Read more of our October 2019 issue here.
Alex is like many 8-year-old boys. His dark hair is styled short. He loves Boy Scouts, camping, kung fu, ninjas and Nerf guns. Most importantly, he is very happy.
But the Concord youth hasn’t always been this content, says his mom, Jennifer.
Alex was born a girl, and first indicated that he wanted to be a boy at age 3. When he started attending kindergarten, he opted to identify as male. Today, his school and peers are mostly supportive, though he does get questioned about his gender, which he finds annoying. "I say I’m a boy. I don’t care if they know I’m transgender."
There was a time when someone like Alex (whose name and that of family members have been changed to protect their privacy) may have been tormented by his peers and rejected by his family. If it were say, only 15 years ago, he may have been encouraged to keep his gender identity a secret. But now Alex seems to feel that he has few worries. If anything, his mom is the one who admits she fears the day he starts middle school.
Recently, there’s been a big shift in how society views the transgender and gender diverse community – especially in the Bay Area, say experts. Though the community still experiences problems and issues, rejection, hate crimes and bullying, positive changes are being made.
You see more acceptance in schools and popular culture; more public places have gender-neutral restrooms, says Joel Baum, senior director of professional development at Gender Spectrum, a national organization headquartered in Emeryville that focuses on creating a gender inclusive world for children.
"This latest generation is growing up assuming there’s going to be gender diversity," says Baum, who trains teachers across the country on gender inclusivity. "There are signs that we are moving beyond a limited way of thinking."
Alex’s journey began early when he said something to his babysitter that concerned Jennifer.
"She said she wanted to cut off her vagina and get a penis," Jennifer says. "It scared me."
There were plenty of other signs that Alex didn’t feel like a girl. He didn’t like dresses and often wanted to wear clothing labeled for boys. Once, the family was invited to a wedding and he asked to wear a suit.
"I made a comment once that hair was growing on his legs and he just lit up and said, ‘Do you think I’m turning into a boy?’" Jennifer says.
Before starting kindergarten, she asked if Alex wanted to be a boy. He said he did, but he didn’t want to change his name at that time. But since this caused confusion at school, she helped him choose the male name Alex and had it legally changed.
"I told him there are going to be people who don’t like this," Jennifer says. "I told him he can tell them he’s a boy, he’s trans or it’s none of their business."
These days, Alex doesn’t remember much about his life as a girl other than a vague memory of wearing a sailor dress. Jennifer has put away most of the photos of Alex wearing girls’ clothes since he doesn’t like seeing himself dressed that way.
Diane Ehrensaft, an author and a developmental and clinical psychologist in the Bay Area, agrees that societal views about gender are changing for the better.
"I think there’s been a gender revolution. It started in the ‘60s when boys were growing their hair long. But this generation of kids are the leaders," says Ehrensaft, who is a founding member of the Child and Adolescent Gender Center, a partnership between the University of California San Francisco and community agencies to provide support to nonconforming/transgender youth and their families. "I think the acceptance level is going up. It’s no longer `girls will be girls and boys will be boys.’"
But there’s still a lot of room for improvement and not everyone experiences acceptance.
"Unfortunately, in the last few years with the climate of hate for those who are different, there’s more hate crimes against transgender people," says Ehrensaft, author of Gender Born, Gender Made (The Experiment, 2011), a guide to raising gender-nonconforming children. "It’s better to be in the Bay Area than other places, but it’s not bullet proof and there are still problems. That’s why we have to keep talking about it."
There are still many transgender youth who lack support and suffer daily from bullying and violence.
For example, according to studies, approximately 40 to 43 percent of transgender or gender diverse kids are at risk for anxiety, depression or suicide. The risk goes down if they have support from family, schools and medical communities.
In Alex’s case, his parents and siblings have been very accepting and supportive, but it was hard at first for his grandmother.
"My mom would say, ‘Oh, just make him be a girl,’" Jennifer recalls. "I told her that we can’t come over for Christmas if she can’t accept this and call him a boy."
Sarah Landauer of Richmond admits it was difficult at first coming to terms with her 7-year-old daughter wanting to transition to a boy. It started with her wanting to cut off her hair and wear boys’ clothing. Then she wanted to change her name to Finn.
Now, at age 11, he has been taking hormone blockers for a year that will delay puberty. This will give Finn and family more time to better understand his gender identity.
"I think in my heart I was okay with it. But in the first month, I would be driving and I would just start crying. I thought I knew my child but I didn’t," Landauer says. "But it made sense. She was very awkward, but when she was given permission to be a boy, everything clicked."
Many of Landauer’s family members responded differently to news that her daughter was transitioning to a boy.
"My mom still wants to use she and her pronouns, and I correct her every time. I think my mom thinks that we don’t have to take it seriously," Landauer says. "My aunt, who is a lesbian, couldn’t even grasp this news. But my dad took to it right away and was fine."
Gender Identity in Schools
For Finn, school was difficult.
