Friday, October 31, 2008

A Boy's Life - Transgender Children

I'm very intrigued by children who choose not to live their biological sex identity. The Atlantic recently ran a very good story on Brandon, a boy who has -- from the day he could speak -- insisted he is a girl. Now his parents are raising him as a girl.

These cases, which seem to be increasing, are raising lots of tough questions for psychologists and parents, not to mention those who study gender roles. I find all of this very interesting, for many reasons.

One thing that intrigues me is the history of cross-gendered people in tribal societies. In some cultures, men who dressed as women (sometimes, but not always, they were also homosexual) or who adopted female gender roles also served as shamans, the spiritual healer in the tribe. S/he was the person who bridged two worlds, both male and female, human and spirit, human and animal, living and dead.

These beliefs have fallen away over the centuries in our postmodern culture, but it may be time that re-examine what our ancestors (and those who still live a tribal life) once knew. I suspect there may be some wisdom in these kids that we are not recognizing.

Anyway, here is the beginning of the article.

Since he could speak, Brandon, now 8, has insisted that he was meant to be a girl. This summer, his parents decided to let him grow up as one. His case, and a rising number of others like it, illuminates a heated scientific debate about the nature of gender—and raises troubling questions about whether the limits of child indulgence have stretched too far.

by Hanna Rosin

A Boy's Life

transgender child
Brandon Simms at age 5 in a Disney princess costume
(Courtesy of the family)

The local newspaper recorded that Brandon Simms was the first millennium baby born in his tiny southern town, at 12:50 a.m. He weighed eight pounds, two ounces and, as his mother, Tina, later wrote to him in his baby book, “had a darlin’ little face that told me right away you were innocent.” Tina saved the white knit hat with the powder-blue ribbon that hospitals routinely give to new baby boys. But after that, the milestones took an unusual turn. As a toddler, Brandon would scour the house for something to drape over his head—a towel, a doily, a moons-and-stars bandanna he’d snatch from his mother’s drawer. “I figure he wanted something that felt like hair,” his mother later guessed. He spoke his first full sentence at a local Italian restaurant: “I like your high heels,” he told a woman in a fancy red dress. At home, he would rip off his clothes as soon as Tina put them on him, and instead try on something from her closet—a purple undershirt, lingerie, shoes. “He ruined all my heels in the sandbox,” she recalls.

At the toy store, Brandon would head straight for the aisles with the Barbies or the pink and purple dollhouses. Tina wouldn’t buy them, instead steering him to neutral toys: puzzles or building blocks or cool neon markers. One weekend, when Brandon was 2½, she took him to visit her 10-year-old cousin. When Brandon took to one of the many dolls in her huge collection—a blonde Barbie in a pink sparkly dress—Tina let him bring it home. He carried it everywhere, “even slept with it, like a teddy bear.”

For his third Christmas, Tina bought Brandon a first-rate Army set—complete with a Kevlar hat, walkie-talkies, and a hand grenade. Both Tina and Brandon’s father had served in the Army, and she thought their son might identify with the toys. A photo from that day shows him wearing a towel around his head, a bandanna around his waist, and a glum expression. The Army set sits unopened at his feet. Tina recalls his joy, by contrast, on a day later that year. One afternoon, while Tina was on the phone, Brandon climbed out of the bathtub. When she found him, he was dancing in front of the mirror with his penis tucked between his legs. “Look, Mom, I’m a girl,” he told her. “Happy as can be,” she recalls.

“Brandon, God made you a boy for a special reason,” she told him before they said prayers one night when he was 5, the first part of a speech she’d prepared. But he cut her off: “God made a mistake,” he said.

Tina had no easy explanation for where Brandon’s behavior came from. Gender roles are not very fluid in their no-stoplight town, where Confederate flags line the main street. Boys ride dirt bikes through the woods starting at age 5; local county fairs feature muscle cars for boys and beauty pageants for girls of all ages. In the Army, Tina operated heavy machinery, but she is no tomboy. When she was younger, she wore long flowing dresses to match her long, wavy blond hair; now she wears it in a cute, RenĂ©e Zellweger–style bob. Her husband, Bill (Brandon’s stepfather), lays wood floors and builds houses for a living. At a recent meeting with Brandon’s school principal about how to handle the boy, Bill aptly summed up the town philosophy: “The way I was brought up, a boy’s a boy and a girl’s a girl.”

School had always complicated Brandon’s life. When teachers divided the class into boys’ and girls’ teams, Brandon would stand with the girls. In all of his kindergarten and first-grade self-portraits—“I have a pet,” “I love my cat,” “I love to play outside”—the “I” was a girl, often with big red lips, high heels, and a princess dress. Just as often, he drew himself as a mermaid with a sparkly purple tail, or a tail cut out from black velvet. Late in second grade, his older stepbrother, Travis, told his fourth-grade friends about Brandon’s “secret”—that he dressed up at home and wanted to be a girl. After school, the boys cornered and bullied him. Brandon went home crying and begged Tina to let him skip the last week.

Since he was 4, Tina had been taking Brandon to a succession of therapists. The first told her he was just going through a phase; but the phase never passed. Another suggested that Brandon’s chaotic early childhood might have contributed to his behavior. Tina had never married Brandon’s father, whom she’d met when they were both stationed in Germany. Twice, she had briefly stayed with him, when Brandon was 5 months old and then when he was 3. Both times, she’d suspected his father of being too rough with the boy and had broken off the relationship. The therapist suggested that perhaps Brandon overidentified with his mother as the protector in the family, and for a while, this theory seemed plausible to Tina. In play therapy, the therapist tried to get Brandon to discuss his feelings about his father. She advised Tina to try a reward system at home. Brandon could earn up to $21 a week for doing three things: looking in the mirror and saying “I’m a boy”; not dressing up; and not wearing anything on his head. It worked for a couple of weeks, but then Brandon lost interest.

