CONSISTENT! PERSISTENT. INSISTENT?

One of the cornerstone phrases for recognizing a transgender child is whether or not they have been “persistent and consistent” in their cross-gender identification. This means the child has shown a consistent (“of a person, behavior, or process unchanging in achievement or effect over a period of time”) identification with the brain gender of that of the “opposite” gender than which they were assigned at birth, and that this has persisted “continued to exist or endure over a prolonged period”. This is in regards to not just gender expression and interests, but in how they relate to themselves or identify in terms of gender. More recently, I have heard “insistent” added on to further qualify how a transgender child will likely present. I have to say, I don’t agree with this one being one of the characteristics a parent or professional might look for in terms of clarification. I think if one is looking for all three of these characteristics, they might miss something. I think the level of insistence displayed by the child is largely dependent upon the child’s temperament. Not all transgender children will be insistent about their “true” gender identities. Really, if taking all different temperaments into consideration, we may want to also reconsider our thinking about the use of the word “persistent” when it comes to transgender children as well. Another definition for persistent is “continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition”. Will all transgender children be persistent in this way or insistent in the face of opposition or re-direction from parents or other significant figures in their lives? Likely not. Just like everything, one’s personality and desire to please guardians are on a spectrum. MANY children are not insistent about anything, so they sure as heck aren’t going to be about their gender identity or desire to be recognized as a different gender than their assigned gender at birth. Some children eat their vegetables simply because they are told to. Others refuse to take even a bite despite any tactics used by those in charge of feeding them. Such is the same with gender identity: if a child is consciously aware of identifying with a gender other than that assigned to them at birth (i.e. a natal female feels like a boy or a natal male feels like a girl), how much they express this will depend upon the level of distress it brings to them as well as their temperament. Some children will scream, “I am a _______!” and insist upon wearing what they want, being referred to as they want, etc. until everyone around them is quite clear of who they really are. Others, if told the way they feel or how they perform gender is wrong or unexpected, will quickly make modifications to please those around them. When considering persistency and consistency, this is typically in regards to cross-gender identification and gender expression. This may include way of dress, interests, how the child seems to categorize themselves (in play, roles, or how they relate to others), gender of friends, bathroom behavior, etc. If these things seem to be an expression of “cross-gender” identification, that may be a sign of having a gender identity that does not match one’s birth sex. However, the individual (a child, teen, or adult) may not be consciously aware of being transgender until much later. Transgender people become consciously aware of being so at various ages and stages; some seem to know since birth, others as children, others as soon as puberty hits, still others only in late teens or adulthood. I think this largely depends on how much the individual has been exposed to knowledge of variations of gender, family environment, how freely one is allowed to express self in regards to gender, defenses, suppression, the list goes on and on. Only once the individual is consciously aware of being transgender does transition become a factor.   From the child who insists on his or her true gender since the time they could speak to the adult who does not become consciously aware until much later, both are equally transgender; the age of conscious awareness was simply different. If the child is yet to be consciously aware that they have the brain gender identity of something other than their assigned birth sex, there is nothing to be insistent about. The point of my post? Don’t wait for your child to insist that he or she is transgender or needs to transition in order to open up the lines of communication. Ask a lot of questions about how your child is feeling. If you sense gender is a source of internal conflict or stress, make it known it is a topic that is welcomed in your home. Ask creative questions to find out how your child experiences his or her gender. Be honest about options that are available in regards to transitioning. (Doing so will not make your child transgender or “plant” ideas in their head. Transition is not an appealing option for non-transgender child.) If you still sense distress but they are not being open about their feelings, seek a consultation with a gender therapist trained in interviewing children. The benefits of early intervention (and transition if right for the child), are many. If you are transgender, looking back to yourself as a child: How consistently did you express a cross-gender identification? How long did this persist before you transitioned? Were you insistent about it?

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Clip from “The Doctors” Show

Recently I had the opportunity to appear on the show “The Doctors” on an episode about a gender nonconforming child, subject of the blog and book “Raising My Rainbow” by Lori Duron. Here is a 3 minute clip in which I discuss the terms “gender nonconforming” and “transgender”. Click here to see the clip. 

Your Gender Variant Child: Teasing

Most children get teased at one point or another in school. Sadly, teasing has become part of the social culture at schools and often goes on away from adult supervision. A gender variant child is even more susceptible to teasing given that they tend to behave or dress in a way that can be unexpected by other children or deemed by other children to be “different”. As most of us know, those that are “different” or in the minority are more likely to be teased, get teased more often, and often more severely than other children.

