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 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.