Gender nonconformity is a new term for many of us, but for some families it’s an issue that has gone unrecognized for too long.
Increasingly, more families with children who struggle with gender are speaking out and asking for more rights and more inclusion.
One high-profile story last year involved a mother and her transgender 7-year-old petitioning to join the Girl Scouts. Other families joined Anderson Cooper a few months ago to talk about their experiences on his talk show.
Experts are also beginning to pay attention to these children. In March, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a collection of studies on children and adolescents with gender identity disorders.
“Gender non-conformity refers to any individual, adult or child, who does not abide by our culture’s socially defined binary gender boxes,” Diane Ehrensaft told me.
Ehrensaft is a developmental and clinical psychologist and author of “Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-nonconforming Children,” (The Experiment, 2011). She is the featured speaker for tonight’s inaugural event in the Human Rights Campaign new speaker series, Equality Talks. (Details on that D.C. event are below.)
I asked her to define some of the terminology used when we talk about gender and children, and describe how parents can better support these kids, whether at home or in the community. Here’s our Q &A:
Can you explain how a parent might recognize gender non-conformity in a child?
It may involve a person saying he or she does not feel in synch with the gender listed on the birth certificate; it may involve the girl who says she will never, ever wear a dress, even when she’s supposed to be a bridesmaid or flower girl dressed in frills.
A parent will recognize it just by paying attention -- it is the child who in one way or another says a transgressive “no, I don’t want to” or “no, I won’t” or “no, I can’t” to social expectations about gender, and it is the child who in one way or another says, “But here’s the way I’m going to put gender together creatively for myself, based on my own needs and desires.” If a parent can’t see it, it may be because the child has already figured out that it’s not going to be okay in the family, and therefore hides it, and that is never good for a child’s sense of well-being and confidence in who they are. Another reason a parent may not recognize it is that it hasn’t yet surfaced in the child, and may just show up at a later date.
Many children, especially toddlers, seem to arbitrarily and temporarily reject certain clothes or rules. How might a parent know when a child is going through a temporary phase or if he or she is expressing a more deeply ingrained view of him or herself?
Almost all children, at one time or another, do something that is outside the conforming gender box. A sister may think it’s fun one day to put on her brother’s football uniform. A little boy may ask to have his toenails painted red like his mommy’s.
This is to be differentiated from the child who consistently, persistently or even insistently crosses gender lines in either presentation, activities or declaration of what their gender is. Those latter children will fit the category of gender-nonconforming children. Some parents will still ask, in these situations, “But couldn’t it just be a phase?” The answer is yes, but as more time goes on and the child continues to express in gender-nonconforming ways, it is far more likely that the child is not going to outgrow the gender nonconformity, at least for the foreseeable future. The real challenge for both parents and professionals is knowing that we may have to live in a state of not-knowing for awhile, and in the meantime leaving all gender doors open.
Also, one cautionary note about “phases.” Often, in referring to our children, “phase” actually has a negative connotation — ”Don’t worry. It’s just a phase, he (she) will get over it.” With gender, holding on to the notion of phase might unwittingly transmit to your child that who your child is is not okay with you. Perhaps a better way to think about it is with “cross-section:” ”I don’t know who my child will become, but this is who my child is now at this cross-section of his or her life.”
How early might a child experience gender nonconformity?
We are seeing babies as early as the last quarter of the first year of life showing signs of gender nonconformity. Typically, it tends to show up first in the toddler and preschool years as children learn what gender is and develop language and activities to express themselves.
What are some of the most important ways a parent can guide a child through this experience?
The most important way a parent can guide a child through this experience is by always remembering that parents have little control over their children’s gender identity, but tremendous influence over their child’s gender health.
To ensure that health, a parent can listen to what their child is saying or showing about his or her gender expressions (how we act and present ourselves) or gender identity (how we identify as male, female or other) and open a space for that child to feel free to create his or her own unique authentic gender self, what I call the true gender self.
Just as the flight attendant instructs parents to administer oxygen to themselves before helping their child, the challenging task of raising a healthy gender-nonconforming child can often best be done by first reaching out for the social “oxygen” of parent support groups, listservs, educational services and informed gender specialists so that the parents are not going it alone in affirming their child’s true gender self.
You plan to talk tonight about gender creativity and gender expansiveness. Can you briefly explain what those terms mean?
Gender creativity is the thread each of us uses to create a true gender self that is a combination of nature, nurture and culture, a construction that I call the gender web. Like fingerprints, each of our gender webs will be unique to us, but unlike fingerprints, the gender web does not stay permanently the same, but can evolve and change over the course of a person’s lifetime. Gender creativity is the force within us, if allowed to express itself, that will both build and replenish the gender web as we grow.
Gender expansiveness is the opening up in both the culture and within ourselves all the permutations and combinations gender might take, without privileging one type over another. We often refer to gender expansiveness in terms of gender acceptance or gender diversity.
Ehrensaft’s talk tonight will be at the Human Rights Campaign headquarters in Washington at 6 p.m. It will also be broadcast live on the Equality Talks Web site.