Is it possible for someone as young as five to consider him or herself transgender? Some children begin to express their internal sense of gender as young as three years old. For children whose gender identity matches their biology, this is an often painless unfolding. Parents, friends and peers recognize the child in the gender that corresponds with their biology. The child is dressed in clothes and is offered toys that is in alignment both with the child’s physical sex and the child’s felt sense of gender.
However, some small children begin to turn away from the gendered expressions that those around them expect them to have. Some little girls can’t bear dolls and pink and some boys reject sports and trucks. Still other children seem to have interests in areas that cross our expectations of their gender. A young boy might enjoy baseball and have tea parties with cherished dolls at home. These are the expressions of gender variant children. It is not the sign of something wrong with a child. What’s wrong is our cultural expectations — and worse, panic — at small children who express a gender that doesn’t match our expectations.
As parents, mental health professionals and teachers become more aware of gender identity variation in young people, we should expect to see more of the very young expressing transgender or gender variant identities. The benefits of adult recognition and acceptance of gender variant behavior in young children include the possibility of sparing children from shame and confusion as they attempt to hide their identity from a cultural that fears them. Oliver, in the article below, experienced extreme physical and emotional distress as a result of a mismatch between body and mind. Some children continue to experience this distress for years as a result of misguided professionals who believe that it is “just a phase.”
Kindergarten Complications: What the journey of transitioning from female to male means for a five-year-old in Silverton [Oregon], and for those around him
By Megan A. Gex
See the original post at http://www.justout.com/archives/issues/01_08_10/18.pdf
At first glance, Oliver is a healthy, jovial seven-year-old boy.
In the schoolyard he’s known for his gelled faux-hawk, and his favorite color is blue. His favorite book is The Dangerous Book for Boys. He loves to sprint the 200-meter in track and watch Sponge Bob on the weekends with his best friend. His rambunctious attitude and boyish tendencies belie a core reality: Oliver was born a girl.
With today’s prenatal technology, gender identity is often established before birth. It’s something parents take for granted, while picking masculine names or painting the child’s room pink prior to delivery. During the first years of rearing, the parents often provide their offspring with a gender role, before the child is even aware of their sex. Between the ages of two and three, children start expressing their own gender tendencies, according to specialist B.J. Seymour. Most of the time the child identifies with their assigned sex, but other times their psyche may say something different.
Oliver, born Olivia in 2002, began showing signs of gender discomfort at one-and-a-half years. At such an early age, the signs weren’t verbal; they were present in the choices he made. Over the next year his mother Holly swept her apprehension from the front of her mind and let her child play with whatever toy, or act whatever way, he pleased. “That’s why I bought him Hot Wheels,” Oliver’s father Joel says. “I thought, ‘Cool, my daughter likes cars.’” Both of them shrugged it off as just a “tomboy phase.”
Holly, a hard-working nurse with strawberry-blonde curls, has a warm affection and deep admiration for Oliver and his struggle. Flipping through photographs of Oliver as a toddler nearly brings her to tears. “Right here he’s three,” she says, holding a photograph of a doe-eyed girl in a green t-shirt with purple hair clips. “I had such a struggle with him that day to get him to wear ponytails. That was the last picture we ever got to take of him like this, because he wasn’t old enough to throw a fit.”
She glances over baby photo after baby photo, creating a tentative timeline of Oliver’s transition: one of him with a lace headband in a velvet dress, age one; another taken the following year, in jeans and galoshes with a mid-length haircut. “It’s so strange looking at these pictures. It’s the same soul, just a different person,” Holly says.
Not “Just a Phase”
Instinctively Holly could tell something was different about her child, but Joel came to notice the seriousness much later. One evening Joel and Oliver were wrestling, an activity the two thoroughly enjoy. Joel began to tease Oliver, insisting he was going to put him in a dress. “It was like I did something that really hurt him, something was really wrong,” Joel shares. “That was when I realized that it wasn’t just a phase.”
