Op-ed: Why Are Americans Terrified of Transgender 6-Year-Olds?

Transgender first-graders aren't the problem. Uninformed adults are.

BY Leela Ginelle

October 29 2013 4:00 AM ET

There are new bogeymen (and women) in our land these days, forcing us to look at questions we've long ignored or scoffed at.

They're especially confounding to some of us, because they're young and innocent, and have no idea why what they're saying should be a problem.

Our culture doesn't wait for newborns to tell us what gender they are — we decide for them and then put it in writing. As soon as transgender children can speak, however, they correct us, and, increasingly, their parents listen to and affirm them. As we've seen recently, this can lead to confusion and even conflict among less-informed adults.

When Colorado 6-year-old Coy Mathis tried to use the girls' restroom at her school, the district attempted to block her, leading to a case that drew national attention. The district thought a transgender girl wanting to use the girls' bathroom was a little weird or that other people might or that someday it might be.

Transgender people have long been stigmatized as mentally disordered. But an outside observer of this case, in which a public school legally fought to prevent a grade schooler from using a bathroom, might draw different conclusions as to who needs help.

And they might have a point.

TransActive Education and Advocacy is a first-of-its-kind nonprofit that offers counseling and services to transgender children and their families, and trainings to schools, corporations, and other groups.

When families contact us, their children are often displaying depression, and that's common. Eighty-three percent of trans children and youth report ideating taking their own life, and 32 percent report at least one suicide attempt. Suicide is the number 1 cause of death among transgender youth. While every case is different, the cause of these children’s distress is not their transgender identity. Commonly, rejection by their families and the wider community is at the root of their issues. This rejection, a product of blind antitrans prejudice, founded on generations of unquestioned beliefs regarding gender roles, deviance, and "normalcy" and bolstered by a relentlessly negative media, is as pervasive as it is baseless.

We encounter this prejudice at times when advocating for families with school districts and organizations around the country. While many are affirming and happy to support the trans children and youth in their populations, others hedge and seek ways to avoid compliance with inclusive policies.

The latter groups generally voice "discomfort" with transgender children, particularly with regard to the bathrooms (as though transgender children experience no discomfort being stigmatized by the school they're compelled to attend).

 "What is it you're uncomfortable about?" we'll ask.

The question is generally met with awkward silence.

"Is it that this transgender girl will expose herself or assault her classmates? Because if that's it, we can Google it and see if there's ever been a case of that happening."

More silence.

"If it's just that you're uncomfortable, though, then that's not a sufficient reason to deny a student her legal rights."

Our society operates on the principle that there are men and women, and nothing in between. These gender identities are assigned at birth, and we’re expected to “live up to them” all our lives.

For previous generations of transgender and gender-variant individuals, this has meant a life of secrecy, pain, and closeting — a life spent policing one’s self and feeling abnormal.

The growing visibility of transgender 6-year-olds, however, is disrupting this dynamic and causing an evolution of thought, as cisgender people — men and women who identify with their assigned gender — recognize that they are not “normal,” as previously thought, but rather, members of a majority group.

This evolution will likely continue, as recent prevelance studies suggest that one in 10 children are gender-nonconfirming, and one in 100 children are transgender. This means that one in 10 young people may not feel a need or inclination to live up to their assigned gender, and one of every 100 6-year-olds in our schools is like Coy Mathis.

Through their honesty and bravery, these children are introducing new ideas to us about gender identity. They're not trying to, though. They're just being themselves in a world that is too often failing to believe and accept them.

Like most teachers of new ideas, transgender 6-year-olds are being met with skepticism, fear, and hostility. They have a lot to show us, however, about how the "rules" we have concerning our gender are not as rooted in nature and fact as we've assumed.

It's time to start listening to them.

 

LEELA GINELLE is the communications and development intern for TransActive Education and Advocacy.

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