What defines someone’s “true” gender? Some people would say “true” gender is defined by the genitalia one had at birth. Those of us who know better know that one’s “true” gender is the one that exists in the brain.
This concept may be different for children and adults. Children are concrete thinkers, while adults are capable of much more abstract thinking. Genitalia is concrete; the gender identity in one’s brain is more of an abstract concept.
In addition to this, as a part of a child’s moral development, the importance in “telling the truth” is given much significance. “Lying” or deceiving someone is frowned upon, and children are often punished for it. As a child gets older, there is a development of the understanding of truth, honesty, and conscience. Where does “truth” come from when we are children? For things that are simple, the truth comes from ourselves. For things that are less simple, or more unknown to us, the truth tends to come from the adults who are in charge of us.
When I was at my good friend’s daughter’s second birthday party, a bee buzzed around the child’s head while she was eating her cupcake. She exclaimed “A bee!” right as it flew away. Her mother, who had not seen it, said in a playful way, “Nooooo, that was not a bee, it was a fly!”. The child looked at her mom’s face, paused and thought a second, then got a big smile on her face and said, “Yah! A fly!”. She had been right (and her mother wrong), but she didn’t care. The smile she shared with her mom and the contentment that came from their agreed-upon reality was all she needed. How many children are told their reality from a very young age? How many children are told, “you can’t wear a dress, you’re a boy!” or “of course you don’t have a penis, you’re a girl!”. Often, those “you’re a boy” and “you’re a girl” statements are absorbed by the young children as TRUTH. Anything other than what their trusted guardians are telling them must be a lie, or something to be kept to themselves. Only the minority of transgender children will be insistent and assert their truth over the protests of their parent(s).
This moral development and ability to grasp abstract concepts can influence a child’s ability to understand their own gender identity, assert their true gender, desire to transition, and/or their desire to be read in larger society as their desired gender.
Have I lost you? Let me be clear. An enlightened, insightful transgender adult may begin the process of transitioning and being seen for the gender identity that matches what is in their brain. For example, a Female-to-Male transgender individual starts the transition process and is very pleased when a stranger in the grocery store addresses him as “Sir”. Does he feel deceitful and as though he is not telling the truth? Not likely. For him, he understands his “true” gender identity is male and it is ok to be seen as male and assert himself as male.
This is a bit trickier for a child, particularly a latency-age child who is learning the concepts of “right and wrong”, honesty, and the concept of guilt. I have heard many parents say “she gets MAD when people think she’s a boy! You’d think she’d be happy”. (On the other hand, there are kids who are thrilled when they are perceived as their preferred gender and would never tell the stranger otherwise! As I always say, everyone is different. :)) Often times, if the child gets mad, parents look to this as a possible clue that their child may not be transgender. I tend to think it has to do more with concrete thinking and the desire to be “honest”. One way to help children understand it’s ok to be true to themselves is to explain the difference between anatomical sex and brain gender identity, as well as the fact that their brain gender identity is who they “truly” are. This gives them the green light to relax and know that when they assert their preferred gender, they are in fact, telling the truth.
Some of my transgender kids, after they transition, are told by peers, “but you’re really a girl” or “you’re really a boy”. These peers aren’t necessarily being mean; they are simply asserting what they know concretely (body) and enforcing what they think is the TRUTH. Part of my work with my young clients is then to help them understand that who they “really” are is who they are in their “brain” and their “heart”, and give them language to help their peers understand as well. Of course to help everyone (kids and adults alike!), the focus has to be on a societal shift of understanding what someone’s gender really is. If gender continues to be defined by bodies, then confusion, misunderstandings and stigma will continue.
How comfortable are you in your own “truth”? Did it take you a while to fully understand who you are on the inside is who you “really” are? Was there anything that helped you come around to this understanding?