Saturday, December 02, 2006

Gender Identity Becoming a Matter of Family Choice

Today's New York Times has an interesting but troubling article on the trend among families to allow children to develop a gender identity opposite to that of their biology: A boy can be a girl, and a girl a boy, if that's the way some folks want it:

Until recently, many children who did not conform to gender norms in their clothing or behavior and identified intensely with the opposite sex were steered to psychoanalysis or behavior modification.

But as advocates gain ground for what they call gender-identity rights, evidenced most recently by New York City’s decision to let people alter the sex listed on their birth certificates, a major change is taking place among schools and families. Children as young as 5 who display predispositions to dress like the opposite sex are being supported by a growing number of young parents, educators and mental health professionals.

Doctors, some of them from the top pediatric hospitals, have begun to advise families to let these children be “who they are” to foster a sense of security and self-esteem. They are motivated, in part, by the high incidence of depression, suicidal feelings and self-mutilation that has been common in past generations of transgender children. Legal trends suggest that schools are now required to respect parents’ decisions.

“First we became sensitive to two mommies and two daddies,” said Reynaldo Almeida, the director of the Aurora School, a progressive private school in Oakland. “Now it’s kids who come to school who aren’t gender typical.”

The supportive attitudes are far easier to find in traditionally tolerant areas of the country like San Francisco than in other parts, but even in those places there is fierce debate over how best to handle the children.

Cassandra Reese, a first-grade teacher outside Boston, recalled that fellow teachers were unnerved when a young boy showed up in a skirt. “They said, ‘This is not normal,’ and, ‘It’s the parents’ fault,’ ” Ms. Reese said. “They didn’t see children as sophisticated enough to verbalize their feelings.”

As their children head into adolescence, some parents are choosing to block puberty medically to buy time for them to figure out who they are — raising a host of ethical questions.

While these children are still relatively rare, doctors say the number of referrals is rising across the nation. Massachusetts, Minnesota, California, New Jersey and the District of Columbia have laws protecting the rights of transgender students, and some schools are engaged in a steep learning curve to dismantle gender stereotypes.
Be sure to read the whole article, and especially don't miss the article's lead photograph: A five year-old boy with long brown hair and a dress is playing on the sidewalk with young girl.

I think people ought to get back to psychological counseling and behavior modification, as was the preferred approach years ago. While I have no research experience on gender identity, the issue is raised every semester as part of my regular discussion on women in the military in my American government classes. Attachment to traditional gender roles -- as unscientifically demonstrated by seven years of teaching college freshman -- appears as alive as ever (which incidentally is a major reason why women still face obstacles to full equality in society, but that's another topic).

I'm a parent though, and as for transgender rights, I can respect a mature individual's decision to adopt a transgendered identity, but not a child's. Let's face it, parents need to steer their kids toward appropriate gender roles. Youngsters need to have a decent chance at growing up, being socially accepted, and getting a good education. It's not just biologically determined (it seems to me), but plain common sense.

The article cites psychologists from both sides of the debate, but I'm throwing my support to Kenneth Zucker, who's one of the specialists cited in the article:

Dr. Kenneth Zucker, a psychologist and head of the gender-identity service at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, disagrees with the “free to be” approach with young children and cross-dressing in public. Over the past 30 years, Dr. Zucker has treated about 500 preadolescent gender-variant children. In his studies, 80 percent grow out of the behavior, but 15 percent to 20 percent continue to be distressed about their gender and may ultimately change their sex.

Dr. Zucker tries to “help these kids be more content in their biological gender” until they are older and can determine their sexual identity — accomplished, he said, by encouraging same-sex friendships and activities like board games that move beyond strict gender roles.

No comments: