I spent this past Saturday at the Transformations: Clinical Perspectives on Transgender Experience and Cultural Context Conference hosted by Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York City. I came away from the day completely energized by and in awe of the work many of my colleagues are doing to support transgender people and their families.
I’ve been spending time thinking about what a child who is gender variant, meaning he or she does not conform to typical standards of what it means to be a boy or what it means to be a girl in our culture, needs to grow-up into a well-adjusted, securely attached adult who feels self-assured and can thrive in this world. And why gender-variant children are so at risk for being deprived of what they so desperately need. A gender-variant child needs what every child needs: caregivers that mirror (or reflect back) a sense that ALL of a child’s self is worthy and valuable and loved ; caregivers with whom they feel safe and protected by; and at least some people around who let them know that there are others like themselves in the world, that they are not alone. When children do not receive these things, they don’t learn how to regulate their own emotions and they don’t learn how to have trusting and safe attachments in the world. (for more on Kohut’s theory of self-psychology, upon which this explanation is based, see here)
Storyteller-researcher Brene Brown (definitely watch her Ted Talk), writes that we have a developmental need for connection. The process by which we connect with other human beings is fundamental not only in that it enriches our lives but in that it is imperative (as Daniel Siegel has demonstrated) for our brain’s development and growth. The thing that stands most in the way of human connection is shame. Shame prevents people from being vulnerable, from being authentic and from feeling deserving of connection.
We live in a culture where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people feel shamed. Even when a gender variant child has parents who support gender non-conforming behavior, he still internalizes the message that he is not ok. All he has to do is listen to the discussion in pre-school or look what’s toys are marketed to boys.
Gender different children (and adults) experience, insidious trauma, the little traumas or “micro-aggressions” that happen on a day to
day basis when the world lets you know that who you are is not good enough. I worked an eight year old boy whose parents told him that Santa would only bring him boy toys. On Christmas morning, even though the boy has asked for a kitchen set, he found that Santa had brought him balls and cars. He threw such a tantrum that his parents finally relented and went to the toy store to get what he wanted. In Dr. AndreA Neumann Mascis’ presentation on Advanced Clinical Perspectives in Working with Transgender Survivors, (in which the term “survivor” refers not only to surviving discrete physical, sexual or emotional abuse, but refers to surviving in a culture that deprives trans people of basic human dignity and nurturing) he noted that for some gender variant children “everything feels like a punch.” Can you imagine the despair of a child who has seen that not even Santa Claus can see him clearly? Even something that should be so celebratory as Christmas morning can be devastating for a child who is not mirrored and accepted for who he is.
As a culture we need to continue to unpack these antiquated notions about what it means to be a boy and what it means to be a girl. We need to challenge people and institutions who insist and adhering to this oppressive ideas in order to hold onto their own power. As parents of kids across the gender spectrum, we must support and encourage gender variance, letting each of our children know that he or she is loved and safe and not alone.