How to Be An Ally to Gender-Expansive and Transgender Children

Gender-non-conforming children who are supported can thrive. But if pressured to be strictly male or female, they can be harmed for life.
By Diana Divecha & Sandra Collins ,

(Photo: graphicsdunia4you/Shutterstock)

A transgender teenager commits suicide after her parents force her into conversion therapy, and a federal bill is proposed to ban that therapy as fraudulent. Caitlyn Jenner goes public with her gender transition, and several states pass bathroom bills that limit public restroom use to genders assigned at birth.

News over the last seven months brought reminders of the risks—and triumphs—of being different in a gender-binary world. Gender-non-conforming people are increasingly resisting categories that don’t fit, and instead are insisting on their civil right—and psychological necessity—to express an authentic gender identity.

This right begins in early childhood. Gender-non-conforming children who are supported can thrive. But if pressured to be strictly male or female, they can be harmed for life.

It’s time to strengthen our support for gender-expansive children. Here’s how.

EMBRACE THE GENDER SPECTRUM IN CHILDHOOD

Seven years ago, one of us, Sandra, gave birth to her third son, whom she named Ezra. By age two, Ezra insisted on wearing girls’ clothes, saying he had a girl’s brain in a boy’s body. By kindergarten, he had chosen the name Scarlett and insisted that he was a girl. Sandra’s newly declared daughter was taking her into a brand-new world.

Gender identity doesn’t fall neatly into two categories, as modern Western culture holds. Instead, it is a spectrum, with masculine and feminine on either side and an array of other genders in between. Gender-expansive and transgender people have always existed throughout history and in every culture.

Though terms vary and are in flux, the term transgender is an umbrella adjective for a gender identity that is different than the sex assigned at birth. The term gender-expansive (or -non-conforming, -variant, -non-binary, -diverse, or -authentic) refers to identities that are neither strictly male nor female. Gender identity is not related to sexual orientation—transgender and gender-expansive people might be gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual, or asexual just like non-transgender (or cisgender) people may be.

All children imagine they are someone or something else at some point—a dinosaur or a princess, say—but a significant percentage consistently insist that they are a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth based on their biological sex. In early childhood, these feelings may show up in dress and hairstyles, play or sports, and choice of playmates.

It is easy to be startled by or fearful of the unexpected, but such responses can lead to wounding comments when directed toward children who challenge male-female categories. Instead, Sandra recommends affirmative conversation starters like, “How wonderful you look!” to such a child. Or, to a parent, “How brave of you to honor your child’s authentic self.”

It is important that all adults who have contact with children get used to the idea of gender as a spectrum, not a binary. Helpful resources abound, including books like Gender Born, Gender Made and The Transgender Child, or the photo documentary of transgender children, websites like GenderSpectrum.org and PFLAG, organizations like The Unicorn Project, and hotlines like the GLBT National Help Center.

SUPPORTING GENDER-EXPANSIVE KIDS

It’s not inherently distressing simply to be transgender or gender-expansive. In fact, transgender children are neither confused nor delayed about their gender identity, and are as certain about that identity as cisgender children are, sometimes from as young as two.

When supported, they are as psychologically healthy as well. For all children, parents’ support and acceptance have the strongest influence on children’s ability to flourish. The Family Acceptance Project found that gender-expansive and transgender children raised in supportive families had better physical and mental health than those with unsupportive families, and they were positive about their futures: 92 percent believed they could be happy adults and 69 percent saw themselves one day becoming parents.

Multidisciplinary clinics, such as the University of California-San Francisco's Child and Adolescent Gender Center Clinic, offer medical and mental health care informed by gender-related and developmental expertise. Multifaceted support becomes especially important as children approach puberty, an important moment when decisions about hormone suppression or hormone therapy are made.

With the support of Gay-Straight Alliance Clubs and activist organizations for teens, older children and teens are adopting increasingly expansive views of gender and sexuality. But developmentally appropriate counterparts are absent in many lower schools.

