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Discrimination

Trouble in the Water: The Poisonous Price of Fiscal Conservatism in Flint, Michigan

By January 25, 2016 2 Comments
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As a single parent to two teenage girls, I have spent the majority of my adult life trying to protect them from every conceivable injury, or hurt that I can. I never thought what I might have to protect them from was as essential for survival as water, and as ubiquitous as a municipal water supply. But that’s exactly what’s happening in Flint, Michigan, where I grew up and where I still have family.

The residents of Flint are currently involved in what can best described as a catastrophic failure of leadership, and at worst environmental racism. The residents of Flint, my hometown, have been drinking water contaminated with lead for nearly two years. This includes children and infants (through formula made with contaminated water or through high doses in contaminated breast milk.)

There is nothing worse than watching your child in pain, and knowing there is nothing you can do about it. That is exactly what the parents of Flint, Michigan are faced with every single day.

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Categories: Chronic Illnesses + Conditions, Policy, Politics, + Pop Health

Transparenting Pink Boys and Blue Girls

By September 21, 2015 No Comments
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You may remember last year when Transparent, an Amazon original comedy-drama series took home five Emmys at the 67th Emmy Awards, which was a big leap for the subject matter into the public eye – and yet another step toward positive, wide-spread visibility for a subject that’s still unfamiliar to people. The series depicts the process that a father of three adult children must undergo as he comes out to his family about his true transgender identity. Like Caitlin Jenner, Laverne Cox and Chaz Bono, the lead character of Transparent brings the experience to greater understanding. What is perhaps less known is that awareness of being transgender can often emerge as a young child, and the stories like those of Jeffrey Tambor’s character (pictured right) don’t always shed light on the fact that from early childhood, many transgender adults have struggled to be out and open about who they are.

For most parents, upon hearing the words “it’s a boy,” or “it’s a girl,” conjure up a picture of how their child will look, what the child will wear, toys they will like, and who they will marry.  All of these ideas are based on the assumption— and the expectation of most parents — that their children will be heterosexual and gender-conforming.

What happens, then, when our children do not follow the path we imagined when they came into our lives as babies?  Do we give our children space to express themselves without judgment, for example, when our sons want to wear pink converse sneakers or our daughters want to wear a necktie?  Many parents like myself absolutely want to expand gender roles for our children, and consider ourselves feminist, progressive, open-minded, etc.  Truth be told, however, when we see behaviors in our children that we associate with being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, we are often uncomfortable and may, out of fear or worry, say or do things to inhibit our children from being who they truly are.

It’s important to understand the meaning of sexual orientation and gender identity — very different aspects of who we are as humans —  are often conflated, and both tied up in conversations we have when talking about children who are not gender-conforming.

Sexual orientation is quite simply who we are physically/romantically attracted to; some people are solely attracted to the opposite sex, some to the same sex, and others experience attraction to both/all genders.  It is believed that sexual orientation is wired in us from birth and that by middle school a child is aware of this aspect of themselves regardless of whether they have acted on any feelings or shared them with anyone.

Gender identity is one’s innermost sense of being either male or female, or in some cases, both or neither. Gender identity is believed to be established by age 4, though for some children—and adults, coming out as transgender may be delayed based on fear of rejection, lack of safety, or simply not understanding their experience and not having a place to openly explore their feelings.

For most children, their assigned sex at birth (“it’s a girl!” or “it’s a boy!”) will match their gender identity. This is referred to as being cisgender (cis is pronounced like the “sis” in the word “sister”).  But for some children, they will have a profound sense of being a gender other than the one assigned at birth. For example, a three-year-old child assigned male at birth but who feels like a girl and wants to be girl, and is insistent, persistent, and consistent about this feeling, may in fact be transgender.  And for a growing number of children—teens in particular, there is a fluid, or non-binary gender identity that can include wearing a variety of “girls and boys” clothing, appearing androgynous, using the pronoun “they,” and other ways of eschewing the limitations or inaccuracy of either a male or female identity.

We often hear the term “gender non-conforming” when referring to children who behave in ways that are not consistent with more traditional gender norms or gender roles.  This might include girls who are tomboys or boys who prefer to play with dolls.

What should we do as parents if our children are among those who express themselves in ways that suggest that might be LGB, or T (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender)?

