“…because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” (The Velveteen Rabbit)
Margaret Wente is right when she says ‘Kids pay the price of gender politics’ (Globe and Mail, January 19, 2016) but wrong if she thinks this is new. According to recent reports on the closure of CAMH’s Gender Identity Clinic for children, Wente’s good friend Dr Zucker has, for quite a while, added to the toll paid by those intrepid souls who don’t conform to gender labels.
There are quite a number of mama/papa bears out here in the real world, who feel provoked by the consistent misrepresentation of gender variance in media and mental health services. These mischaracterizations have a direct impact on the safety of our children.
Too often the goal is to focus on genitals instead of gender identity, in a misguided attempt to ‘fix’ something that isn’t necessarily ‘broken’, or to simply blame the shell-shocked people who seek help.
Of course gender experimentation can simply be a ‘phase’ for some, as in the case presented of Debra Soh. But what about the thousands of others for whom the uncomfortable experience of feeling ‘not right’ in one’s body, is a daily challenge? When our five year old was asked to point to the level that visually represented how much ‘he’ felt ‘he’ was really a ‘girl’ – my kid jumped to reach three inches above the top of the ‘girl’ thermometer graphic on the nearby flipchart. Five years later, she still ‘knows’ she is a girl – so why does Dr Zucker think the way our kid feels, her authentic self, is wrong or bad, ‘undesirable’ or unworthy of respect?
Clearly, enough clients have provided evidence or testimony that the clinic did not effectively respond to the needs of children and families but instead sought to blame and shame the very clients they were contracted to support and help. So #Lets Talk, about mental health service modernization and adaptability shall we?
Directors at CAMH did the right thing to let go of a history that includes so many complaints of those who trusted the ‘experts’ at the Clarke Institute and were disappointed or devastated. A suicide ideation rate of 43% (6 times the Ontario cisgender rate) should be a clear enough indication that old therapeutic practices are not working for gender creative kids who, too often, become suicidal adolescents and adults. Nothing on earth is more frightening than the prospect of hearing your child say they would rather die than pretend to be something they are not.
It is entirely possible that those who signed the petition to have Dr Zucker reinstated at CAMH, are proof positive of the extent of the problem of gender bias and how psychiatrists and psychologists view those who question the cisgender ‘normative’ ideology.
Consider for a moment what you might do – in that ‘deer in the headlights’ moment when your child tells you they are neither boy nor girl, (or both boy and girl), or that they want their bits and pieces to ‘disappear’. What if some of these atypical or unexpected expressions, choices and behaviours began at age three? What if your kid, over many years, consistently and persistently insists that you got it wrong – that they aren’t really what you see.
You will probably think to yourself that since you changed their diaper – you already know who your kid is – and you will, for a while, deny any evidence to the contrary. You may pretend that it doesn’t really matter that your son consistently chooses a pink boa, glitter high heels, and five favourite hot wheels cars to take with ‘him’ on an imaginary ‘treasure hunt’ game played out in the jungles of the backyard on sunny afternoons. You may even attempt to direct your kid to more ‘gender conforming’ behaviours and choices, but no matter what you try, eventually you figure out that it is you who must learn from your kid. You realize that your kid has taught you the true meaning and value of respect – just by being true to themselves, no matter what their body looks like.
Like most parents, we set reasonable limits for safety and circumstance, but we won’t ‘force’ our kids to play with people they don’t want to or choose their favourite colours, past times, hobbies or interests for them. Allowing free expression in our kids is not a bad thing – just because some doctors think the gold standard for mental health must be boys who are ‘real’ boys and girls who are ‘real’ girls. Dr Zucker is no Gepetto, and no help to those kids and parents who consider gender neutral, agender, or bi-gender, legitimate ways to ‘be’.
To suggest that the active intervention of a doctor or parent, in favour of one gender or another, is somehow NOT a corrective, and demeaning desistence effort is to deny the life of Leelah Alcorn, a beautiful young girl who experienced exactly this type of ‘therapy’. Leelah’s parents also said their behaviour modification approach to deny the feminine in their natal ‘male’ child wasn’t harmful, even though their daughter later took her own life to send a clear message to ‘fix society’.
Contrary to popular belief, most of us are not hippie parents addicted to the trappings of the social networks and fake internet news. Some of us are also critical thinkers who have devoted a great deal of time consulting university professors (from many faculties); doctors, and specialists; studying print and web research relating to the elastic brain and the use of MRI technology; watching videos about the biological links to gender diversity (in many different species); or reading papers on the similarities between kids with Aspergers Syndrome and kids who are gender non conforming. We have become the best-informed parents we can be, simply to keep our kids safe.
How else to cope with the gut-wrenching reality for an innocent five-year-old kid asking to play a Cinderella role at preschool, and who is publicly shamed by educators and peers who restrict the coveted role to ‘real girls’ only? How much childhood trauma must parents bear witness to, before mental health ‘professionals’ reconsider their understanding of gender bias, and provide effective and meaningful supports to gender variant and transgender people? And why hasn’t research directly served all those suffering kids who are daily beaten up on school buses and in washrooms; their pants yanked down to prove their ‘junk’ to a salacious world (just as the Republicans propose to do in public washrooms across the State of Virginia). Who can we rely on to pay attention to the ever-increasing murder, suicide and assault rates for the gender variant, if not the leading American ‘expert’ in the field?
Somehow our kids have had the patience and strength, in the face of privileged adult expectations and assumptions, to teach us who they really are. As parents, or as ethical psychiatrists, our role is limited as neither the arbiter of someone else’s personal identity nor the oracle of good practice. We are merely learners, tasked with supporting all kids toward self-actualization, ever conscious of the fragile nature of a child’s spirit(s). Ancient societies in India, Hawaii, Asia, North and South America were more progressive in understanding the third gender as a gift than our current ‘experts’ seem to be. It is what it is – so why not get behind the kids, or get out of the way.
Today there are support groups that have grown from 100 families to 3000 online, and local urban groups expanding from 5 to 100 families in less than eighteen months. Along the way, each of us learn to cope with fear in different ways: some blog, some educate educators, some kids launch protests, or lead parades, some siblings write dissertations, still others are quiet supporters working tirelessly in the background. The media exposure courageous kids inspire has resulted in long-awaited improvements to professional development programming on gender equity, workshops, action groups, and meaningful changes to public policy.
This kind of leadership is precisely what families asked of Dr Zucker: a willingness to ‘lean in softly, and be changed by what he heard’, or at the very least, practice to ‘First do no harm’.