Mom wonders about son's gender identity

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  October 10, 2012 06:00 AM

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I read your article about boys who have strong preference playing with girls, but my question goes further, my 6yo is also interested in playing only with girls and quiet play, this less concerns me, what bothers me is that he always says he wants to be a girl and wished he had a magic wand to change his body parts to a girl, this has been since he was very little and hasn't changed, he also says he wished he could put lipstick and eyeshadow, he never tried to dress up as a girl and he does like some boys things, not many though. Should I be concerned that he might be a transgender? or could this be just a phase?

From: Worried Mom, West Hartford, CT

Dear Worried Mom,

The article you refer to, "A 6-year-old boy wants to play only with girls," says pretty clearly that, at this young age, a child's preference for playmates may simply reflect the activities the boy enjoys. But you're describing more than play preferences so.

Child development has long held that awareness of gender identity begins at young ages and it involves what psychologists call "core identity" -- the inner feeling you have about whether you are male or female, regardless of your physical identity. As a reader once pointed out in this space, psychologist Lise Eliot writes in her book, "Pink Brain, Blue Brain," that cross-gender behavior (not friendships) is a strong predictor of later sexual orientation, at least in boys.

Can you trust these behaviors as definitive? No.

Here's what I would do, though. Read everything you can, talk to everyone you can so that you can become comfortable with the subject so that you can be the best parent possible for your son, whatever his sexual orientation. The best place I know to start? Here: with PFLAG, (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).

PS. Check out this article by my former Globe colleague, Irene Sege, "Eight questions about young children to ask candidates."

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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13 comments so far...
  1. Barbara, you are mixing up sexual orientation with gender. The two are not related. This is a question about the child's gender and how it may not match their physical body. The advice to read up on gender issue is a good one, as is contacting a GLBT organization. But please do not confuse the two topics of gender and sexual orientation.

    Posted by Wayne October 10, 12 11:56 AM
  1. Hi Barbara,
    I don't even have kids yet, but I read this column religiously. I have a few comments about today's letter. The mother didn't express concern that her child might be gay; she was concerned that he might be transgendered. Gender identity and sexual orientation are separate entities; I know trans people who are gay and I know some who are straight.

    I really recommend Nick Teich's Transgender 101. He also runs Camp Aranu'tiq-the only camp in the country for transgender and gender variant children. It's worth checking out.

    Posted by Cheryl Siegel October 10, 12 12:54 PM
  1. How about showing your child some love, guidance, and support as the young man that he is? Take him out of fantasy land into reality; he was born a male, period!

    Posted by sharon October 10, 12 03:35 PM
  1. After writing about this for all these years, you'd think I could get it right, wouldn't you?! Thanks for the comments, Cheryl & Wayne. You're both right: gender identity is the issue at hand, which has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Sorry if I confused people!

    Posted by Barbara F. Meltz October 10, 12 04:50 PM
  1. The advice is good. He may be transgender or he may be gay. (Or straight maybe.) Play it by ear for awhile. He's only 6. I met a parent at PFLAG with a child who went through several years cross-dressing because the parents and child thought the child transgender. Now the parents (and the child) aren't sure. Love, support, probably some therapy would be good.

    Posted by Larry October 10, 12 05:33 PM
  1. Sharon, I imagine anyone who can read knows that being born with specific sexual organs does not determine which gender is correct. It's no secret some people do not identify with the gender they are born with and there are methods to make those people happier. Many parents are completely comfortable allowing their child to be who they want to be, regardless of what is in their pants. It's most definitely not a fantasy land. People walk amongst us everyday who have taken measures to change their gender. It's a shame to see someone dismiss it with a black and white take on it all. It certainly does nothing good for the child.

    Posted by Linney October 10, 12 05:51 PM
  1. Love the child, and stop worrying! I would take the child to one of the gender identity specialists available (not to be confused with those people who claim to cure GLBT folk) several times for observation and an eventual opinion. Best of luck.

    Posted by Trish October 10, 12 07:47 PM
  1. @ Sharon - please stop with your hurtful and frankly stupid comments. Gender identity is a very serious issue that many people face, and trying to force a child to be who they aren't only damages them.

    Posted by Dave October 10, 12 08:01 PM
  1. I know that a lot of people believe that your gender is determined by your genitalia and that's it - get used to it and conform to the gender stereotypes. I also know that as a result of the refusal of parents and friends to accept gender variance in a child many will suppress their feelings, will conform in public and, as I did for 50 years, learn to live in the closet, secretly cross dressing and living in fear of discovery and the awful consequences. This seems to be the best for parents and family because they do not have to think about it anymore and they will not be embarrassed by their child's behaviour and everyone will be happy...

    And this is why nearly half of all gender variant children will eventually try to take their own lives. Welcome to reality Sharon.

    Posted by Rikki October 11, 12 04:04 AM
  1. I feel whatever your child says he or she is, that is who he or she is...

