Sissy liberation has arrived! Parents, teachers and experts are increasingly supporting, rather then stigmatizing, kids who display gender variance and seek to publicly express their identification with the opposite sex, according to an article in the New York Times last Friday. "The goal is for the child to be well adjusted, healthy and have good self-esteem," said Dr. Edgardo Menvielle, a child-adolescent psychiatrist at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., said. "What's not important is molding their gender."
A national leader of this kinder, gentler approach to sissies and tomboys, Menvielle told the Times that consistently alarming levels of mental-health problems among gender-variant youth over decades have persuaded experts that traditional measures to force gender conformity have been a bust. "We know that sexually marginalized children have a higher rate of depression and suicide attempts," he said.
Most scientists now agree that gender variance is a natural human occurrence—a sign of our species' tendency toward diversity, like being left-handed. Research increasingly points to a link between other-sex identification and hormone exposure in the developing fetus. This has overturned conventional wisdom that "boys who wanted to be girls" were the sick products of dysfunctional families. It has also pulled the rug out from under traditional treatments, such as psychotherapy and behavior modification, aimed at making the sissy look and act masculine.
In addition, studies indicate that as many as three-quarters of gender-variant boys into their school years grow up to be gay, according to Dr. Menvielle. And since the psychiatric profession stopped treating homosexuality as a disorder more than 30 years ago, these early manifestations of a gay identity would seem long overdue for a similar revision.
Although the understanding of gender variance—and how best to approach it—may be growing, the actual experience is not. Many children role-play involving gender, "but the key question is how intense and persistent the behavior is," Dr. Robin Dea, the director of regional mental health for Kaiser Permanente in Northern California, told the Times. "Our gender identity is something we feel in our soul. But it is also a continuum, and it evolves."
Dr. Dea claims to have seen the benefits of the new approach in her work with kids 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 negative."
Our culture's increased acceptance of diversity in general and homosexuality—and (maybe) even transgenderism—in particular have paved the way for parents and teachers to value a child's own view of his (her?) gender. And while empowering him to express it openly may promote psychological health, it still runs counter to social expectations and therefore places many more demands on parents and families than the old "act like a boy!" method.
When Junior shows up in class in a pink dress and pigtails, he is certain to encounter what Dr. Herbert Schreier, a psychiatrist with Children's Hospital and Research Center in Oakland, aptly called "the savagery of other children." And despite the fact that more and more schools are legally required to respect parents' wishes in these matters, teachers—even sympathetic ones—may be hard-pressed to protect a gender-variant child from bullying, rejection and abuse.
Still, as Dr. Schreier said, "These kids are becoming more aware of how it is to be themselves"—and with the freedom to lay claim to a true, rather than a false, self, they will likely be deeply motivated to defend themselves against—or otherwise adapt to—the cruelty of kiddie society. Still, no one is saying their journey will be straight or smooth. It will, however, be their own.
At Oakland's Park Day School in Oakland, according to the Times, teachers use a gender-neutral vocabulary, and students line up not by gender or even height but by the color of their shoes. "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."
As a grown gay man whose inner sissy is still grieving over the day his Barbie was ripped from his hand and replaced with a toy machine gun, I welcome the new approach to gender variance. Still, one question nags at me: If I had not been forced to act like a boy, would I have learned to love sports as much as I did?