IPG, the Institute for Personal Growth, just initiated supportive counseling groups for gender variant and transgender youth, and for their parents. We're realizing that most people are woefully misinformed about these kids, so we came up with a list of facts that we hope will counteract the stereotypes and falsehoods:
1. It's Not a Binary, It's a Spectrum.
We're used to two or three categories of gender: male, female, maybe transgender. But lots of people, especially young people, don't fit into these boxes. Many kids are GENDER NONCONFORMING, GENDER VARIANT, or GENDER ATYPICAL. Like boys who enjoy wearing dresses. One child's mother wrote a children's book about him called "Princess Boy."
2. It's Not 'Dysphoria' It's 'Minority Stress.'
The psychiatric term for what we are calling gender nonconforming/variant/atypical and transgender kids will be called 'Gender Dyphoria' in the new DSM, the 'psychiatric Bible.' 'Dysphoria' is shrink-talk for mildly to moderately depressed. You'd be dysphoric too if ....as research has shown..... you were the most likely of your peers to be bullied, most likely to be rejected by parents and/or abused by parents, and most likely to become homeless. Dysphoria is NORMAL when this happens. And it's even worse if the kid is pressured to conform. The worst thing a parent can do - and the worst thing an expert can advise- is to tell the kid to 'act like a boy/girl'.
3. Nobody Is Sterilizing Kids.
Some of the more sensational news stories about GV and TG youth claim that the treatment makes them sterile. First of all, medical intervention isn't even considered until the beginning of adolescence. Puberty blockers given early in adolescence are fully reversible. Cross-gender hormones, never given until age 16, have mixed effects, some reversible, some not. Some transmen have been able to go off androgens and have children. Alternative methods of having children exist.
The bottom line is that if a child has gotten to adolescence and is still clearly transgender - the hormones ALLEVIATE DISTRESS. They prevent suicidality, self-injurious or reckless behavior. And that's crucial. On hormones many teens lead normal lives.
4. Statistics are Misleading.
You'll read in the media that 'most' gender nonconforming kids don't grow up to be transgender. Not quite accurate. That research was done on children brought to clinics, not kids in the general population. And many youths stay someplace on the gender spectrum even if they don't fully transition. What IS true is that young people who identify as transgender at puberty don't usually change their minds.
5. Not All Gender Variant Young People Are Transgender
Some kids are gender non-conforming but retain the gender identity assigned at birth- and more and more GV youth are identifying as "genderqueer." Remember how we said back in #1 that there are more categories than male, female, and transgender? Most are encompassed in that word. Young people identify as mixed gender, fluid, two-spirit - and some can be pretty pissed if you call them male or female.
6. The choice may not be between waiting for hormones/transitioning and not waiting
You'll hear some 'experts' call for 'caution,' advising a 'wait and see' attitude about hormone treatment. But one Los Angeles M.D. who works with these kids says bluntly: "The choice may be between a transgender kid and a dead kid.
7. How Will Other Kids Handle Their Transition? Better Than You Think
Gender atypical kids tend to be bullied or harrassed by other children more BEFORE they transition- especially boys. Our sexist society allows 'tomboy' girls some leeway before they become teens, but it really punishes males perceived to be 'feminine.' Ironically, post-transition the child no longer violates gender norms, and is less likely to be bullied.
And besides, young people tend to be far more accepting of sex and gender variance than people over 35. There are literally thousands of Gay Straight Alliance groups in high schools throughout the U.S. At IPG we've been pleasantly surprised by the supportive reactions most schools -including students- have had towards our young transitioning clients.
8. Adolescence is Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Many gender variant kids don't express a desire to change their gender when they are young- after all, children's bodies aren't that different except for the genitals. But when pubertal hormones hit and secondary sex characteristics start to develop - breast buds for girls, changes in testicles for boys, body hair for both - some gender variant kids are undisturbed- but others freak out. That's when puberty blocking hormones can 1) alleviate distress and 2) give the young person some time to explore identity. For bio girls, they may need to be used as young as age 9.
9. Puberty Blocking Hormones Aren't Toxic OR Irreversible
The gender variant child who has grown into a transgender tween is at most risk for mental health problems - unless you give them puberty blocking drugs, which are fully reversible. Then they experience relief and can live for a while in their affirmed gender before starting cross-gender hormones 2-4 years later. Change your mind? Just stop them. And, the transgender teen will never develop unwanted characteristics of their biologic sex like breasts or a deep throat. The U.S. Endocrine Society and World Professional Association for Transgender Health endorses their use. It's a no-brainer.
10. Transgender Teens Who Transition Lead Normal Lives Afterwards
Remember how we talked about greater stress, more abuse, and more mental health problems among gender variant youth? Most of that goes away if 1) their family and community support them; 2) they aren't forced to conform to gender norms; 3) they receive the medical treatments they need. Peggy Cohen-Kettenis, who has studied these kids for twenty years in the Netherlands, says that post-transition they are 'indistinguishable' from other teens and young adults.
This article originally appeared on Margie's blog at IPG Counseling (the Institute for Personal Growth), where more of her writing can be found.