What is gender?

This is a question I didn’t think much of until about six years ago, when I awaited a sonogram technician’s explanation of what she was tracking on a blurry screen. Girl or boy? It was suddenly a very big question.

Five-year-old Tyler, known until last fall as Kathryn. (Nikki Kahn/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The Post’s Petula Dvorak has this week written a series of moving columns about a 5-year-old-child, Tyler, who was not comfortable as a girl. After much angst and much research, Tyler’s parents made two difficult decisions.

The first, to allow their child to identify as a boy.

The second, to go public with their story. (Dvorak has not used the family’s full names.)

The reactions have poured in, to Dvorak and to The Post. Some readers have been critical, many have been supportive. Many have shared similar stories. This is new territory for many readers, though it seems as if Tyler’s story has given a voice to a struggle that parents have been wrestling with for years, even generations.

An interesting coincidence: This week a transgender woman was crowned Miss Congeniality at the Miss Universe Canada pageant.

“I think we are seeing a sea change in our understanding of gender nonconformity and gender in general, and with this sea change comes a new openness to making room for children of all gender identities and presentations,” Diane Ehrensaft wrote me when I asked of her reaction to Tyler’s story.

Ehrensaft is an advocate for transgender children, a parent of son who as a child was gender-nonconforming and the author of the recently published “Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children,” (The Experiment, 2011).

Last month, she spoke with me about the subject and gave a public talk at the Human Rights Campaign Washington D.C. headquarters. More on that talk is here.

I caught up with her today to ask her to elaborate on the issues that Tyler’s story raises — such as the question of what gender is, exactly.

“These are children who have taught us that our gender does not lie between our legs, but between our ears,” she wrote.

 “At a very early age they just appear to come to their parents — their parents did not mold them that way once they were born, and often the parents are as perplexed as anyone else when their child moans, ‘Why did you (or God) get this wrong?  I’m not the gender you think I am.  Why can’t you put me back in your tummy and make me come out the right one?’

“These children are typically persistent, consistent, and insistent from an early age that they are the gender opposite the one on their birth certificate, their ‘affirmed gender.’ ”

I asked Ehrensaft if she had an idea of the number of children who struggle with gender identity.

“We do not know the exact number of these children because a good number of them have been suppressed in the expression of what I refer to as their ‘true gender self’ and forced to either comply to the gender listed on their birth certificate or live in a ‘gender neutral’ place where they are stuck with puzzles and rulers rather than their coveted Barbie dolls or superhero figures.

“I would say that the majority of gender-nonconforming people accept the gender assigned to them at birth, but not the expectations that accompany that gender, while a small number agonize that they are living in the wrong gender. We can think of that small minority like we have come over the generations to think about left-handed people — a very small minority of the population, but just as healthy and well meaning as right-handed people, nothing sinister about them at all.  

She went on:

“Gender nonconformity can make all of us anxious, and the increased support for these children comes from the professionals ... and from the growing evidence that children who are allowed to transition into their affirmed gender identity settle down and show better mental health. Children who are not allowed to transition persist in troubled behavioral and emotional distress. And it certainly comes from the increasing number of media reports sympathetic to the children and families, reports that have been widely disseminated.  

“It should be underlined that transitions like Tyler’s, if done well, are never done impulsively or prematurely, but with extended thought and reflection and professional counsel. We are fully aware that some children will be using gender as a way to tell us about other problems they are having, and those children need to be differentiated from the children who are assertively and wisely telling us about who they really are — boy or girl...  

“Support for the transgender children comes from: first, stopping blaming parents for who they are; second, celebrating who they are rather than labeling them as having a disease — they are just one variation on the wonderful theme of creative gender possibilities; third, becoming advocates for them in the community, replacing ignorance with information about who these children are and how we can help them be the healthiest children they can be — by letting them be themselves.”

What do you think? What is a parent’s role when it comes to gender identity?

Related Content:

Gender identity and children who struggle with it

‘Girl’ LEGOs: Should gender-neutral toys get gender-specific?

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