From that moment there was a two-year transitional period of therapy, counseling and finally acknowledgment. Their first therapist instructed them to have Oliver remain gender-neutral for the first years, to test the waters. During this experimental period, his name changed to Olive. His wardrobe consisted of unassuming clothing, with unisex cartoons like Sesame Street and Teletubbies. His dark hair was kept mid-length, just grazing his shoulders.
None of this worked for Oliver. Something deep inside was unsettled. Seven months before Oliver entered Kindergarten, the physical fits began. He had bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. He lost weight and his eyes sunk in. His parents took him to multiple doctors, hoping to flesh out a cure, but nothing proved effective. Then the two met Seymour, a seasoned gender specialist based in Portland. That’s when everything changed.
A Weight Lifted
After hearing Oliver’s situation, Seymour insisted that they drop everything and refer to Oliver as his preferred gender. A month into Kindergarten, Holly and Joel let Oliver wear the clothes he wished and cut his hair as he liked. Finally, they changed his name.
“When we allowed him to make those changes, a weight was lifted,” Holly says. “Oliver told me he was finally happy to be alive.” After his makeover, Oliver blossomed. His grades improved, and he began to demand attention.
“Now he’s almost overconfident,” his mother adds. “At times I think he is trying to make up for what he feels inside.”
Despite her 20 years of practicing gender therapy, Seymour describes Oliver as the most confident transgender child she has ever seen. He is also the youngest patient she has treated to date; she has only seen five patients between the ages of 13 and 14. “Children know what gender they are,” Seymour says. “With Oliver, I could tell he needed the immediate support.”
Seymour believes that when parents are accepting, the child will prosper. Forcing a child to accept their assigned gender will make the child feel alienated. She served as the driving force behind the family’s most important transition. As Seymour encouraged the family to allow Oliver to participate in the role of the gender with which he felt comfortable, Oliver thrived in his early months of Kindergarten.
Gender Identity& Biology
The term “Gender Identity Disorder” was coined in 1980 by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, a professional text that continues to be used by psychologists and psychiatrists for diagnosing mental illness. There is ongoing controversy in the medical realm with this classification. Some professionals believe that transgenderism is psychological, others deem it physical. Some therapists try to condition transgender patients back to their assigned gender, while others help their clients transition into their desired sex. Seymour sides with the latter, using therapeutic methods to determine the best course of action.
The popular book Brain Sex, authored by geneticist Anne Moir and journalist David Jessel, investigates the biology of gender. Seymour agrees with the authors’ views that there is a permanent female and male brain that is directly impacted by physical hormones. The book explains that a crucial period of hormonal development begins inside the womb. Hormones directly affect early brain development, which Seymour concludes as crucial to gender identification: “We change the body because we can’t change the brain.”
Though the transition was a personal triumph, it hasn’t been without difficulties. Seymour insisted on a sit-down meeting with the school’s principal, superintendent and teachers to inform the staff that allowing Oliver to be a boy was the only option. She lent her support, distributing reading material and films on transgenderism.
In the classroom, the transition was smoother than anticipated. “Kindergarten is an accepting age,” Seymour says. Silverton’s small elementary school embraced the new Oliver, welcoming him a second time.
Aside from school, issues with Oliver’s family and friends arose on occasion. Joel says his Catholic family has struggled with the transition. “They said that Holly must have been doing something to make him this way. I get irritated with them and tell them that it’s not her or me,” he says. “That’s when I stopped going to church, and I think that bothered them.” Religion has taken a back seat for both Joel and Holly. “We stopped labeling ourselves as Christian,” she states. “We are more spiritual.”
Through the transition, different aspects of their lives have shifted, but they continue to interact with each other’s family and friends. “My dad will buy him boys’ stuff and call him ‘Oggie,’ to keep it neutral,” Joel says. “But my mom still says ‘she.’” For the extended family the change has been hard to grasp. Outside influences of friends and religion create a barrier between Joel and his parents. “I’ll run into my parents’ friends and they will make it a point to say, ‘How are your three girls?’ I could argue, but what’s the point?” Joel shrugs. “I say, ‘My kids are fine.’”