You know that one tone of voice children use when tattling? “MOO-ooomm, Johnny HIT Meeee!”. It’s universal. I’m convinced kids are born knowing how to use this voice, without ever having it modeled for them. Parents have a similar standard tone/cadence when warning their child about natural and logical consequences to choices. “Okaaayy, you can go on that water ride, but you’ll probably get soaked and feel cold the rest of the day!”. It just comes with the parenting territory. Letting your child choose behaviors while warning possible ramifications is a parenting basic.

Warning about being teased for being gender nonconforming gets tricky, however. Being gender nonconforming is not a behavior; it is a way a person is. Warning about teasing that may come from displaying a core characteristic/something the child cannot change is dangerous territory. Yes, the child can choose to act on or express their way of being, or choose to inhibit it. But they cannot change being gender nonconforming or transgender.  While I can appreciate and recognize a parent’s urge to warn and possibly prevent teasing that may come from a way of dress, behavior, or interest, this can quickly be translated to shame and self doubt. The problem is, in these scenarios we’re not talking about nose-picking or some other minor social infractions that a child can learn how to avoid. We’re talking about children being who they are, and who are doing absolutely nothing wrong. “Warning” the child  by saying something like “If you choose to play with ‘boy things’, you might get teased at school”, “Girls don’t usually have really short hair, so you might get teased,  but you can cut it if you want”, “Boys don’t usually walk or talk like that, but if you want to go ahead. Just know you might get teased” may not have the protective nature parents are going for.  In fact, it may teach the child to prescribe to what others say is the best way for them to be. Remember my Oxygen blog? Much like you wouldn’t “warn” a child about being teased for wearing an oxygen tank to combat oxygen deprivation, try not to warn your gender nonconforming child to avoid their natural gender expression.

I want to again acknowledge that most parents are coming from a very loving place when they explain what may lay ahead. My worry is that this can instill fear and dread in the place of blissful innocence. It may make the child LESS equipped to deal with the teasing that may come with being gender nonconforming.  If my parents had sat me down as a child and said, “Just so you know, little girls with hazel eyes sometimes get teased. Some people think hazel eyes are wrong and some people just don’t like kids with hazel eyes.  You can go ahead and wear those hazel eyes to school, but just know you might get teased”, I would have experienced childhood differently. I may have been fearful to let my true eye color show, even though I couldn’t change it. I may have looked at (or looked away from) everyone I met with just a little bit of suspicion or mistrust. I may have thought, “Is this one of the people who hate kids with hazel eyes?”. I may have chosen to grow up wearing sunglasses, even indoors. Many parents warn their children about being gender nonconforming much in the same way, even though it’s not something the child can change. Yes, the child could change his or her behavior to HIDE who he or she really is, but that’s not what we want for our children, is it?  Children become inhibited based on the response of others soon enough. 

So, what’s a parent to do? Parents can help their child by unconditionally supporting who they are on the inside so they know without a doubt I AM AWESOME JUST THE WAY I AM.  This won’t prevent the pain associated with teasing, but it will help build the ego strength in the child so that he or she understands their basic worth doesn’t change based on what others say.

If your child asks you if you think he or she may be teased for wearing something, doing something, etc., be honest. Say “maybe”, and then discuss how the child might best handle it.  Communicate (even if you have to “fake it”) that you know your child will be ok even if he or she is teased. This energy is something they will absorb from you.

 If your child comes home and reports being teased, ASK QUESTIONS; you don’t have to be the one with all the answers. This will help you get a feel for how much understanding your child has about the reasons behind the teasing. “Why do you think they teased you about wearing a skirt?” “Why do you think they said that?” (Not what they are used to, they don’t understand, they feel differently, etc.)

At dinnertime, bedtime, etc. ask your child about the best and worst parts of their day. If they report teasing, process it with them. Talk with them about how it made them feel, and how they can take care of themselves when they have that feeling. Discuss and practice possible responses based on the teasing so they feel more equipped should it happen again.

Last but not least, take care of yourself and your own feelings! Listening about your child being teased can be a very hard thing for a parent to take. Talk to your friends, talk to other parents, talk to a therapist. Remind yourself this is not something you can “fix” or prevent, but you are doing right by your child by nurturing his or her true self.