“gender variant”

I’ve had the opportunity to read a draft of a recent study by Hill, D.B., Menvielle, E., Sica, K.M., &  Johnson, A. (2010), of children in different therapeutic environments published in The Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy shows that supportive / accepting parenting is associated with lower rates of mental illness. From the abstract:

When [CNMC group participant’s children were] compared to children at other gender identity clinics in Canada and The Netherlands, parents rated their children’s gender variance as no less extreme, but their children were overall less pathological.

This is what I take from the study; I’m not a scientist and I can’t speak to the statistical analysis, I’m just looking at the text of the study itself:

  1. Supportive parenting which acknowledges and accepts a child’s gender non-conformity is good for kids; even when this non-conformity leads to awkward social situations and various degrees of peer disapproval. Taking the good with the bad, supportive parenting is associated with better outcomes than suppressing these behaviors completely ‘for the child’s own good.’
  2. Accepting and affirming a child’s impulses and deeply held feelings, while setting some boundaries on a child’s gender expression to lessen peer / community issues works well for many of the children in this sample.

This is a cross-sectional study (it doesn’t follow kids over time) and so it cannot speak to causation; but it is important to note that each group sees a full range of kids in terms of degree of gender variance (IE, exclusively mildly GV kids haven’t gravitated to the CNMC, explaining away these results.)

I think the chief value of this study is reassure parents who instinctively lean towards a supportive approach, that they aren’t hurting thier children. If it feels wrong to you, to disappoint your child at every birthday or holiday, to make your child suffer by forcing him or her into clothing she hates, you don’t have to do it.

Barbie won’t hurt your boy.

My family have stepped outside the CNMC  recommendations to a degree, allowing our child to essentially pass as female in public for the last five or six years. This isn’t recommended by some supportive therapists. He seemed able to take the heat, and he has been psychologically stable and generally happy. The fact that he never demanded universal use of female pronouns, and that he isn’t gender dysphoric led us to believe that he isn’t one those kids who needed a full social transition.

Which means perhaps we could have set some more boundaries and not have hurt him in any significant way.

I have no regrets. If Oscar blazed a trail for a few kids in our system who do need to socially transition, more the better.

Raising your kids is a game played for keeps. There are no do-overs. (As I remind myself every time I lose my cool in front of my kids. A child will forget ten thousand happy hours, and remember the ten times you lost it in front of them.) In a way, this is a game we can’t win. Some of our best intentions will be judged by future generations as absurd.

In the end, we can only hope that they forgive us for being human, and for doing the best we can, even when perhaps, that wasn’t enough. Or too much! Every generation tries to get it right. Every generation fails. But I sense that we get closer to the mark every time around.

The arc of history is long, but it bends towards  justice.

My family has done its tiny part, tugging at the present end of that arc.

And it may be naive, culturebound, Western, to think that there is such a thing as progress. But I can’t help but feel we have been a part of something special.

And that all progress is made one family at a time.


eggs_adAs supportive parents find each other through mailing lists on the internet (see the CNMC and Transkidsfamily) we share stories about our kids, and the problems they face— and the problems we face being thier parents. Over the years a profile builds up, qualities that many of these boys seem to share.

We are astonished to find the same patterns, the same specific behaviors, popping up over and over again. List members collect their own lists of anecodotes.

Some of us have attended gender conferences and listened to presentations by clinicians and pyschiatrists working with these children. I’ve been lucky enough to have spent time talking with Edgardo J. Menvielle, MD, Catherine Tuerk, Greg K. Lehne, Ph.D. and Kim Pearson, all of whom I consider experts on gender non-conforming children. (Kim is an activist and mom, not a caregiver, but she has helped so many families navigate these waters.)

There are very few experts in this area, and very little research.

Some of the kids on our lists are trans; some are tomgirls; some are in flux; some are supressing these qualities and trying to fit in. The following list is not intended to subsitute for any professional opinion on the matter. My list is focused on gender variant boys who frequently do not end up identifying as transgender, though transgender children may share many of these qualities.

I have been told, and forgive the flakiness of the term, that Trans kids and GV boys give off a subtlety different vibe. Professionals working with them often have opinions as to who is really transgender (bound for SRS or a lifetime presenting as female) and who isn’t. But parents—not professionals—are the deciders when it comes to how to raise their children. These  professional opinions may never even be voiced, as they work to create the most supportive environment possible, given a family’s, or a community’s…limitations.

It’s important to note here, that even modest accommodations made for these children often have a huge impact on their later mental health and self-esteem.

Without further ado, here’s my list:

  • Barbies not Babies: tomgirls (i’ll use that term for GV children throughout this list) are more fascinated by dressing up barbies than nurturing babies.
  • Hyper feminine: the most extreme manifestations of femininity are embraced; sparkles; high-heels; make-up; rainbows; glitter; fashion, hair, nails, Jewelry.
  • The Princess: A fierce relationship with the barbie princess is almost universal.
  • The Drama Queen: volatility; extremes of emotion; blinding despair, giddy elation. All kids are like this; tomgirls often moreso. Favorite quote from despairing tomgirl: “I wish the human race had never existed!”
  • Character identification: Identifies exclusively with female characters, even when the story in question has almost no role for female characters. (My son was Bo Peep in Toy story.)
  • Averse to Rough & Tumble Play / Team sports: Almost forgot about this one. Obviously, some gender normative kids are like this as well.
  • Towel Hair: Many pretend to have long hair, using towels as props. It doesn’t matter if the child is, say, african american. They all want long flowing blonde hair.
  • Pink: You can have any color you like, as long as it is pink. In my case, pink and white has given way to pink and black as my son hit age 10. Fortunately, Hello Kitty stuff comes in both flavors.
  • Expresses desire to be a Girl: My son was sad he wasn’t born a girl when he was younger. He blamed his mother. Some  kids blame God. He cried himself to sleep when he was 3 or 4 a few times over it…that experience changed us.

Here are some anecdotes from our email lists; it’s possible the self-selected nature of our groups have yielded a certain kind of GV boy. Take these with a grain of salt.

  • Sociability: This may only manifest in situations that allow it, but far from being guarded introverts, many Tomgirls are ‘popular’ in early years, engaging a wide variety of both male and female friends; in places where boys are more rigorously gendered, these friendships may be exclusively feminine.
  • Unwillingness or inability to suppress / ‘fit in’: this might just be a sign of time and place, but many of these younger kids seem reluctant to hide, even when presenting has consequences.
  • Creativity: All kids are creative. Tomgirls seem to be very creative; the content, the subject matter, of course, may be limited to hyper-feminine content.  My son drew, sculpted, and assembled from recycled materials, approximately 3-400 iconic female figures from the ages of 3-6.
  • Unhappy with boy toys: Almost every parent of a tomgirl has a story of an unpleasant holiday moment, when the child unwraps some really butch toy, and bursts into tears—or rage. My child went on an ironically Hulk–like rampage when given a huge green rubber Incredible Hulk.

I welcome comments and additions to this list by Tomgirls, supportive families, professionals, and transgendered individuals. If I’m off-base on any of this, let me know.