    Posted by Cindy October 11, 12 06:21 AM
  1. Gender is what is between your ears. Sex is what is between your legs. The two are separate and distinct things.

    Posted by Martin Tomlinson October 11, 12 06:46 AM
  1. Greater Boston PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) has a support group specifically for parents of transgender and gender variant children. We meet 4 times a month - two evenings in Boston and twice on Saturday mornings in Waltham. A little far from West Hartford, but might be worth the drive to learn more and connect with parents in similar situations.

    Posted by Deborah Peeples October 11, 12 10:44 AM
  1. You're looking for TYFA.

    Trans Youth Family Allies.

    The helpfulness of PFLAG varies, widely, by chapter.

    Persistence is one of the signs that this is genuine, btw.

    Posted by been-through-this October 12, 12 09:14 PM
 
13 comments so far...
  1. Barbara, you are mixing up sexual orientation with gender. The two are not related. This is a question about the child's gender and how it may not match their physical body. The advice to read up on gender issue is a good one, as is contacting a GLBT organization. But please do not confuse the two topics of gender and sexual orientation.

    Posted by Wayne October 10, 12 11:56 AM
  1. Hi Barbara,
    I don't even have kids yet, but I read this column religiously. I have a few comments about today's letter. The mother didn't express concern that her child might be gay; she was concerned that he might be transgendered. Gender identity and sexual orientation are separate entities; I know trans people who are gay and I know some who are straight.

    I really recommend Nick Teich's Transgender 101. He also runs Camp Aranu'tiq-the only camp in the country for transgender and gender variant children. It's worth checking out.

    Posted by Cheryl Siegel October 10, 12 12:54 PM
  1. How about showing your child some love, guidance, and support as the young man that he is? Take him out of fantasy land into reality; he was born a male, period!

    Posted by sharon October 10, 12 03:35 PM
  1. After writing about this for all these years, you'd think I could get it right, wouldn't you?! Thanks for the comments, Cheryl & Wayne. You're both right: gender identity is the issue at hand, which has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Sorry if I confused people!

    Posted by Barbara F. Meltz October 10, 12 04:50 PM
  1. The advice is good. He may be transgender or he may be gay. (Or straight maybe.) Play it by ear for awhile. He's only 6. I met a parent at PFLAG with a child who went through several years cross-dressing because the parents and child thought the child transgender. Now the parents (and the child) aren't sure. Love, support, probably some therapy would be good.

    Posted by Larry October 10, 12 05:33 PM
  1. Sharon, I imagine anyone who can read knows that being born with specific sexual organs does not determine which gender is correct. It's no secret some people do not identify with the gender they are born with and there are methods to make those people happier. Many parents are completely comfortable allowing their child to be who they want to be, regardless of what is in their pants. It's most definitely not a fantasy land. People walk amongst us everyday who have taken measures to change their gender. It's a shame to see someone dismiss it with a black and white take on it all. It certainly does nothing good for the child.

    Posted by Linney October 10, 12 05:51 PM
  1. Love the child, and stop worrying! I would take the child to one of the gender identity specialists available (not to be confused with those people who claim to cure GLBT folk) several times for observation and an eventual opinion. Best of luck.

    Posted by Trish October 10, 12 07:47 PM
  1. @ Sharon - please stop with your hurtful and frankly stupid comments. Gender identity is a very serious issue that many people face, and trying to force a child to be who they aren't only damages them.

    Posted by Dave October 10, 12 08:01 PM
  1. I know that a lot of people believe that your gender is determined by your genitalia and that's it - get used to it and conform to the gender stereotypes. I also know that as a result of the refusal of parents and friends to accept gender variance in a child many will suppress their feelings, will conform in public and, as I did for 50 years, learn to live in the closet, secretly cross dressing and living in fear of discovery and the awful consequences. This seems to be the best for parents and family because they do not have to think about it anymore and they will not be embarrassed by their child's behaviour and everyone will be happy...

    And this is why nearly half of all gender variant children will eventually try to take their own lives. Welcome to reality Sharon.

    Posted by Rikki October 11, 12 04:04 AM
  1. I feel whatever your child says he or she is, that is who he or she is...

    Posted by Cindy October 11, 12 06:21 AM
  1. Gender is what is between your ears. Sex is what is between your legs. The two are separate and distinct things.

    Posted by Martin Tomlinson October 11, 12 06:46 AM
  1. Greater Boston PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) has a support group specifically for parents of transgender and gender variant children. We meet 4 times a month - two evenings in Boston and twice on Saturday mornings in Waltham. A little far from West Hartford, but might be worth the drive to learn more and connect with parents in similar situations.

    Posted by Deborah Peeples October 11, 12 10:44 AM
  1. You're looking for TYFA.

    Trans Youth Family Allies.

    The helpfulness of PFLAG varies, widely, by chapter.

    Persistence is one of the signs that this is genuine, btw.

    Posted by been-through-this October 12, 12 09:14 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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