I think piny will have a more comprehensive response to this article than I will, but I’m going to try anyway.
Born a biological male whom the family named Nicholas, Nicole today dresses, acts, and lives like a girl. She’s been insisting she’s female since she could talk, say the Andersons, who asked that their real names not be used for this article. “He has always been attracted to the flowers, the bright colors, his Barbie dolls, and his beloved mermaids,” Lauren says, using the male pronoun for her child. In fact, talking with Lauren, who fully supports Nicole’s desire to live as a girl, it’s clear that the family is still working out the grammar of how to refer to its youngest.
What’s clear throughout the article is that the family is incredibly supportive, and working hard to make Nicole happy and comfortable. But they’re sailing on almost completely uncharted waters. While many little boys do “girl things” like wear skirts or paint their nails, few seem to dislike their male bodies the way that Nicole does:
On a recent morning, it takes a lot of coaxing to tear Nicole away from watching The Ten Commandments to tell a reporter how she feels about being a “special girl.”
“Do you know why you’re a special girl?” her mother asks.
“Because… I have a girl brain in a boy body,” Nicole says, lowering her usual penetrating voice to an almost inaudible sigh.
“What does that feel like? Does it feel good? Or is it hard?”
“Hard,” Nicole says.
When her mother asks her if she’s happy with the way she looks, she says no.
“What would you change about yourself?”
“Mm… my penis,” Nicole murmurs.
“What would you do with it?” her mother asks.
“Um… cut it,” Nicole replies, very softly.
“And what would you do with it then?” asks a surprised Lauren, who later says she’s never before heard Nicole express dislike for her penis.
“I would hammer it,” Nicole says.
“What?” Lauren says.
“Hammer it,” Nicole insists more strongly.
Later, Lauren says she constantly feels as if she’s flying by the seat of her pants. “There is no protocol,” she says. “Nobody knows of anybody. No five-year-olds who go to school fully transitioned. There’s no book called How to Raise Your Gender Variant Preschooler.”
This obviously isn’t a “phase.”
But one thing that I found interesting about this article, particularly in the advice of psychiatrists, was the univeral assumption that there are “female” and “male” behaviors that are completely unrelated to biology. Girls play with dolls and paint their nails; boys run around outside and play with trucks. There’s been a lot of discussion about this in feminist communities, but I inevitably find it incredibly sad that kids just can’t be. Nothing about being born with a vagina makes one intrinsically more attracted to nail polish; nothing about being born with a penis makes one more likely to want to play football. And yet if a little boy wears a skirt, many parents panic. When dealing with Nicole — whose gender identity clearly goes beyond simply wanting to occassionally partake in stereotypically female behavior — some psychiatrists say that her parents should try and get her to do more “boyish” activities. Because activities, apparently, have sex organs.
Politics about transsexualism permeates any discussion of GID. The only long-range scientific study conducted by psychologists, harshly criticized by transsexual activists, shows that many boys diagnosed with GID as children grow up to be gay males and that only a few continue to identify as female. Studies by endocrinologists, on the other hand, have uncovered some biological similarities in the brains of transsexuals, a finding that suggests that transgenderism is not something one can merely “grow out of.”
All of which means that there’s little anyone can agree on when it comes to treating five-year-old boys who want to be girls.
“There are three basic types of attitudes about this,” says Heino F.L. Meyer-Bahlburg, director of the Program of Developmental Psychoendocrinology at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. “There are people who are strictly anti-trans kids who always try to modify the behavior. There are people who are strongly supportive, who from the outset would strongly encourage a transgender identity. Then there are the people sitting on the fence.”
Transgender issues are complex and often difficult. I think this would all be a lot simpler if we didn’t invest so much in the gender binary — if that was the case, a situation like Nicole’s wouldn’t be so unnerving for so many people. She would be able to dress how she wanted, play with the toys she wanted, and wouldn’t be told that she was “wrong” for doing it.
Kenneth Zucker, a psychologist who has treated hundreds of young Gender Identity Disorder children at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health at the University of Toronto, is a well-known proponent of modifying behavior. He advises that children with GID undergo therapy to work through their hatred of their bodies before being accepted as transsexuals. His clinical research shows that he has an 80 to 90 percent success rate of steering young GID children away from living as trans adults. Gay and transsexual groups are harshly critical of Zucker, saying that his work encourages religious-right organizations that seek to “cure” gays of their homosexuality. But Zucker himself has taken pains to separate himself and his work from those organizations.
Told of the Andersons and their plans to enroll Nicole in school as a girl, Zucker says he’s concerned that the Andersons have been swayed by an activist transsexual agenda and are ignoring the possibility that Nicole might simply be a troubled child. “Let’s see if there are ways to try and help this child work this through,” he says. “Instead, they’re going to cement this in more and more.” He says that what the Andersons are doing could be considered “some type of emotional neglect.”
Meyer-Bahlburg is more ambivalent. “Force doesn’t really work very well. On the other hand, I don’t feel clear about strong encouragement in the transgender direction, because the vast majority of kids fall out of it,” he says. When he treats GID boys, he advises his patients to beef up boyish activities and play with carefully selected male playmates.
Neither of these “solutions” sounds very good to me. Forcing kids into identifying with culturally-constructed, narrow genders doesn’t seem particularly positive for them or for society. I can see, though, how many well-meaning parents would be pulled in by this suggestion, because gender, constructed as it is, is quite real, and deviating from it can have serious consequences. I do wish, though, that all this wasn’t necessary.
I should add here that it’s also obvious to me that there are people who feel that they were simply born in the wrong body, and are seeking to change that.