With assorted news articles profiling the lives and stories of various transgender children, the question arises: How should parents respond if their children express a desire to identify with the opposite sex?
My comments here aren’t medical advice — and if you are seeking medical advice, know that you’ll get all kinds of answers from the useless or the dangerous to the truly helpful. May the Lord bless you with lots of the truly helpful.
Rather, what follows are grounded in my experience as a parent and the few hints we can pull together from Catholic moral teaching. Give my comments some thought, but bring your own heart and brain to the problem as well. You’re the parent.
In my experience with gender and sex troubles, I’ve seen three broad categories of “gender confusion” problems. I’ll address each in turn, starting with the most common and ending with the most difficult.
1. Not Actually a Sex Thing
Here’s a story from a friend of mine: Her two-year-old son, a sweet, orderly child with a cherubic disposition (when he isn’t terrifying his mother by jumping down the staircase), came to his mother one day and asked to wear a pretty dress like his favorite toddler girl friend wore to church on Sundays.
Mom ignored her inner panic button, and asked a few questions. What they determined: He wanted to dress up. To wear formalwear. Something snazzy.
“Well, darling, you know they make dress clothes for boys. Would you like that? Would you like to get dressed up for church?”
He nodded and gave his charming little toddler “Yes.”
Mom produced a dapper bow-tie and vest, and they put together a suitably stylish outfit. Everyone was happy: This was, in fact, exactly what her little boy wanted.
I’ve seen this in countless variations: She wants to be a boy scout not a girl scout — it turns out the boys are going on more interesting trips, and she has a taste for action and adventure. He’s more comfortable with the girls than with the boys — turns out he doesn’t like being shoved around by the brutes in his class. All her best friends are boys — turns out she’s the only girl in her advanced math group, so she sits with boys most of the day.
None of these are gender issues, not at all. To treat them as “gender problems” would be to create a new problem without solving the real problem. Address the real problem.
2. I Don’t Fit the Mold
One of the things I loved about playing in the SCA was the brilliant combination of egalitarianism and complementarity, substance and style. You could be a manly-man — hard to top beating other people with sticks for that — and still be courtly, poetic, artistic, and exquisitely dressed. Because the SCA ranges over a period of a thousand years, no matter your personality there is bound to be a culture or story that expresses your inner-you in a way that modern stereotypes just don’t.
For all the lip service we give to “being yourself”, our culture can be as dreadful a straightjacket as any other. If you don’t fit the bland sports-n-stuff “boy” mold, people assume you’re gay. If you don’t fit the hyper-sexualized “girl” mold, people assume you’re a prude. There are a few slots open in acceptable alternative categories, but heaven help you if you’re a high school student who doesn’t fit one of the approved cliques. What if you’re not a “drama club person” or a “band person” or “goth” or “preppy” or “athletic” but you’re just a person? A complex, nuanced, utterly unique person?
In the same way, it’s possible for a girl to identify most with her father and brothers, or a boy to identify most with his mother and sisters, for simple lack of a same-gender role model who resonates. If you don’t fit in with all the guys or all the girls, and you do seem to fit in well with the “wrong” gender friends and family around you, it’s easy to have a passing thought of, “I should have been born a ________.”
Again, the response is not to panic or to read more into the situation than is warranted. Instead, look for ways to respond to the real need your child has to spend time and build friendships with “people like me”. The cure for a boy who likes too many “girl-hobbies” isn’t to shame him into forced-football; it’s to find a friend who is both comfortable in his masculinity and also takes an interest in the same kinds of endeavors. Many pursuits that we think of as being “girl things” or “boy things” during childhood turn into gender-neutral occupations later in life, even if they are more often pursued by one sex or the other.
Likewise, as much as we can delight in, say, the lovely femininity of a young woman who dresses in pretty, stylish clothing, it’s important that we don’t reduce our understanding of male-female complementarity into some crude stereotypes, as if authentic womanhood all comes down to swishy skirts, lace doilies, lipstick and a good manicure. Ask yourself: What would Laura Ingalls do? Then go climb a tree or shoot a bear or something.
3. Deep Seated, Undeniable Sexual Tendencies
Disorders of sexual arousal happen. I won’t theorize on the causes, and for practical purposes the causes don’t much matter. Because, I joke around a little here, relax, please allow me to be purely hypothetical, a pickle-fetish isn’t a “thing” in modern America (okay, maybe it is, I don’t want to know), if your child has a deep seated tendency to get aroused at the smell of pickle relish, you’ll probably never find out. He’ll just feel like a freak and keep his mouth shut. More important to know: Certain disorders of arousal are so openly despised that if your child experiences one, he may well hate himself.
Because transgender and homosexual orientations are both accepted and widely-practiced cultural identities, if your child experiences such an inclination there is going to be a strong pull to run with it, and claim the identity and the community that go with; we all want to belong to a community where we are accepted. Know that there is a small but real and growing community of Christians (and others) who openly admit they experience same-sex attraction or gender-disorder, but choose to live chastely.
All children need, at the appropriate point in their education and under their parents’ supervision, to be told how to respond to these kinds of problems. Self-hatred is never the solution. Chastity is the rule for all — there are no special exceptions. We all do our best to live chastely.
It’s important to both recognize the difficulties that may arise, and at the same time not make too big a thing of it. If you aren’t attracted to people of the opposite sex, perhaps marriage is not your vocation. You aren’t exactly alone in lacking such a vocation, and God will make the most of the wonderful person that is you regardless of your state in life. But the fact that you struggle with this powerful and difficult-to-quell sexual desire or inner conflict does not define you. It’s a thing you have to deal with, but it’s not you. You are something much bigger than this or that difficulty in your life.
Closing comments because this is an exquisitely sensitive subject, and I don’t want my readers (of any persuasion or opinion) to be attacked in the combox. If you find it helpful, super. If it’s not helpful, please keep looking around, and quietly decline to share this one.