The most important thing is to give children the room they need to explore who they are, and to express themselves openly and freely.  There is no way for us to know what any of these behaviors might mean with regard to sexual orientation or gender identity. Many children who enjoy gender expansive (gender non-conforming) behavior do not experience discord with their assigned sex at birth, and are not destined to be same-sex attracted.  But some will follow that path and, as parents there are things we can do from early on to create a safe, accepting environment if our children are in fact LGBT identified at some point in their lives.

How do we support our children in this process, no matter what path they end up on? We can avoid “gender policing,” which often shames our kids and shuts down their need to express themselves with clothing, toys, hobbies, etc.

Sometimes by habit, or reflex, we might say to our son who is eyeballing a play kitchen at Toys R Us, “those are for girls,” or when our daughter wants to play touch football with the neighborhood boys instead of encouraging her, we caution her with “that’s too rough for girls.”

I’m sure many of us say things that reinforce rigid gender roles without realizing we are doing it, and simply paying attention can reap dramatic changes in the level of comfort our children have to simply be who they are.  What we know about LGBT children—teens in particular, is that family support is the most critical factor in their overall well-begin.  Too many LGBT youth are rejected when they “come out,” and it’s that rejection that shatters the foundation of trust and security and sets up our kids to struggle emotionally, academically, and socially.  Believe me, our children are listening closely to what we say in regard to sexual orientation and gender identity, and what they hear will be their clues for whether or not they can trust us and turn to us when or if they need to share about those parts of who they are.

If you are a parent who believes your child may be transgender, based on the criteria that they assert their gender on a persistent, consistent, and insistent basis, there are many online resources to help you better understand “gender dysphoria,” the clinical diagnosis that applies to these children and to find highly experienced medical providers and mental health professionals in your area to help support them.

Transgender Actor Laverne Cox on the cover of Time Magazine (courtesy: Time.com)

Transgender Actor Laverne Cox on the cover of Time Magazine (courtesy: Time.com)

Transgender individuals are gaining visibility in the media with the popularity of shows like Transparent, as mentioned above, Orange is the New Black (featuring Laverne Cox, pictured left), and the widely-publicized transition of Caitlyn Jenner, to name a few. Jeffery Tambor, who won for best actor for the lead role in Transparent recognized the significance of his win by dedicating to the transgender community, saying, “thanks for your patience, thank you for your courage, thank you for your stories, thank you for your inspiration, thank you for letting us be part of the change.”

Likewise, there are many emerging voices of parents of transgender children who are now advocating for their children at school and in the broader community; many of their stories are told in books, in videos, and on their personal blogs and websites. The voices are out there – and I believe connecting with other parents of transgender children is incredibly empowering and certainly the best path toward being educated and informed about the best ways to support and take care of your children.

 

 

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Categories: Mental, Emotional, + Behavioral Health, Policy, Politics, + Pop Health

The Kids Are Alright. Really.

By July 15, 2015 No Comments
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 For decades, children have been born to or adopted by same-sex couples. Before the advent of legal marriage beginning 10 years ago in Massachusetts, many same-sex couples built families on a rickety legal foundation and by careful navigation of adoption agencies, fertility clinics, supportive or unsupportive family members, and limited social acceptance of our “alternative” families. Why would so many same-sex couples—as well as single LGBT people, choose this often complicated and stressful path to parenthood? It’s simple: our desire to be parents and to experience the life-altering journey of raising a child is greater than our fear of the backlash of bias, bad attitudes, and outright discrimination that so many of our families have endured.

While the recent SCOTUS ruling changes the legal landscape for same-sex parents, it does not erase the myths and misperceptions about our families. Some of these myths are veiled in “concerns for the children,” for example the worry that our children are more likely to be gay, lesbian or bisexual, or that they will experience higher levels of bullying, confusion about gender roles, or somehow end up unhappy. We appreciate the concern for our children – we are concerned about them too, but our concerns are those more typical of all parents – keeping them safe at the playground, helping them make friends easily, providing them with good teachers, and teaching them to be kind and generous.

(excerpt): Some of these myths are veiled in “concerns for the children,” for example the worry that our children are more likely to be gay, lesbian or bisexual, or that they will experience higher levels of bullying, confusion about gender roles, or somehow end up unhappy.

Having two moms or two dads does no harm to children; what does harm them, however, is the homophobia and bullying which they can sometimes face. To date, thirty years of peer-reviewed social science research concludes that children raised by lesbian and gay parents do just as well in key areas of development – social relationships, emotional well-being, academic performance, and connection to family – as do children raised by heterosexual parents.

