Born in the wrong body: how gender-identity issues affect children

Sat, Dec 10, 2011, 00:00

AN IRISH ORGANISATION dealing with gender-identity issues has seen a sudden rise in the number of families wanting to talk about transgender children. An increasing number of Irish parents of children with gender-identity issues are coming out on behalf of their kids.

Over the past two months, Transgender Equality Network Ireland has fielded calls from parents of transgender children, or from children who express gender-identity issues. They may be boys who see themselves as girls, or vice versa, or may be experiencing uncertainty about, or discomfort with, their physical gender.

“We didn’t know these people existed six months ago,” says Broden Giambrone, the director of the organisation, “so clearly there’s a critical mass happening where people are acknowledging this issue.”

The increase began after Vanessa Lacey of Teni appeared in the media. The organisation arranged a meeting last month for families of transgender – or “trans” – people in Carlow. “It was the most emotionally charged group I ever facilitated,” says Lacey.

Thirteen people, including two parents from Kerry and one aunt of a transgender child, travelled to the meeting. For many it was the first time they had met parents in situations similar to their own. “They just talked, talked, talked,” says Lacey. “They just wanted to express themselves.” The children being discussed at the meeting ranged in age from 10 to 22.

“Society seems to be undergoing a change in having this language now, with people able to hear it and being able to say it,” Giambrone says. “If you are trans and you are able to transition at a young age, your experience is totally different. Your self-esteem is better, you can build relationships, you don’t have to suppress your identity for 20, 30, 40 years.”

Lacey, a mother of two boys, says her family found it hard to come to terms with her own gender identity. “Family is extremely important,” she says, “Trans people would suffer from the isolation and rejection. The key to that is dialogue and more dialogue, because it breaks down the fear.”

Awareness may be growing, but Ireland has made slow progress in developing support for parents, families and the children themselves. “If you’re a parent and your child has expressed anything around gender-identity issues, there’s not a significant amount of professionals with a large amount of experience here,” Giambrone says.“Parents come to us and they’re so scared.”

Some Irish children with gender-identity issues have been referred to the UK because of the limited services here. Lacey tells of one Irish family with a 10-year-old transgender child that has recently moved to London to access services.

So how do parents approach and discuss these issues with a child who is questioning his or her gender? Dr Wallace Wong, a clinical psychologist in British Columbia, Canada, has just published a children’s book called When Kathy Is Keith, inspired by stories from his own clients.

“I’ve been working for trans youths and children for a number of years,” says Wong. “A lot of kids are circling with these issues alone and can’t find any material out there. And also parents wished they had something they could relate to and read to their children. There were no books about it, so I decided to write about it.”

Gender identity is a separate issue from sexual orientation, he emphasies, and needs to be dealt with at an earlier stage. “A child becomes aware of their own gender at three or four years old,” Wong says.

“If kids have transgender issues they can come to realise it at that time, to notice something unusual. Sexual orientation is totally different; that’s about who you’re attracted to . . . That develops around puberty.”

Wong says parents need “multiple layers” of support. “Talking to professionals is important. That’s a number-one priority, be it a family doctor, a psychologist or other medical professionals,” he says. “Then, having information readily available to parents is important, and information that is coming from accurate sources, not just the internet . . . You need parent groups to see how other parents cope who might be ahead of them in the game. It’s very comforting to know ‘I’m not alone’ and see people who can make it through and be successful and learn how to make it work.”

Wong hopes When Kathy Is Keithwill become available in school libraries in Canada. “A lot of people may argue, ‘Should kids learn about these things at such an early age?’ The answer is yes, as long as we use the language and content that fits the stages of development of children,” Wong says, “Any time is a good time to talk about anything as long as you use the content and language that fit the children’s stage.”


Transgender Equality Network Ireland holds its next meeting on Monday. Details from vanessa@teni.ie. See teni.ie. The organisation BeLonGTo runs a weekly meeting of young people with transgender issues called IndividualiTy. It also has a support group for parents, Loving Our Out Kids. See belongto.org