Some fellow students refused to call him Finn when he made the change. The teacher struggled with the he and him pronouns. Eventually things got so troublesome that Landauer transferred him to a new school for a fresh start. Some of his new classmates found out that Finn was transgender and made things difficult. But now, the problems seemed to have settled down.
"I don’t even know if a lot of his friends know he’s transgender. I don’t know if he says anything to them," Landauer says.
Baum of Gender Spectrum says that often, it’s the adults in the school setting that present more problems than the youth. "Some schools are still having problems with kids getting harassed, often because of how adults were raised when it comes to gender," he says. "We all have strong feelings about gender. The kids tend to be less of a problem, but many adults were raised a certain way."
That’s why when he trains teachers and staff, he begins by finding out what they know about gender. "We work hard to meet people where they are. We’re not trying to shame people. We try to emphasize that gender impacts all people. We need to recognize that this is about every child."
Baum helps adults understand that gender is not just about the body. It is also about identity and social dimension. Some people, Baum says, don’t identify as male or female.
When he trains teachers, he focuses a lot on how to best speak to students in relationship to gender. "Are they saying things like, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, can I have your attention?’ or are they saying, ‘Folks, can I have your attention?’ Are they saying only boys like football?"
Baum also presents ideas for how to incorporate gender into the curriculum. For example, in an English class, students can write an essay about how gender affects them; in social studies, they can study the relationship between gender and power.
Some schools, Baum says, need to change how they are teaching sex education. Common practice separates boys and girls to provide them with material that pertains only to their bodies.
"When we separate kids, we are forcing transgender students to make a choice to maintain their privacy and go with their assigned gender, but really they should be learning about both," Baum says. All kids should be learning about the anatomy of males and females, whether they are transgender or not.
Baum also suggests that schools improve their systems for records. "Kids who are trying to maintain some privacy have problems changing their name in the system, and then they get outed because they may go by Julie, but their name gets printed as Bobby."
There are laws that protect the safety and rights of gender non-conforming students including Assembly Bill 1266. (see sidebar below)
But even with good laws, there’s resistance from some educators.
When Shane Greenwood-Wallace, 19, was growing up in Martinez as a transgender youth, he had painful school experiences. The bullying started in middle school before he even came out and his name was still Stephanie.
"People said things like `You’re too athletic’. Stupid stuff like that. Just stereotypes," says Greenwood-Wallace, who is now a student at Sonoma State University.
When he started cutting his hair short and dressing more masculine in high school, he ran into problems using the restroom. There were no gender-neutral restrooms, so he continued using the girls’ restroom.
"I was waiting in line for the bathroom and this staff member was standing there looking at me. She tugged my arm. She said what are you doing in the girls’ bathroom?" he says.
Even after someone explained to the staff member that Greenwood-Wallace was physically a female, there was no apology.
"After that, I didn’t use the bathroom anymore because it was embarrassing because these girls saw me get dragged out," he says. To this day, if there is no gender-neutral restroom in a public place, he usually waits until he gets home.
Fortunately, Greenwood-Wallace had a teacher in high school who was very supportive and helped him make friends and let him eat lunch in her classroom. Looking back, he wishes he made the transition when he was younger.
"What I’ve noticed is most little kids don’t care what gender you are, they just want someone to play with," he says. "I know a lot of teens who are transgender have problems with their family and they wished they transitioned when they were younger."
After Greenwood-Wallace graduated from high school, he started going through hormone therapy.
"I feel completely different. Three months in, I started seeing facial hair and muscle," he says. "It feels more natural for me. It makes life easier. I don’t have to deal with periods anymore."
In the future, if he can afford it, Greenwood-Wallace plans to transition all the way with surgery.
Transgender adolescents or kids with gender dysphoria may be eligible to receive puberty suppression hormones as soon as pubertal changes have begun, according to the Standards of Care for the Health of Transexual, Transgender, and Gender-Nonconforming People from World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH). Gender dysphoria is considered to be a serious psychological condition in which internal conflict regarding gender affects relationships, school performance and daily functioning.
Pediatric endocrinologists have experience administering puberty blockers for kids who start puberty early, says Dr. Tandy Aye, associate professor of pediatrics who works in the gender clinic at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. These hormones suppress estrogen or testosterone production and delay physical changes of puberty. Some consider it to be a way to buy time while families are trying to figure out if the child is going through a phase or if they are truly transgender.
Puberty suppression may last for a few years and then a decision is made to either stop all hormone therapy or transition to a feminizing or masculine hormone regimen, the WPATH standards say. So far, little is known about any negative side effects from puberty blockers. Some research indicates they may impact bone development and height.
One of the main criteria for starting hormone therapy is that the adolescent must show a long pattern of gender nonconformity or gender dysphoria; parents or guardians must give consent.
Usually genital surgery is not considered until adulthood.
Is Your Child Transgender?
Trying to figure out if your child is transgender can be a challenge. An estimated 0.7 percent of children identify with a gender that is not the one assigned to them at birth.
What does it mean to be transgender or gender diverse?
Gender diverse is an umbrella term used to describe the different ways gender can be identified. Someone in this category may not identify with their birth gender but may not consider themselves transgender. Someone who is transgender will consistently over time not identify with their assigned gender.
