withholding of information was for them; we should pay attention to them.
2. Be honest with yourself
Examine your feelings about your son or daughter’s gender nonconformity. Are they positive, negative, or neutral? Why? Ask yourself how much or how little your feelings and beliefs about gender determine your attitude and behavior toward your child.
If your child’s behavior disgusts or repels you, ask yourself why you feel that way. Think about talking with other parents to see how you feel. You may be surprised to find some parents share your negative reaction while others don’t. If you find yourself out of step with the group, and especially if your negative feelings are intense, you might want to talk things over with a therapist or other helping professional.
3. Educate yourself
No one expects you to become an instant expert on your son or daughter’s gender-nonconforming behavior, but you should make every effort to find material that will help make sense of your child’s behavior and provide you with effective parenting strategies. You should talk with other parents and learn about their experiences with their own children, perhaps in a support group setting.
You should read a wide range of material so you can familiarize yourself with a variety of viewpoints. Experts don’t always agree. You’ll soon discover what makes sense to you and what doesn’t.
4. Don’t be quick to decide there’s a problem
Experimenting with gender comes naturally to many boys and girls. It’s not uncommon for a two-year-old boy to clomp around in Mommy’s high heels or for a seven-year-old girl to avoid wearing dresses. Most children eventually grow out of this behavior. Don’t be overly concerned unless the behavior is persistent and of high intensity.
5. Don’t be afraid to decide there is a problem
Sometimes children don’t outgrow their gender nonconforming behavior. If it’s clear your child has an ongoing issue, it’s best not to ignore it. Begin to educate yourself and, if you’re becoming concerned, consult a gender specialist. Avoid giving your child a label, however. Labels are often self-fulfilling.
6. Let your child lead the way
It’s important for you allow your child to define herself. You should especially avoid placing expectations about gendered behavior or gender identity on your child. Don’t be quick to decide your child is on the one hand “just going through a phase” or on the other hand that she’s transsexual. Let your child forge her own course.
7. Give your child some room
Your child is probably as confused and maybe even more confused than you. Give him time to figure it all out. Don’t force her to make a decision about what he “is.” Sooner or later that will become clear to both you and your child.
It’s especially important not to force a label of transsexualism upon a child. When your child says he wants to be a member of the other sex or actually is a member of the other sex, and if this persists, then okay, maybe he’s transsexual—but absent ongoing indications of identification with the other sex, don’t jump to a perhaps unwarranted conclusion.
8. Let your child know she’s valuable
It’s common for gender-nonconforming children to feel shame and guilt— and we all know how debilitating those emotions can be. Let your child know often that you value her—and don’t just say it—show it.
9. Don’t be afraid to set behavioral boundaries
In some cases a child’s crossdressing can disrupt the home, put family members at stress, or may be simply inappropriate. Don’t be afraid to set rules and limits on your child’s behavior.
If possible, sit down with your child and enlist her participation in making a schedule and setting rules. When is it okay to crossdress? When is it not okay? Is he to be allowed to wear clothes of other family members, or only his own special clothing? With luck you’ll create a plan that both you and your child can live with.
These rules should not be geared toward minimizing or eliminating the gender nonconforming behavior, but rather for setting boundaries.
10. Tell yourself: Sometimes it’s all about crossdressing
In the 1970s UCLA psychiatrist Richard Green did a long-term study of extremely feminine young boys. Green believed his group was comprised primarily of pre-transsexuals, but to his surprise, when his subjects became adults almost every one identified as a gay man.
Your child might one day identity as gay, but then again he might grow up to be heterosexual. He might crossdress as an adult, but not necessarily. She might become a masculine woman, he a feminine man—but not necessarily. She might still have her androgynous look when she’s 30— but not necessarily.
Once again, it’s important not to place expectations or decide on outcomes for your child based upon crossdressing or gender nonconforming behavior.
11. Remind yourself: Sometimes crossdressing is secondary to identity
Many and perhaps most transsexuals crossdress, but some don’t. Christine Jorgensen, whose sex reassignment shocked the world in 1952, denied crossdressing before her trip to Denmark for medical procedures.
Some gender nonconforming children are fascinated with the feel or look of fabrics, or use clothing as props. For transsexual children clothing matters no more or no less than it does for other people. That may not at first seem to be the case, for a transsexual child might make a big deal indeed out of her clothing choices, but ask yourself—if you were forced to wear the clothing of what you considered the other sex, wouldn’t you?
For transsexual children, it’s about identity. Transsexual children believe they are or at least would prefer to be members of the non-natal sex. Many express this at a very young age— and it doesn’t go away.
For these reasons it’s important to listen to what your child is actually saying. If you are hearing “I’m a girl” or “I want to be a boy” or “I’m gonna be a girl when I grow up,” and if it persists, you should take your child to a gender specialist for evaluation.
12. Don’t freak out if you suspect your child might be transsexual
Most gender-nonconforming children aren’t transsexual—but a few are.
If you suspect your child is transsexual, or if it has become clear to you that he is, rest assured it’s not the end of the world. Yes, you will have some hard decisions to make. But no, her life isn’t ruined—nor is yours. Look beyond media stereotypes. Being transsexual is just another way of being human, and fortunately more and more people are recognizing that. You child can get an education, have a career, find a partner, build a family, and live a happy and fulfilling life— and your support will be critical.
13. Don’t try to “cure” your child
Your child is who he is, and that’s not going to change. He can be shamed or frightened into hiding his feelings, and may even voluntarily hide his feelings in hopes of pleasing you, but that can wreak psychological havock. It’s best to accept your child’s gender identity and taste in clothing as part of who he is. Remember it’s okay to set limits, but don’t try to cure your child of something that is so integral to his identity.
Note: I should say that more and more of today’s young people give little importance to traditional male and female characteristics. More and more create unique styles using clothing, jewelry, and cosmetics of both sexes, and some use invented pronouns to refer to themselves. It doesn’t mean some of them don’t have issues with gender identity, but for most it’s just part of being a teenager in this postmodern age.
Source: Dallas Denny. (2011, 17 October). Some words on parenting. Transgender Forum.
Dallas Denny, M.A., is founder and was for ten years Executive Director of the American Educational Gender Information Service, Inc. (AEGIS), a national clearinghouse on transsexual and transgender issues. She is currently on the board of Gender Education & Advocacy, Inc., AEGISâ€™ successor organization, which lives at www.gender.org. She is Director of Fantasia Fair and editor of Transgender Tapestry magazine and was editor and publisher of the late Chrysalis: The Journal of Transgressive Gender Identities.
Boenke, M.(1999). Trans forming families: Real stories about transgendered loved ones, 2nd ed. http://www.aiyii.com/transbook. Note: The second edition is out of print. You can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for information about the 3rd edition or search amazon.com for used books.
Jennings, Kevin, & Shapiro, Pat. (2003). Always my child: A parent’s guide to understanding your gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning son or daughter. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Tuerk, C., Menvielle, E., & de Jesus, J. (2003). If you are concerned about your child’s gender behaviors. Available at www.childrensnational.org
Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. www.pflag.org. Click the Transgender tab at top right and the Transgender Network tab at left; they’ll lead you to a wealth of information.
Transforming Families. www.transformingfamily.org