civil rights officials reached an important settlement late last month with a
California school district accused of discriminating against a transgender
student by denying him equal access to educational programs and activities.
Under the agreement, the Arcadia Unified School District in California will
revise its policies and ensure that the student, who was born female but has
since assumed a male name and identity, is treated fairly and like other male
students. The agreement should be required reading for school officials at all
The case involved a child who was anatomically female but began to identify as a
boy at an early age, assuming a male first name and wearing boys’ clothes. By
the end of fifth grade, the student’s classmates accepted the transformation,
but the school district would not let the matter go. Despite warnings from
experts that the student should be treated as a boy in all settings, school
officials singled him out in ways that brought unwanted attention and made the
gender transformation much more difficult. He was given a separate dressing area
for physical education class — which isolated him from friends — and assigned to
a distant, cross-campus restroom, the use of which required him to miss class
On a camping trip in 2011, the social highlight of the seventh-grade year, the
school district refused to let the student sleep in a cabin with male friends,
some of whom knew his history, even though the friends had requested him as a
cabin mate. He was forced instead to stay in a separate cabin with one of his
parents, which both he and his parents found disheartening.
Just before the trip, his parents filed civil rights complaints with the Justice
Department and the Department of Education. As the investigation progressed, the
district agreed to make sure the student had access to facilities designated for
male students at all district-sponsored activities and to revise its
antidiscrimination policies so as to prohibit gender-based discrimination.
The agreement ends a painful episode for the student and his family. It may also
be the beginning of a more welcoming future for transgender students.
OAKLAND, Calif., Dec. 1 — Until recently, many
children who did not conform to gender norms in their clothing or behavior and
identified intensely with the opposite sex were steered to psychoanalysis or
But as advocates gain ground for what they call gender-identity rights,
evidenced most recently by New York City’s decision to let people alter the sex
listed on their birth certificates, a major change is taking place among schools
and families. Children as young as 5 who display predispositions to dress like
the opposite sex are being supported by a growing number of young parents,
educators and mental health professionals.
Doctors, some of them from the top pediatric hospitals, have begun to advise
families to let these children be “who they are” to foster a sense of security
and self-esteem. They are motivated, in part, by the high incidence of
depression, suicidal feelings and self-mutilation that has been common in past
generations of transgender children. Legal trends suggest that schools are now
required to respect parents’ decisions.
“First we became sensitive to two mommies and two daddies,” said Reynaldo
Almeida, the director of the Aurora School, a progressive private school in
Oakland. “Now it’s kids who come to school who aren’t gender typical.”
The supportive attitudes are far easier to find in traditionally tolerant areas
of the country like San Francisco than in other parts, but even in those places
there is fierce debate over how best to handle the children.
Cassandra Reese, a first-grade teacher outside Boston, recalled that fellow
teachers were unnerved when a young boy showed up in a skirt. “They said, ‘This
is not normal,’ and, ‘It’s the parents’ fault,’ ” Ms. Reese said. “They didn’t
see children as sophisticated enough to verbalize their feelings.”
As their children head into adolescence, some parents are choosing to block
puberty medically to buy time for them to figure out who they are — raising a
host of ethical questions.
While these children are still relatively rare, doctors say the number of
referrals is rising across the nation. Massachusetts, Minnesota, California, New
Jersey and the District of Columbia have laws protecting the rights of
transgender students, and some schools are engaged in a steep learning curve to
dismantle gender stereotypes.
At the Park Day School in Oakland, teachers are taught a gender-neutral
vocabulary and are urged to line up students by sneaker color rather than by
gender. “We are careful not to create a situation where students are being boxed
in,” said Tom Little, the school’s director. “We allow them to move back and
forth until something feels right.”
For families, it can be a long, emotional adjustment. Shortly after her son’s
third birthday, Pam B. and her husband, Joel, began a parental journey for which
there was no map. It started when their son, J., began wearing oversized
T-shirts and wrapping a towel around his head to emulate long, flowing hair.
Then came his mothers’ silky undershirts. Half a year into preschool, J. started
becoming agitated when asked to wear boys’ clothing.
En route to a mall with her son, Ms. B. had an epiphany: “It just clicked in me.
I said, ‘You really want to wear a dress, don’t you?’ ”
Thus began what the B.’s, who asked their full names not be used to protect
their son’s privacy, call “the reluctant path,” a behind-closed-doors struggle
to come to terms with a gender-variant child — a spirited 5-year-old boy who, at
least for now, strongly identifies as a girl, requests to be called “she” and
asks to wear pigtails and pink jumpers to school.
Ms. B., 41, a lawyer, accepted the way her son defined himself after she and her
husband consulted with a psychologist and observed his newfound comfort with his
choice. But she feels the precarious nature of the day-to-day reality. “It’s
hard to convey the relentlessness of it, she said, “every social encounter,
every time you go out to eat, every day feeling like a balance between your
kid’s self-esteem and protecting him from the hostile outside world.”
The prospect of cross-dressing kindergartners has sparked a deep philosophical
divide among professionals over how best to counsel families. Is it healthier
for families to follow the child’s lead, or to spare children potential
humiliation and isolation by steering them toward accepting their biological
gender until they are older?
Both sides in the debate underscore their concern for the profound vulnerability
of such youngsters, symbolized by occurrences like the murder in 2002 of Gwen
Araujo, a transgender teenager born as Eddie, southeast of Oakland.
“Parents now are looking for advice on how to make life reasonable for their
kids — whether to allow cross-dressing in public, and how to protect them from
the savagery of other children,” said Dr. Herbert Schreier, a psychiatrist with
Children’s Hospital and Research Center in Oakland.
