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During the past few months, the media has been replete with accounts of both children and adults who do not fit neatly into conventional gender roles: a Canadian baby, Storm, whose parents kept the baby's gender secret; the child of a prominent celebrity, Chaz Bono, who attracted controversy as a trangender man on primetime television; and two children, Tammy and Mario, who announced to their parents that they were not their biological gender and began living as they wanted to be.
As a developmental psychologist who spends my days working with both children and young adults who are transgender, gender fluid, gender nonconforming, gender queer, and more, none of these stories has been a surprise to me. They simply reinforce my observation, made in my book Gender Born, Gender Made, that it is increasingly difficult to define gender as a strict biological binary.
What took me more by surprise was the ensuing tsunami of hostile, antagonistic, and hateful responses toward both these individuals and, in the children's cases, their parents.
In response to Bono's casting on Dancing With the Stars, Dr. Keith Ablow, psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-team, offered these words of wisdom: "The last thing vulnerable children and adolescents need, as they wrestle with the normal process of establishing their identities, is to watch a captive crowd in a studio audience applaud on cue for someone whose search for an identity culminated with the removal of her breasts, the injection of steroids."
For this comment, Albow received 33,000 Facebook recommends. In the eyes of thousands of Americans, it is as though transgender people are a disease that could contaminate and pervert our "normal" children.
After the story broke in The Toronto Star about the parents who decided not to reveal the gender of their four-month-old baby, Storm, reporters would repeatedly ask me, "Don't you think this child is going to be very confused?"
My response: Not as confused as the millions of readers trying to make sense of Storm.
Gender - and specifically, the starkly defined boy/girl binary -- has always been a bedrock principle in our culture. But now, an ever-growing group of children, their parents, and the professionals and advocates who support them are taking a pickaxe to that bedrock. They are boldly challenging our culture's fixed ideas and norms on gender, which could be summed up as: "Boys must be boys, girls must be girls and never the twain shall cross."
We all need help emerging from our own gender confusion, so as not to get stuck in a stagnant puddle of knee-jerk reactions and emotional condemnation masquerading as scientific evidence when we respond to the mere existence of children who don't fit this binary. The children, along with their parents, will be our best teachers. So let me just share what I've learned along the way.
Boys and girls like Tammy and Mario who come to their parents and say, "Hey you've got it wrong, I'm not the gender you think I am" are not being contorted by parents with twisted, radical agendas. They are simply saying, "Please listen to me. This is who I am."
Ask their parents, and they will tell you: "They just come to us that way. We don't know from where."
If we truly listen to the children when they speak to us, we will discover the road to our children's happiness and health. Listen to Pauline Moreno, mother of Tammy, describe her child : "As soon as we let him put on a dress, his personality changed from a very sad kid who sat still, didn't do much of anything to a very happy little girl who was thrilled to be alive."
Yes, we can thwart transgender and gender-nonconforming children by trying to make them who we want them to be rather than who they're telling us they are. But I know firsthand that such attempts can do great harm to the children's sense of self-worth and satisfaction, leaving them at risk for anxiety, depression, anger outbursts, and even suicide. I don't think anyone would want that for their child.
There's a good rule of thumb for all of us to remember: We adults have little control over a child's true gender identity but tremendous influence over children's gender health -- which equates with allowing a child the space to carve out his or her own true gender self. And I definitely vote for health.
Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D. is a developmental and clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area and author of the recently published "Gender Born, Gender Made."