Transgender Children: Born This Way

Transgender Children: Born This Way

By Delphine Caubet         Files Sexuality, Society

transgenres sexualityOur society, like a computer, is based on a binary code. The light is either on or off. We see things in black and white. Someone is nice or nasty, good or evil. You are either a boy or a girl. But for certain children the choice is far more complicated than that.

Their worldview is drawn in shades of gray. For some, their world is an indefinable rainbow of colors. They were born with characteristics of both sexes: medically they qualify as androgynous, or hermaphrodite.

Kids born this way don’t fit into one simple gender pigeonhole. They are often referred to as ‘transgender.’ It our highly categorized world, they are striking out to forge their own individual identity.

Mat, 16 prefers to shroud the question of personal gender in an air of mystery. Sometimes Mat feels more masculine, sometimes, more feminine. Mat likes the freedom this vagueness represents. There’s less social pressure. Mat is androgynous, and feels no need to conform to any sexual stereotype – though to respect Mat’s wishes we will refer to Mat as “it” in this article.

Outsiders from Birth

Babies at birth are classified according to their genitalia. Parents dress them accordingly. Girls wear skirts; boys wear pants. Appropriate toys are provided for play. Many transgender kids feel suffocated by these traditions. They develop an atypical, nonconformist identity, says Dr. Shuvo Ghosh, a specialist in pediatric development at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. He runs a clinic for transgender kids and teens – the only one in Quebec.

He sees two to three new patients a week walk into his clinic. In terms of the very young Dr. Ghosh sees mostly kids who identify as boys. “That’s because being a ‘tomboy’ is more acceptable… I don’t see the little girl playing with soldiers brought to my clinic. I see 4-year old boys with a princess ‘obsession’. Their parents bring them here to see what I can do for the child.” The little girl who wears pants and roughhouses isn’t seen as troubled and abnormal; parents consider the little boy who plays with Barbie dolls as abnormal and disturbed. But attitudes towards gender change as kids get older. Dr. Ghosh sees equal numbers of boy and girl teenagers come to him for guidance.

His patients are drawn from far and wide across the province. Despite the stereotype of rural people as less accepting of differences, his patients are just as likely to come from the country as they are to live in urban centres.

Free to Choose

Akiko Asano, Mat’s mother, beams as she talks about her child’s gender: “At 3 my child made her first social transition,” she says. “At age 3 I told Mat, ‘you’re a good boy,’ and he replied, ‘no, mom, I’m a girl.’ He was totally convinced he was a girl.” Akiko, who speaks French and refers to Mat in the masculine, says that Mat would become frustrated and angry. “It was as if he was trying to tell the world who he was and nobody would listen. But since we made that social transition, he calmed down.”

By ‘social transition,’ Akiko means recognizing Mat for who Mat is. This means letting Mat dress as Mat would like, and letting Mat choose who to associate with.

Dr. Gosh observes that over the last decade, society has become far more accepting of gender variations in general. But real change involves talking about these kids, even if it creates controversy. It strikes him as odd is that a sizeable slice of the population remains

conservative on this issue, even though it isn’t necessarily a mainstream topic. “Maybe they’re uncomfortable because it raises some personal questions,” he suggests.

Awareness is growing: transgender persons are no longer shrouded in mystery. They are real folks who you run into each and every day.

Self-Esteem

For Dr. Ghosh it’s important to work with youth on building self-esteem. Prejudices and opinions can hurt. He spends a lot of time consulting with families on helping kids to better relate and interact with people of all ages.

Mat’s parents have always been open and understanding about their child’s differences. Not everyone has been so open-minded. “We’ve lost a lot of friends,” Akiko admits. “There have been frictions within the family.” When Mat was in elementary school, Akiko and Mat’s father hired a psychologist to talk with teachers so that Mat would be recognized as a girl. For many years, Mat insisted on being addressed as a girl.

Today Mat is 16 and has changed schools four times. Akiko stresses that the first switch, during elementary school, had nothing to do with Mat’s gender issues. But the last three switches, all of which have occurred during high school, have come about because of ignorance.

Mat has since made a second transition. Mat now considers itself androgynous. Mat is happy to create a fog around its gender. To feel more at ease, these days Mat insists on being addressed as ‘it’ in English, and in the masculine in his parents’ native French.

Hormone Blockers

“Puberty is unsettling for transgender kids,” observes Dr. Ghosh. “The reality is a shock.” The process is accompanied by physical changes that can be very troubling if the youth isn’t in harmony with their body.

To provide more time for reflection and to lengthen the adjustment period, hormone blockers are often prescribed. Mat has been taking these for 11 years. These blockers don’t entirely stop puberty; they simply slow the process down. What usually takes 2-3 years occurs in 4-5 years when on medication. Given more time to think, a youth can make clearer choices. They may opt to undergo a physical sex change. Others, like Mat, may decide to take things one day at a time.

There is no one right path for these kids to follow. Some may accept their gender; others, like Mat, may adopt an air of ambiguity. Those that choose to change sex to be in harmony with their orientation are termed ‘transsexuals.’

Puppy Love

Adolescence brings young love. “That’s complicated,” Akiko laughs. If two transgender teens aren’t involved, there are some decisions to be made. Should the teen reveal all, or be coy? Nobody knows “what I’ve got in my pants,” jokes Akiko. The important thing to her is that Mat finds places to feel secure, to fall in love and explore… That could be a summer camp, or a day camp; places where exploration can occur without fear of ridicule or harassment.

When new parents show up at Dr. Ghosh’s clinic, he is often asked: is my child gay?  His answer is always the same. “At age 4 or age 8, there is no implicit sexual orientation. We can’t even discuss such things that early on.” It is only during the teenage years that the subject should be raised, gradually.

No Consensus

Our society always tries to pigeonhole people. There is no “transgender” box on government forms. Dr. Ghosh estimates that about 5 to 10% of the population questions their own sexuality – but 1 to 2% exhibit real physical signs of gender ambiguity. Of those, about 40 to 50% choose to undergo an actual sex change. That’s a maximum of 1% of the population – not a negligible amount on a national scale.

The entire field is understudied, he emphasizes. But Dr. Ghosh believes that transgender people have always existed. “The phenomenon is two, three, four thousand years old. It’s existed since the dawn of human history. But it’s not considered an acceptable subject for open discussion, even if we’re allowed to talk about it nowadays.”

Another theory is that contemporary parents are less likely to classify their children as male or female. Kids have more freedom to choose their own way without constraint. The advantage of this theory is that it doesn’t regard this phenomenon as a sign that society is becoming more decadent and immoral, says Dr. Ghosh “Their choices are more independent, more natural, and most important less born of anxiety, because people can be who they want to be.”

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