Dr. Schreier is one of a growing number of professionals who have begun to think
of gender variance as a naturally occurring phenomenon rather than a disorder.
“These kids are becoming more aware of how it is to be themselves,” he said.
In past generations, so-called sissy boys and tomboy girls were made to conform,
based on the belief that their behaviors were largely products of dysfunctional
Among the revisionists is Dr. Edgardo Menvielle, a child-adolescent psychiatrist
at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington who started a national
outreach group for parents of gender-variant children in 1998 that now has more
than 200 participants. “We know that sexually marginalized children have a
higher rate of depression and suicide attempts,” Dr. Menvielle said. “The goal
is for the child to be well adjusted, healthy and have good self-esteem. What’s
not important is molding their gender.”
The literature on adults who are transgender was hardly consoling to one parent,
a 42-year-old software consultant in Massachusetts and the father of a
gender-variant third grader. “You’re trudging through this tragic, horrible
stuff and realizing not a single person was accepted and understood as a child,”
he said. “You read it and think, O.K., best to avoid that. But as a parent
you’re in this complete terra incognita.”
The biological underpinnings of gender identity, much like sexual orientation,
remain something of a mystery, though many researchers suspect it is linked with
hormone exposure in the developing fetus.
Studies suggest that most boys with gender variance early in childhood grow up
to be gay, and about a quarter heterosexual, Dr. Menvielle said. Only a small
fraction grow up to identify as transgender.
Girls with gender-variant behavior, who have been studied less, voice extreme
unhappiness about being a girl and talk about wanting to have male anatomy. But
research has thus far suggested that most wind up as heterosexual women.
Although many children role-play involving gender, Dr. Menvielle said, “the key
question is how intense and persistent the behavior is,” especially if they show
Dr. Robin Dea, the director of regional mental health for Kaiser Permanente in
Northern California, said: “Our gender identity is something we feel in our
soul. But it is also a continuum, and it evolves.”
Dr. Dea works with four or five children under the age of 15 who are essentially
living as the opposite sex. “They are much happier, and their grades are up,”
she said. “I’m waiting for the study that says supporting these children is
But Dr. Kenneth Zucker, a psychologist and head of the gender-identity service
at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, disagrees with the
“free to be” approach with young children and cross-dressing in public. Over the
past 30 years, Dr. Zucker has treated about 500 preadolescent gender-variant
children. In his studies, 80 percent grow out of the behavior, but 15 percent to
20 percent continue to be distressed about their gender and may ultimately
change their sex.
Dr. Zucker tries to “help these kids be more content in their biological gender”
until they are older and can determine their sexual identity — accomplished, he
said, by encouraging same-sex friendships and activities like board games that
move beyond strict gender roles.
Though she has not encountered such a situation, Jennifer Schwartz, assistant
principal of Chatham Elementary School outside Springfield, Ill., said that
allowing a child to express gender differences “would be very difficult to pull
Ms. Schwartz added: “I’m not sure it’s worth the damage it could cause the
child, with all the prejudices and parents possibly protesting. I’m not sure a
child that age is ready to make that kind of decision.”
The B.’s thought long and hard about what they had observed in their son. They
have carefully choreographed his life, monitoring new playmates, selecting a
compatible school, finding sympathetic parents in a babysitting co-op.
Nevertheless, Ms. B. said, “there is still the stomach-clenching fear for your
It is indeed heartbreaking to hear a child say, as J. did recently, “It feels
like a nightmare I’m a boy.”
The adjustment has been gradual for Mr. B., a 43-year-old public school
administrator who is trying to stop calling J. “our little man.” He thinks of
his son as a positive, resilient person, and his love and admiration show. “The
truth is, is any parent going to choose this for their kid?” he said. “It’s who
your kid is.”
Families are caught in the undertow of conflicting approaches. One suburban
Chicago mother, who did not want to be identified, said in a telephone interview
that she was drawing the line on dress and trying to provide “boy opportunities”
for her 6-year-old son. “But we can’t make everything a power struggle,” she
said. “It gets exhausting.”
She worries about him becoming a social outcast. “Why does your brother like
girl things?” friends of her 10-year-old ask. The answer is always, “I don’t
Nila Marrone, a retired linguistics professor at the University of Connecticut
who consults with parents and schools, recalled an incident last year at a Bronx
elementary school in which an 8-year-old boy perceived as effeminate was thrown
into a large trash bin by a group of boys. The principal, she said, “suggested
to the mother that she was to blame, for not having taught her son how to be
But the tide is turning.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, requires that students be
addressed with “a name and pronoun that corresponds to the gender identity.” It
also asks schools to provide a locker room or changing area that corresponds to
a student’s chosen gender.
One of the most controversial issues concerns the use of “blockers,” hormones
used to delay the onset of puberty in cases where it could be psychologically
devastating (for instance, a girl who identifies as a boy might slice her wrists
when she gets her period). Some doctors disapprove of blockers, arguing that
only at puberty does an individual fully appreciate their gender identity.
Catherine Tuerk, a nurse-psychotherapist at the children’s hospital in
Washington and the mother of a gender-variant child in the 1970s, says parents
are still left to find their own way. She recalls how therapists urged her to
steer her son into psychoanalysis and “hypermasculine activities” like karate.
She said she and her husband became “gender cops.”
“It was always, ‘You’re not kicking the ball hard enough,’ ” she said.
Ms. Tuerk’s son, now 30, is gay and a father, and her own thinking has evolved
since she was a young parent. “People are beginning to understand this seems to
be something that happens,” she said. “But there was a whole lifetime of feeling
we could never leave him alone.”