Earlier today a classmate’s post about a 5-year old receiving detention for wearing earrings to school caught my attention and reminded me of another issue regarding sex and gender roles that many of us often don’t think about: the socialization of transgender children. If a 5-year old boy can get in trouble for simply wearing earrings to school, what would happen if he completely defied gender norms and wore a dress instead?
While Americans are becoming more and more aware and accepting of the adult LGBT community, much controversy remains when it comes to their child and adolescent members. If a male child under the age of three or perhaps even four calls himself a girl, his parents may think that he is not yet aware of sexual differences. They might find his comment cute, get a giggle out of it, and say something along the lines of “no silly, you are a boy!” But what happens when this same child persists in defying his assigned gender as he grows older?
In a touching 20/20 episode titled “My Secret Self: A Story of Transgender Children” (see below), Barbara Walters documented the lives of 3 transgender children and how their families have chosen to deal with their children’s sensitive situation.
As reported in the 20/20 episode, children as young as 2 years old may feel as though they were born and are trapped into the wrong body. In spite of their parents’ attempts to socialize them into the genders assigned to them due to their biological sex, these children insist on forming the identities that are most real to them and to how they feel. Transgender individuals do not want to be perceived as transgender. They want to be viewed as the gender that they identify with, regardless of what their biological makeup may be.
So how can or should the parents’ of transgender children react to their child’s gender identity? Should they persist with socializing the child’s gender to be the same as his or her biological sex regardless of how the child feels? Or should the parents accept their transgender child for who he or she truly is, regardless of the social stigma and implications they will face? How should society react to the parents’ decision? Should the school system allow transgender children to express their gender identities, or should these children have to conform to their assigned roles based on biological sex? Which bathrooms should they use? Would they be allowed to play on the boy’s or on the girls team? Should the parents of transgender children inform other parents of their children’s gender identity and sexuality prior to arranging play dates and sleep-overs? How do you imagine you would you react if one of your children (or future children) were transgender?
Many individuals who are opposed to granting children and adolescents the freedom to choose and express their true gender identity or sexuality often believe that these children and teens are confused, going through a phase, or were wrongly socialized to be the way that they are, and that social structure can somehow “fix them.” Although the nature and nurture debate has been going on for quite a while, there have been many recent (and not so recent) findings that indicate that gender identity may have a biological as opposed to social basis. One example is the life story of David Reimer (also known as the John and Joan case). David Reimer, initially named Bruce Reimer, was a biological boy who underwent a faulty circumcision that mutilated his genitals to the point of no repair. Following Bruce’s faulty circumcision, his mother was advised to raise him as a girl based on Dr. John Money’s nurture-inclined hypothesis of gender identity. Dr. Money believed that a child’s gender identity was influenced only by socialization, and that biological sex did not make a difference as to whether the child would feel male or female. Bruce’s name was legally changed to Brenda, and he was raised as a girl. However, socialization alone was not enough to make him feel like a girl. Reimer attempted suicide three times prior to finally resuming his life as David Reimer–a man. Reimer eventually committed suicide following a divorce from his wife and the death of this twin brother. The David Reimer case is important because it demonstrates jut how important an individual’s biological makeup is. There are many other cases of boys who were raised as girls due to defective genitalia, many of whom did not grow up well and ended up later assuming the gender roles of their biological sex (google it, you’ll see).
If our gender identity (please note that gender role and gender identity do not mean the same thing) is not something we are socialized into but is rather something we are born with, and transgender children can be sure of their identity as early as 2 years of age, then is it really ethical to forbid them from being themselves or to punish them for defying our social norms? Should we really judge the accepting parents of transgender children as bad parents and claim that they are confusing their children?
Perhaps as a society, we should all be less judgmental of people and more open minded to each other’s differences. How do you think society should react to transgender children?