Kids as young as age 5 going "transgender"? What should schools do?
From The Orlando Sentinal:
When most little girls draw themselves, they draw pictures of young ladies, often in fancy dresses and high heels.
But one kid in Deltona has always depicted herself differently: As a boy in pants, standing outside a "boy's" school or picking flowers for his mom.
Today, this youngster wants to be called "he." And after years of battles over school clothes and haircuts and long meetings with a therapist, the third-grader's parents are letting her live as a boy.
This child hasn't had a sex change and wasn't born a hermaphrodite.
Instead, the parents say, their 8-year-old was born with the wrong body — a situation a number of families are struggling with nationwide.
"This is just who he is — his brain is just wired in such a way that he's male. It doesn't matter what his genitalia is," said the child's mom, whose name the Orlando Sentinel agreed to withhold because she wants to protect her child's identity.
Although mental-health experts disagree on whether people should make such a dramatic transition at a young age, children as young as 5 are doing it. They're changing their names, insisting on a new pronoun and altering their appearance with new clothes and hairstyles.
As a result, school districts are having to make some controversial changes.
What should schools do about restrooms and locker rooms? How do they make sure everybody uses the correct pronouns? How should teachers explain the situation to curious classmates?
It's hard to know how many people are transgender, an umbrella term that includes those whose biological sex doesn't match their internal sense of masculinity or femininity. Nobody tracks statistics, and many transgender people prefer to keep information private.
The American Psychological Association estimates that about 1 in 10,000 males will transition to female, with or without sexual-reassignment surgery. About 1 in 30,000 females will. The National Center for Transgender Equality thinks the number is one-fourth percent to 1 percent of the population.
Canadian psychologist Kenneth J. Zucker, an internationally known expert on gender issues whose research is controversial in the gay and transgender community, questions whether kids should be allowed to switch roles. His studies indicate most kids will outgrow their behavior, so he tries to help them learn to be comfortable with the gender they were born with.
Irv Silver, a sex therapist in Orlando who has helped three kids with gender issues during his career, thinks children can be re-trained.
"Yes, people can be taught gender behaviors, if they are motivated," he said.
However, the majority of scholars, psychiatrists and therapists interviewed by the Sentinel said children aren't just going through a phase if they consistently insist they're the wrong sex over a period of years.
And, those experts conclude, it could be dangerous to ignore these feelings. Transgender kids sometimes feel so out of sync with their bodies they cut or otherwise intentionally injure their genitals — or commit suicide.
Edgardo Menvielle, a psychiatrist at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., said he might suggest parents allow children to live as the other gender.
"Thinking you're a boy or girl — it can happen for a while and you can grow out of it," Menvielle said. "We're talking about children who are experiencing themselves caught in a situation that is intolerable."
Although no one knows what causes transgenderism, biology may play a role. Officially, it's listed as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used by mental-health professionals. But there's a national push by advocates and some who work in the field to remove it, as was done with homosexuality decades ago.
It's a challenge apparently more families are facing. Advocates and experts say they've seen a rise in the number of "trans kids" coming forward in the past few years.
Society's — and parents' — acceptance of transgender people seems to be growing as well. Last year, students at the College of William and Mary in Virginia elected a transgender as homecoming queen.
TransYouth Family Allies, a national education and advocacy group that works with families with children who are questioning their gender, helped 15 kids in 2007. This year, it's helping 10 to 15 a month, said Executive Director Kim Pearson.
Officials at the Children's National Medical Center and the Stanford University School of Medicine's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Medical Education Research Group said they also have seen increases in the number of kids coming to them for help
But not everyone supports the change — or even the concept.
Critics far and wide weighed in after a few kids in Arizona, Colorado and Pennsylvania switched gender roles last year and in 2008.
An outspoken Florida mom who goes only by the name Rene said she has been condemned for her decision to let her child, Jazz, who's biologically male, live as a girl. Several videos on YouTube feature Jazz, a confident youngster with long, dark hair, dancing, singing or explaining what it's like to live in the wrong body.
"I get some terrible e-mails — people that basically say that I am the worst parent, I am evil, I should be killed," Rene told "60 Minutes Australia" last year.
In Miami-Dade County, the school district changed its policies several years ago to accommodate transgender kids. Schools are encouraged to have unisex bathrooms and a trained Gender Safety Leader, who's charged with helping the kids make a smooth transition. Just weeks ago, the Hillsborough County School Board updated its anti-bullying policy to include transgender kids within the most protected groups.
The Volusia County school district is considering changing its anti-bullying policy, too, which parents of the transgender student in Deltona have been pressing for. The Deltona parents said they know their son may have a tough road ahead but is much happier since he cut his hair short and started shopping in the boys' section.
"He never stops talking, he never stops smiling — and that's something we didn't see before," said his mom. "For me to say 'no' would be denying him happiness."