“Schools should stop lining up kids by ‘boy-girl,’” says college student Pat Cordova-Goff, who identifies as a non-binary transgender person and still remembers an elementary school teacher distributing pink or blue pencil boxes on the first day of school according to the gender presumed by the child’s name. It is scary to have one’s gender identity called out wrongly in front of the whole class, she points out.

Children often think about concepts in a black-or-white way, “policing” each other at the borders of those ideas, especially around gender. Without a countervailing force, this tendency can escalate to transphobic and homophobic bullying and harassment. It is important, then, for adults responsible for children’s safety and well-being to begin early to teach gender as a spectrum.

The Representation Project, Gender Spectrum, and similar organizations can help. Sports and playtime can be based on interest rather than gender. Adults can avoid saying, “Hey guys!” in favor of “folks” or “everyone.” Single-toilet bathrooms can be labeled “Anyone.” Curricula can include books like Meet Polkadot, whose protagonist is a non-binary transgender child. And an emotion-skills curriculum can go a long way toward reducing bullying while improving students’ relationships and helping everyone feel a sense of belonging.

LEADING WITH EMPATHY AND EMOTIONAL SKILLS

Children need to be seen, felt, and understood. Mirroring a child’s feelings helps any child develop a strong sense of self, even as that self is exploring and changing.

“Focus on the child’s feelings, not the labels,” says a peer counselor at the GLBT National Help Center. One child said he felt like he “swallowed a girl.”

“It can be helpful to say, ‘Tell me more. What does that feel like?’” the counselor says.

One of the hardest parts about parenting a gender-expansive child is accepting uncertainty. The desire for the child to simply pick and stick with “boy” or “girl” can be strong. But while children who are most insistent tend to keep their same identities through adolescence, others may later shift their identity (though that identity is still internally driven and not subject to outside influence).

“It’s important to support children in exploring their feelings about themselves, and to let them know that their feelings are valid and important,” the GLBT peer counselor says.

Sandra lets her daughter choose her preferred clothes, play, pronouns, and even a new name while making it clear that this is an ongoing conversation. They can always go back, if that’s what feels right to Scarlett.

Cordova-Goff remembers her joy upon receiving her first Barbie doll for Christmas. “Being truly seen for who I was, getting what I really wanted and not what I should want, was the best feeling,” she says.

Many parents fear their transgender and gender-expansive children will be hurt. Children can sense this, according to Dr. Maura Finkelstein, assistant professor of anthropology at Muhlenberg College, and may pretend to be someone they’re not to protect their parents. So adults should become aware of—and manage—their own feelings first.

“Believe in your child’s inherent potential for happiness,” Finkelstein says.

Some adults leak harmful, mixed messages. One young transgender man loved it when his mother took him to the boys’ department for clothes but felt confused and sad when told he would surely love dresses when he grew up.

“It wasn’t a phase. Parents should be aware of their own gender lens,” he says.

Other supportive, emotionally skilled things parents can do include talking about gender from an early age, assigning non-gender-based tasks, expressing frequent affection, including other gender-expansive people in the family circle, and advocating for the child when mistreatment happens.

TAKING ACTION

Outside the home, there are many places to advocate for gender-expansive and transgender children. Many allies and parents have created playgroups, non-profits, and parent education in their communities to foster joy and resilience for gender-expansive youth. Sandra started the Rainbow Day Camp, and the new Unicorn Project is an ongoing monthly support/playgroup for young children and their families.

Despite recent progress, there still aren’t enough gender-related legal protections and social resources. Advocates can help push for transgender rights, including social and economic justice and appropriate psychological care. There are also trans helplines, camps, and education services that need support and donations.

Diversity is key to the human ability to adapt. When gender-expansive children are supported, they will be healthier and happier—and their freedom from one form of blinkered thinking might even help guide us through other modern-day challenges.