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Audio: The Diane Rehm Show: Understanding Gender Nonconforming Children

On this edition of The Diane Rehm Show, guest host Susan Page talks to psychiatrist Dr. Edgardo Menvielle, authors Lori Duron and Andrew Solomon, transgender advocate and consultant Allyson Robinson, and listeners to the show, about children who are gender-nonconforming — that is, they are biologically one gender but identify as the other.

Transcript (Excerpts)

Page: Andrew Solomon, you have just spent a decade working on a book called Far From the Tree about children who are unlike their parents. And it includes a chapter on transgender kids. Tell us what you learned in doing research for your book.

Solomon: Well, the larger quest of the book was to suggest that there are many kinds of difference and that all families who are dealing with difference have a great deal in common. So I talked to families of deaf kids. I talked to families of kids with autism. I talked to families with musical prodigies who were also overwhelmed.

And I concluded the book with a chapter on kids who were transgender and I was really interested in the question of whether kids who are transgender have a biological condition, like deafness and dwarfism or have one that is really psychological and whether the appropriate intervention for those kids is to make their minds line up with their bodies or make their bodies line up with their minds.

And what I came away with was the sense that there are some kids for whom it’s easier to shift their minds and some kids for whom it’s easier to get their bodies and their way of presenting themselves to the world to conform with the gender they know themselves to be.

And I was struck by the struggle the parents went through in trying to figure out which way their kids were and the enormous amount of prejudice that they had to fight back. And I wanted to tell those stories, to expose that prejudice and to send out a message of hope to parents whose children are transgender or even gender nonconforming and say you can have a rich and a worthwhile life being outside of the usual behaviors of the gender you are assigned at birth.

Page: Well, you said that one goal of your book was to show how families with kids who are unlike them in some way, whether it’s dwarfism or autism or gender nonconformity, how they’re alike, what’s common to them. What is common? What has come across those lines to these families?

Solomon: I think there are really two kinds of identities that people have. There are vertical identities, which are handed down from parent to child, your ethnicity, your nationality, often your religion, usually your language. And then there are, what I called horizontal identities that have to be learned from a peer group in which a parent has a child who has a fundamental and profoundly defining quality which is completely foreign to the parent.

And the parent has to learn a whole new vocabulary in order properly to nurture, to love and to help their child and it’s my belief that all of the families who are negotiating difference in that way have in common the struggle to get from the love that they presumably have had from their child from the beginning to a real acceptance of their child for who their child is.

And I ultimately came to think that the experience of difference is a nearly universal experience at some level, not always as extreme as the cases I was looking at, but very broad and that having a child whom you perceive to be exactly like you and completely normal in every way is actually the rare and lonely state.

Page: Lori, you’re nodding your head. The description that Andrew is giving us, is that the one that your family faced?

Duron: Yeah, for sure. I nod my head in agreement a lot when I hear Andrew speak…

Solomon: Thank you.

Duron: …partly because he, I mean, you want to give us this hope and there is a hopelessness that first came over us and we felt really lonely. And now there’s a lot of joy. I hear a lot from other parents through my blog who don’t have children who are gender nonconforming, but who are maybe autistic or have some other special need, that they connect and that the, as parents, were feeling a lot of the same things, even though our child who is so different from us, you know, those children aren’t alike, but the parents are going through similar things.

Page: Andrew, I wonder the newest version of the diagnostic statistical manual calls gender identity variance no longer a disorder. That’s a change. Is that progress do you think?

Solomon: I think it is. Before I answer that question I just want to say that a lot of the people who are calling in seem to need support, seem to feel alone and seem to need resources. There’s an organization of which I’m on the board called Trans Youth Family Allies, TYFA. And TYFA is really specifically devoted to helping parents to work through some of these challenges and can be found on the web. And, um, sorry what was your…

Page: On the diagnostic…

Solomon: Oh, the diagnostic, of course. So the issue all along has been whether this constitutes a mental illness. And it’s very difficult to say that it does and there are many people who said in the same way that homosexuality was a mental illness and now isn’t that being trans had been treated as a mental illness and it should not be. And there are many people who have said if the way you address this problem is with surgery and hormones it should be an endocrine or physical disorder rather than a mental disorder.

The harm of keeping the idea that it’s a mental disorder is the stigma associated with it, which is very painful for many trans people who seem to have robust mental health. And the harm of removing it is that you lose access to services if you don’t have a code that can be entered when people are providing the psychological treatment that some people with gender differences require.

And what’s happened over time is that people have said there should be a category of some form of unhappiness about your gender or some sort of mental pain that you’re experiencing because of it that doesn’t say that the fact that you have male genitalia and are incredibly excited to open your mom’s Barbie doll is a mental illness or that doesn’t say the fact that you have female genitalia and you actually want to be a truck driver is an illness, that you actually want to be a truck driver who lives as a man.

So it’s been a very delicate process of figuring out what to do, but I think it represents enormous progress that we’re no longer automatically saying anybody who’s gender nonconforming is mentally ill. The same behavior that would be psychologically healthy in a girl represents a mental illness in a boy or vice versa. That was a very dangerous, very stigmatizing, very painful position.

(To read the complete transcript, please visit The Diane Rehm Show.)