Yet, with all of this research along with hundreds of thousands of thriving children with same-sex parents living among us, there still persists the belief that children do best with a married mother and father, and that children lose something if they are raised in other family structures.

Let me put to rest some of the myths and misinformation that, in fact, are the very thing that chip away at our children’s optimal well-being.

My two daughters have two moms. We are intentional parents—our children were wanted and planned; in fact, we joke that our children are “more processed than Velveeta cheese.” We did not have the option of getting pregnant the old fashioned way—we had to find a donor, track ovulation, time the inseminations just right, lay out a lot of money, and put legal documents in place (this was well before marriage equality in Maryland, where we live); whether pursuing adoption or assisted reproduction, our paths to building families takes time, money, and will. I am well aware that many heterosexual couples and single people face fertility and financial challenges as well, which I am in no way diminishing. I’m simply making the point that LGBT people only have alternative options to consider from day one of their family planning experience. The foundation for our families is strong in that our children are wanted, planned, and our intention to parent is clear. I would think this is a foundation we would ideally want for all of our children, regardless of family structure; when families are ready, willing and able to parent to the best of their ability. In these scenarios, children do better, getting the attention, nurturing, and support they need in order to thrive.

Ellen and her family

Ellen and her family

It is a myth that our children are more likely to be gay or lesbian, or confused about their gender. If you ask a roomful of gay people whether they have gay parents, typically not one person will raise their hand. In other words, it’s statistically more likely that children who are lesbian, gay or bisexual will be born to straight parents, because straight individuals are a higher percentage of the total population. Sure, some LGBT parents will have LGBT kids, but not at any higher a rate than those raised by non-LGBT parents. Research on adolescents and young adults with LGBT parents suggests that those who are same-sex attracted feel safer “coming out” to their family, which is good for their mental health. On the contrary, many LGBT children and teens are terrified to come out or express these feelings to their straight parents for fear of being rejected. In terms of child well-being, it is essential that parents are supportive and accepting of their LGBT children even if it’s hard for them personally, since the impact of parental rejection can be as severe, but not limited to suicide. Sexual orientation—who you are attracted to—is wired and can’t be changed, and children with same-sex parents have the same statistical potential as all children of being something other than heterosexual.

Those same studies that found that having same-sex parents does not increase a child’s likelihood of being gay also found that having same-sex parents does not cause gender confusion.  There are all types of modern families which are breaking traditional gender roles, including those with “stay at home” dads and working mothers, ones in which the mother and father more equally divide household chores according to what they enjoy, versus what a 1950s version of Good Housekeeping magazine endorses. Some men cook, some women mow the lawn; it is good for children to see equity in household management and the full range of what is possible for girls and boys to do rather than live with prescriptive, limiting gender expectations. Our sons and daughters will see that there are many different ways to be men or women, that there are no hard and fast rules about how they parent or how they help around the house. They are not confused about gender roles– they are simply learning the expansive nature of what it means to be male or female in a modern society.

The most important myth to counter, in my mind, is that our children will be unhappy. To my earlier point, the greatest harm to our children’s emotional well-being comes from bias and discrimination toward our families. What children need is one, two, or more parents or guardians who are consistent caregivers, unconditionally supportive, and invested in helping them become the best people they can be. Whether those parents are straight, gay, transgender, rich, poor, or married has little to do with their capacity to be good parents. When children face discrimination, bullying, or rejection, they are more likely to be depressed, anxious, and to struggle with their emotional well-being. There is no evidence in any research on LGBT families to support this notion that our children will suffer, but there is research that shows the impact of trauma on children, and it’s the trauma of homophobia and rejection on the part of people outside of our families that is of greatest concern to us, and to our children.

My daughters have two loving parents, an extended support network of family, friends and neighbors, and are being raised in a community that is generally LGBT-inclusive and where there are many other visible families headed by same-sex couples. They know their family structure is in the minority and that there are still people out there who don’t like the idea of two men or two women raising children, and they will be the first to tell you that they are all right—beyond all right, in fact. For too many of our families across the country, feeling isolated and marginalized on the soccer field, at the PTA meeting, or at the local playground is still a reality–marriage equality or not. All of us can have a role in creating a community that embraces family diversity, that recognizes the many ways in which my family is like so many others—doing the best we can to raise happy, healthy children. Letting go of myths and getting to know LGBT parents and their children is the best thing you can do to support our families and your own – Edited by Julia Bennett + Leslie Waghorn

 

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Categories: Mental, Emotional, + Behavioral Health, Policy, Politics, + Pop Health