A Call for Action: Stop Doing Harm to Children

Contributed by Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D.

Mommy, why can’t they put me back in your tummy and make me come out a girl like I was supposed to. Why did God get it wrong?

—A lament of a five-year-old boy

And why do therapists get it wrong, too? Jose and Teresa sat in my office, Teresa in tears, Jose downcast. When their child Carlos was two, he would rifle through his mother’s closet in search of silky scarves and high heel shoes. By age four, he only wanted to play with girls and Barbies. When his relatives gave him toy trucks, he tossed them in the garbage. The same relatives pushed Jose and Teresa to take Carlos to a doctor to find out what was wrong with him. They did. The psychologist told them to let Carlos know that it was not okay to do girl things and to have Carlos stop clinging to his mother and spend more time with his father. They followed the doctor’s recommendations—they yelled at Carlos, took away his girl toys, tried to force him to do sports and play “boy” games, gave him Time Outs, even spanked him when he tried to sneak back into his mother’s closet or play with his neighbor’s Barbies. He only got worse and worse, angry and agitated, until Teresa finally exploded: “I can’t do this anymore. We have to just let Carlos be who Carlos is.” Carlos is now Marnie, a nine-year-old girl thriving at her school in a small city in California, thanks to dedicated parents, community and school supports, and a therapist who practices from a gender acceptance model.

Gender Born, Gender MadeIt was because of the children I was meeting in my clinical practice like Carlos/Marnie that I set to work writing Gender Born, Gender Made. The twenty-first century has brought with it a challenge to the male-female binary and a sea change in our understanding of gender, which in turn has opened up the doors for more children to announce at earlier ages that they are not the gender everyone thinks they are or that they certainly are not going to stay locked in rigid gender boxes. But the world still has a lot of catching up to do if these children are going to have healthy and happy lives. This became only too apparent in May 2011 with the international firestorm of vitriolic condemnation of the parents of Storm, who decided not to reveal the gender of their four-month-old infant to protect the child from unnecessary gender boxing. And as of June, Gender Identity Disorder Childhood is still slated to remain a diagnosis in the revised DSM V, despite the protest of concerned professionals in the field.

So it is time to take action: To undo the harm being done by society and specifically at the hands of my own mental health profession to children who jump binary boxes, to give us a better road map of how gender unfolds, and to establish sound gender-accepting practices–at home, at school, in the community, and by service providers–to help gender nonconforming and transgender children blossom rather than wither on the vine. To get the ball rolling, I’d like to share what I’ve learned from listening to my young patients and from having the opportunity to join with their families in helping their children grow healthy and strong—some transgender, some gender fluid, some of whom we don’t yet know where they will land. So what did I learn?

The gender web: Gender boxes have been replaced with a gender spectrum—children place themselves along a gender-inclusive spectrum in a combination of gender expressions and gender identity. I went one step further and created the “gender web”—each child will weave together a three dimensional web which will be his or her individual imprint of gender—and like fingerprints, no two will be the same. Nature and nurture will come together in a combination of chromosomes, hormones, hormone receptors, primary sex characteristics, secondary sex characteristics, brain, mind, socialization and culture to create an amazing array of gender combinations. For each of us, the gender web is an organic, pulsating evolving development over the course of a lifetime.

Listen, Don’t Tell: If you want to know what a child’s gender is, listen. It’s not for us to decide, but for the children to tell. As parents, providers, and community, our main job is to learn how to decipher the meaning of what we see and hear, support the children in their journey, and take care of our own internal roadblocks that obstruct that journey.

One Size Does Not Fit All: To quote Aidan Key, “I found so many different ways to define and express gender.” So have I, in my clinical work with children and youth. Our next generation is pushing the envelope even further to expand our horizons of gender possibilities. There are transgender children; gender-nonconforming children; gender fluid children; gender Priuses (half boy/half girl); gender Tauruses (one gender on top, the other on the bottom); gender smoothies (gender in the blender); gender queers; protogay children (play with gender on the way to becoming gay); prototransgender youth (play with sexual identity on the way to becoming transgender); gender Oreos (one gender outside, another inside). And probably more to come.

Undoing Bedrock: Gender is not static or fixed, it is not bedrock; it’s a place we either come to about ourselves or a prison we’re boxed into by others. Parents will have little influence on their children’s gender identity, but tremendous influence over their children’s gender health. What I have learned most is that if we are to create a gender-accepting world for children of all genders, we need to learn to live with uncertainty and fluidity, or, to quote Voltaire, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is an absurd one.” And if we wait patiently, the children will lead us.


Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D.

Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D. (Photo by James Hawley.)

Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D., is a developmental and clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area working with transgender and gender-nonconforming children and their families. She is a founding member and clinician in the newly formed Child and Adolescent Gender Center, a University of California San Francisco and community partnership, and member of the Board of Directors of Gender Spectrum. Dr. Ehrensaft’s new book, Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children (The Experiment, 2011; distributed by Workman Publishing in the US and Thomas Allen & Son Ltd. in Canada) is available at brick-and-mortar and online retailers throughout the US and Canada.

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    2 Responses to A Call for Action: Stop Doing Harm to Children

    1. Michelle says:

      My 13 year old daughter a few weeks ago said I want to cut my breasts off and not be a girl” My words to her were this. ” Be who ever you want to be, be who makes you feel right and comfortable, because no matter who we are there are some people out there who will judge and dislike us anyways. Don’t live to make others happy, because if we are not happy the people around us are unhappy too. And happy people attract more friends.
      I will do anything to make my kid feel loved and accepted, not just by me, by the world.

    2. Aidan Key says:

      A message like this from a parent is like a lifeline to a kid and one that says “I love you for exactly who you are!” Support like that can help to build the foundation, on which a child can rely, for navigating many, many of life’s challenges. Way to be a champion, Michelle!

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