Parents and activists agree: kids with non-conforming gender identities don’t need a psychological assessment – they need a supportive community.
This was the theme of a recent panel discussion at a queer health conference hosted by Rainbow Health Ontario (RHO) in Ottawa.
“This is not an issue for psychiatry. Gender-independent kids are part of the community and deserve to be supported,” says Jake Pyne, who is coordinating a project through RHO to develop the tools needed to provide community-based support for gender-independent kids and their families in Ontario.
He is working with an advisory board of physicians, counsellors, activists and families to put together information that will help health and social-service providers understand and support gender-independent children.
One target is the medical community. Historically, medical professionals have pathologized gender-variant and trans people. Gender variance ought to be understood as part of everyday life, rather than a psychological problem, Pyne says. He would like to see more physicians working from this diversity perspective and moving away from the practice of conflating conformity with health.
"Gender-independent kids are part of the community and deserve to be supported," says Jake Pyne.
The project will also produce materials directed at parents of gender-independent kids. Parents need support just as much as they need accurate information.
“Parents need to hear that your child is okay. It’s normal, it’s healthy,” Pyne says.
Fellow panellist Kimberley White is the mother of a gender-independent child named Sadie. Sadie is a six-year-old with a very fluid gender expression who sports a short haircut and traditional “boy” clothing but prefers to identify as neither a boy nor a girl.
White says she and her husband have been accused of being bad role models.
“People still think that we’ve done this to her or we’re putting her in danger by allowing this,” White says. “It’s so not a choice. It’s not about our politics at all.”
She says most of the conflicts her family has run into have not been about Sadie’s gender, but others’ reactions to it.
“We get told all the time she’ll grow out of it. It gets referred to as gender confusion, but Sadie is the least confused kid. What’s confusing for her is why it’s such a big deal,” White says.
She adds that the way most public spaces are structured causes problems for gender-independent kids like Sadie. For example, bathrooms are consistently segregated by gender in schools, at public pools and even at summer camps. At Sadie’s school, she has to use a separate gender-neutral bathroom on a different floor than her classroom.
“People are good at accommodating, but we should be beyond accommodations,” White says. “We should be able to do better than that.”
Ultimately, she would like to see structural changes to schools and other places that care for kids so there is room for gender-independence, rather than it being tacked on as an afterthought.
White has also faced the challenge of creating a community for Sadie in which she can recognize herself.
“We always say, ‘There are lots of kids like you,’ and her answer is always, ‘Well where are they?’”
Though they have faced some hardships, White says seeing a therapist isn’t an option for her family. They want to tackle any difficult discussion together, and they know that Sadie is the only expert on Sadie’s gender.
The defining moment was the first short haircut, White says. It was hard to even find a hairdresser who would cut a little girl’s hair into a pixie-short style, but at the end, White, Sadie and even the hairdresser were in tears.
“It was like Sadie was seeing herself for the first time,” White says. “From that point, we’ve never really questioned anything.”