As for the rest of the community, the transition process hasn’t met with any severe bumps thus far. “We haven’t had anybody blatantly tell us we are wrong,” Joel concedes. “We have been really blessed here; Silverton is more progressive.”
The town’s mayor is himself openly transgender, and has been serving the community for the past 20 years; Stu Rasmussen just began his third term in elected office. Born and raised in Silverton, Rasmussen is the owner of the town’s only cinema and a celebrated entrepreneur. His success testifies to the small town’s capacity for acceptance. “Silverton is a warm and friendly place with caring and tolerant people,” observes Rasmussen. “I guess that’s why I keep getting elected.”
Despite the town’s relative acknowledgment of gender variation, there is the occasional interruption. A child will tease Oliver on the bus, or a parent won’t let their child come to Oliver’s to play, but the couple doesn’t let that affect their son’s demeanor. “People aren’t worth hashing it out,” Holly says. “People are ignorant and after a while it’s a choice to be that way and I just let it go.” Holly and Joel try to be up front with people about Oliver’s situation. “People who have never been exposed to transgender kids or anything like that,” Joel says, “when they get to know Oliver, they just love him.”
Both parents have told Oliver that he has a hard road ahead. Holly teaches him to be his own advocate. Instead of turning to his parents for help, Oliver is encouraged to work out his problems on his own. “[Now] in second grade, Oliver finally has to use the large public restroom,” Holly says. “He took it upon himself to ask the teacher to have a janitor put a lock on one of the stalls of the boys’ restroom.” Oliver will face more than just restrooms in his educational progression.
“Puberty is what scares me the most,” Joel says. “What saddens me is when he falls in love in middle school and is not able to have that because he’s transgender.” Apart from school crushes, Oliver will be presented with many other obstacles. His father would love for him to join a sports team or be involved with Cub Scouts, but those activities are off limits to Oliver. Sports in middle school are segregated by gender, and Boy Scouts is a religious group that does not allow gay or transgender children to participate. As the bathroom will continue to be a problem, the couple dwells on the nightmare of locker rooms during Phys. Ed. Their thoughts jump ahead to dances and first dates, and they can’t help but worry.
Physically Oliver is still a girl, and this frustrates him. “God made a mistake,” he often tells his mother. “One time Oliver took a pair of plastic Easter eggs and stuck them in his underwear, it was like it was instinctual,” Holly recalls. “He doesn’t look at himself from the waist down, he knows he’s female, but knows his brain is male.” Around the time Oliver begins menstruation, the couple will consider hormone treatment. “Hormones are reversible, but surgery is not,” says Holly. “That’s why we tell him he needs to be an adult and be 100 percent sure.”
Grappling with such physical and emotional predicaments at an early age has matured Oliver faster than most. “He wants a savings account more than anything,” Joel says. In the morning Oliver won’t leave his room until his bed is made. He keeps everything orderly, from his bedroom to his hair.
From the hallway Holly and Joel admire Oliver, who is pinning up a makeshift fort from his bedding. “There are so many things he does that are inherently male, that how can people say it’s a choice?” Joel wonders. “It’s totally weird, because to us he’s such a boy!” Holly adds, putting her hand to her forehead. “He’s always been a boy.” In just two years the couple have become at ease with calling Oliver their son. From beneath the superhero sheets Oliver peeks his head out to give his parents a beaming smile.
Today their lives seem a bit simpler, if only for the time being.
Editor’s Note: Silverton native Megan A.Gex is a fourth-year magazine journalism and digital art major at the University of Oregon. Her mother, Susie, was Oliver’s Kindergarten teacher and was intimately involved in his transition into grade school, as well as his gender identification process. Over the past two years, Gex and her mother have continued to be in contact with the family, and follow Oliver’s progress. The family’s last name has not been included to respect their privacy. Gex can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.