"By age 6, every child should know their gender," Ehrensaft says. "If you give your child space, they will tell you. …You have to watch them over time. Often with little children, they are very unhappy with their body. If you give your child the chance to transition to the gender they are, they will be more relaxed as long as they are receiving support."
Ryan Schmidt of Palo Alto says he started to realize his son wanted to be a girl at age 3.
Now at age 5, anyone who meets Parker for the first time assumes she’s always been a girl.
Schmidt says they started to realize Parker was transgender because she always idolized her sister, never wanted to wear boys’ clothes and was drawn to mostly toys marketed for girls. So they started letting her wear girls’ clothes at home and boys’ outfits in public.
But Parker was so consistent in how she felt that they eventually started letting her always wear girls’ clothes.
"Every drawing that she ever brought home from preschool was of herself in a dress with long hair," he says. "In her vocabulary, she was very consistent. The boys’ clothes were always there in the dresser, but they collected dust."
She continued to make it clear to her family that she was uncomfortable identifying as a boy.
Parker never seemed to enjoy swimming until allowed to wear a girl’s swimsuit. When someone thought she was a girl, it made her happy.
Parents who wonder if their child is transgender often turn to their pediatrician. The American Academy of Pediatrics has approved a list of recommendations for pediatricians to follow aimed at supporting transgender or gender diverse children. It’s meant to give direction to medical professionals who may not have covered this topic in medical school.
Dr. Cora Collette Breuner is one of the authors of the guidelines. "We wanted to have a blueprint on how to take care of people who have gender identity questions. Some people thought we were trying to put kids on hormones. It’s not about providers pushing an agenda."
The document has suggestions for how pediatricians can help families find gender-affirming care. In Parker’s case, a pediatrician recommended a play therapist who confirmed what Schmidts already knew.
"Her feedback was that Parker is as much a girl as any biological girl that comes through the door," Schmidt says. "None of this was a shock to us."
If you do find out your child is transgender you may have a lot questions about how you can support him or her.
"There are a lot of resources now. Read about it. You don’t want them to think there is just one way to be a transgender boy or transgender girl," says Pamela Wool, director of family support and administration for Gender Spectrum. "Open up the possibilities. I think a lot of kids worry about disappointing their parents. We need to let them know that we are there for them. Let them know you’re interested in the topic."
For Schmidt, one of the most important aspects of raising Parker is making sure she never feels like her gender identity is something she needs to hide.
"We don’t ever want her to feel shame about it (being transgender). We are sensitive to anything that makes her feel shame," he says. "If everyone were open about being transgender, there wouldn’t be this need to keep it a secret. It isn’t a deviant thing. The cost of feeling like you have to hide things is a high cost to pay."
Teresa Mills-Faraudo is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.
Laws Supporting Transgender Students
Assembly Bill 1266 – Known as the "School Success and Opportunity Act," it requires that students be allowed to participate in gender-segregated school programs, activities and use facilities consistent with their gender identity, regardless of the gender listed in student records. Its main purpose is to ensure that transgender students are protected and have the same opportunities to participate and succeed as all other students.
Federal Protection – Title IX prohibits sexual harassment and discrimination based on gender or sex stereotypes. While it does not specifically use the terms "transgender" or "gender identity or expression," courts have held that harassment and other discrimination against transgender and gender-nonconforming people constitutes sex discrimination.
California Law – It prohibits discrimination in public schools or programs on the basis of disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or any other characteristics that is contained in the definition of hate crimes.
Privacy Laws – The Education Code requires that schools keep private information such as transgender status or gender identity. Family Education and Privacy Rights (FERPA) is a federal law that protects the privacy of students’ educational records. Under Article I, Section I of the Calfornia Constitution minors have the right to privacy.
Source: California Department of Education
Gender Spectrum – Headquartered in Emeryville, this nonprofit organization offers a plethora of resources for transgender and gender diverse children and their families. Its mission is to create a gender inclusive world for all children. It has support groups, an annual conference, professional development for public and private schools and more. genderspectrum.org.
Gender Born, Gender Made by Diane Ehrensaft. A guide to raising gender-nonconforming children. (The Experiment, 2011).
The Transgender Child by Stephanie A. Brill and Rachel Pepper. This is a guide for families and professionals exploring the unique challenges parents face in raising transgender children. (Cleis Press, 2008).
The Transgender Teen by Stephanie A. Brill and Lisa Kenney. This is a handbook for parents and professionals on supporting transgender and non-binary teens. (Cleis Press, 2016).
I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings. The story of a transgender child based on the real-life experience of Jazz Jennings. (Dial Books, 2014).
A House for Everyone by Jo Hirst. A story to help children learn about gender identity and gender expression. (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2018).
Phoenix Goes to School by Michelle Finch and Phoenix Finch. The story of how Phoenix deals with her first day of school and her fear of being bullied because of her gender identity and expression. (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2018).
Creating Gender Inclusive Schools. This film explores ways gender is discussed in classrooms. genderspectrum.org/creating-gender-inclusive-schools.