Tina recounted much of this history to me in June at her kitchen table, where Brandon, now 8, had just laid out some lemon pound cake he’d baked from a mix. She, Bill, Brandon, his half sister, Madison, and Travis live in a comfortable double-wide trailer that Bill set up himself on their half acre of woods. I’d met Tina a month earlier, and she’d agreed to let me follow Brandon’s development over what turned out to be a critical few months of his life, on the condition that I change their names and disguise where they live. While we were at the table talking, Brandon was conducting a kind of nervous fashion show; over the course of several hours, he came in and out of his room wearing eight or nine different outfits, constructed from his costume collection, his mom’s shoes and scarves, and his little sister’s bodysuits and tights. Brandon is a gymnast and likes to show off splits and back bends. On the whole, he is quiet and a little somber, but every once in a while—after a great split, say—he shares a shy, crooked smile.

About a year and a half ago, Tina’s mom showed her a Barbara Walters 20/20 special she’d taped. The show featured a 6-year-old boy named “Jazz” who, since he was a toddler, had liked to dress as a girl. Everything about Jazz was familiar to Tina: the obsession with girls’ clothes, the Barbies, wishing his penis away, even the fixation on mermaids. At the age of 3, Jazz had been diagnosed with “gender-identity disorder” and was considered “transgender,” Walters explained. The show mentioned a “hormone imbalance,” but his parents had concluded that there was basically nothing wrong with him. He “didn’t ask to be born this way,” his mother explained. By kindergarten, his parents were letting him go to school with shoulder-length hair and a pink skirt on.

Tina had never heard the word transgender; she’d figured no other little boy on Earth was like Brandon. The show prompted her to buy a computer and Google “transgender children.” Eventually, she made her way to a subculture of parents who live all across the country; they write in to listservs with grammar ranging from sixth-grade-level to professorial, but all have family stories much like hers. In May, she and Bill finally met some of them at the Trans-Health Conference in Philadelphia, the larger of two annual gatherings in the U.S. that many parents attend. Four years ago, only a handful of kids had come to the conference. This year, about 50 showed up, along with their siblings—enough to require a staff dedicated to full-time children’s entertainment, including Jack the Balloon Man, Sue’s Sand Art, a pool-and-pizza party, and a treasure hunt.

Diagnoses of gender-identity disorder among adults have tripled in Western countries since the 1960s; for men, the estimates now range from one in 7,400 to one in 42,000 (for women, the frequency of diagnosis is lower). Since 1952, when Army veteran George Jorgensen’s sex-change operation hit the front page of the New York Daily News, national resistance has softened a bit, too. Former NASCAR driver J.T. Hayes recently talked to Newsweek about having had a sex-change operation. Women’s colleges have had to adjust to the presence of “trans-men,” and the president-elect of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association is a trans-woman and a successful cardiologist. But nothing can do more to normalize the face of transgender America than the sight of a 7-year-old (boy or girl?) with pink cheeks and a red balloon puppy in hand saying to Brandon, as one did at the conference:

“Are you transgender?”

“What’s that?” Brandon asked.

“A boy who wants to be a girl.”

“Yeah. Can I see your balloon?”

Around the world, clinics that specialize in gender-identity disorder in children report an explosion in referrals over the past few years. Dr. Kenneth Zucker, who runs the most comprehensive gender-identity clinic for youth in Toronto, has seen his waiting list quadruple in the past four years, to about 80 kids—an increase he attributes to media coverage and the proliferation of new sites on the Internet. Dr. Peggy Cohen-Kettenis, who runs the main clinic in the Netherlands, has seen the average age of her patients plummet since 2002. “We used to get calls mostly from parents who were concerned about their children being gay,” says Catherine Tuerk, who since 1998 has run a support network for parents of children with gender-variant behavior, out of Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “Now about 90 percent of our calls are from parents with some concern that their child may be transgender.”

In breakout sessions at the conference, transgender men and women in their 50s and 60s described lives of heartache and rejection: years of hiding makeup under the mattress, estranged parents, suicide attempts. Those in their 20s and 30s conveyed a dedicated militancy: they wore nose rings and Mohawks, ate strictly vegan, and conducted heated debates about the definitions of queer and he-she and drag queen. But the kids treated the conference like a family trip to Disneyland. They ran around with parents chasing after them, fussing over twisted bathing-suit straps or wiping crumbs from their lips. They looked effortlessly androgynous, and years away from sex, politics, or any form of rebellion. For Tina, the sight of them suggested a future she’d never considered for Brandon: a normal life as a girl. “She could end up being a mommy if she wants, just like me,” one adoring mother leaned over and whispered about her 5-year-old (natal) son.

Go read the whole article.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree---we so need to re-evaluate how our society treats children like this. In the past, they were usually forced into a particular gender or they even had "corrective" surgery.

This topic fascinates me, too. I've always identified as male, so I guess it's difficult to understand what it would be like to feel trapped in a body or role you hate. But I can sympathize.

As a boy, I loved dressing as Wonder Woman! I wore my mother's boots and made my own outfit. Wonder Woman was strong, brave and kind--who wouldn't want to be her? It never occurred to me that this hero I had chosen wasn't acceptable for boys. I also enjoyed playing with my sister's Barbies more than my train set.

I'm sure it's difficult for parents to find themselves in a situation like this. But if they can recognize what their child is expressing and prepare for it and work through it, I think it can turn out well. Most important, is to give the child a safe place to be themselves until they're old enough to work out how they will approach the world as an adult. It can be a cold, cruel world, after all.