Photo by wili_hybrid.
There is little more dreadful for a parent than unintentionally hurting one’s own child. There is little more traumatic for a child than having something they dearly want taken away from them. A Toronto psychologist is under fire for recommending controversial treatments which some believe cause just that.
A heartbreaking NPR documentary released this week tells the story of two families struggling with the gender identities of their children. “Bradley” is a young Toronto boy under the care of CAMH head psychologist Dr. Ken Zucker, while Jonah lives on the U.S. West Coast, and has been studied by Dr. Diane Ehrensaft. Both children were born biological males but are likely transgendered, yet the message being sent by the children’s therapists couldn’t be more different—Jonah is being allowed to live as a little girl in accordance with his wishes, whereas Bradley is being forced to reject everything even remotely feminine in an attempt to suppress his impulses.
Transgendered people have a gender conflict between brain and body—the characteristic “trapped in the body of another”—and some may even feel that their gender isn’t a binary male or female, but falls on a continuum between the sexes. It’s an oversimplification, but transmen and transwomen tend to feel much more comfortable when living a closer approximation to how they feel inside, even if it potentially subjects them to ignorance, ridicule, and violence from society at large. With transkids, who require adults to make decisions for them, questions arise of how to treat gender conflict at such an early age, or even if it requires treatment at all.
Bradley’s mother had noticed his attraction to all things feminine beginning at the age of 2½. The tipping point came one day when, under the care of a sitter, he returned home bleeding from the playground, having been attacked by two 10-year-old boys for playing with a Barbie doll. His mother was referred to Dr. Ken Zucker, a controversial “reparative” therapist who has extensively worked with transgendered kids and who subsequently evaluated Bradley over a few months, resulting in a clinical diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder.
Dr. Zucker’s suggested treatment for GID is problematic and harsh: Bradley, now almost six, would not only be denied access to girls’ toys or be allowed to pretend he was female, but wouldn’t even be allowed to play with girls. His favourite toys were dolls, which his mother was instructed to confiscate. When he drew rainbow-coloured pictures of princesses, he was told to draw boys instead. Dr. Zucker warned Bradley’s mother that her son would be rejected by both male and female peer groups as he grew older if he wasn’t made to feel comfortable with his born biological gender.
The ultimate goal, both by Dr. Zucker and Bradley’s family, is obviously well-meaning: to help prevent the boy from becoming a societal outcast. The side effects, however, are that the individual is taught to fear his or her feelings, and that he or she must fight against what comes naturally, seemingly at the expense of that child’s happiness and to the benefit of everyone else’s comfort. Which then raises the question of what society finds more alarming—a kid who wishes to live quietly as the opposite gender, or 10-year-olds dishing out bloody street justice in a playground? Given the choice between the two, most parents would likely prefer their child to be the violent playground thug.
Meanwhile, Jonah was exhibiting many of the same interests as Bradley, finding much more interest in everything feminine, and self-identifying as a girl. Jonah’s family was just as torn as Bradley’s, daunted and terrified by their son’s behaviour, with no parenting frame of reference to tackle this challenge. Enter gender specialist Dr. Diana Ehrensaft, who has treated about sixty families with transkids and doesn’t see gender conflict as a negative dysfunction. Ehrensaft believes that if Jonah isn’t exhibiting anxiety or depression, there is currently no need for therapy, and that coercive treatment can be ineffective and counterproductive in the same way that she believes reparative therapy is damaging for homosexuals (the American Psychiatric Association, among other credible organizations, feels that conversion therapies for gay people are unethical, and that homosexuality is merely a variant of human behaviour, not a pathology).
Jonah is now known as Jona, and is referred to by her parents in the feminine pronoun. Her parents say she is comfortable, happy, and flourishing.
Ehrensaft also doesn’t take a transgender diagnosis lightly, saying that it must be done very, very carefully, but that intergendered children are sometimes a naturally-ocurring reality and exactly what that means is highly variable. Dr. Zucker disagrees, believing a child’s desire to live as the opposite biological sex to be akin to a Black child believing himself to be White—in other words, a treatable mental dysmorphia. With about eighty kids on the assessment waiting list for his Toronto clinic, Zucker obviously isn’t the only one who feels that gender conflict is a potentially curable disorder.
Unsurprisingly, Bradley’s therapy seems to be failing. When male toys were substituted for his Barbies and Polly Pockets, he chose not to play at all. According to his mother, he’s withdrawn and emotional, and finding it difficult to resist girls’ toys and especially the colour pink. Zucker’s view is that it could be even tougher for Bradley to live in society as the opposite gender than it might be for him to attempt to continue life as a male. Status quo, boy rules, girl rules.
Granted, nobody is claiming that life for an openly transgendered person is easy. Discrimination in the job market is rampant, and the transgendered are an easy target of mockery, spectacle, sexual fetish, and alienation, and are also frequent victims of violence. Yet, gender identity is so ingrained and important that transgendered people are often willing to accept this fallout in order to have parity between mind and body.
Many experts are now beginning to believe that allowing this identity to form early in a supportive environment could dodge much of the societal anxiety that comes with an intergendered identity. People like Zucker think it merely creates more transgendered people where there otherwise wouldn’t be as many, and because society doesn’t readily accept it, it’s a peg that therefore must be tamped down as soon as possible. This dangerous view also effectively normalizes the aforementioned schoolyard bullying, whilst demonizing gender-dissonant toys and innocent role play. If impulses can’t be smothered or denied, ostracism, mockery, and violence ultimately become part of the “treatment.”
A child exhibiting transgendered characteristics is obviously a tough challenge, and well-intentioned parents are torn between multiple ideologies and disparate research. In addition, parents might have an inconclusively defined understanding between which behaviour could indicate transgenderism and which is just the normal flux of a growing, curious mind.
The urge to protect one’s child from the challenges of society are strong, but so is the hope for that child’s happiness and positive self-esteem. As in the NPR broadcast, however, two different treatments have two different results: one is resulting in a thriving child and a redefined understanding for her family; the other fosters a withering boy who doesn’t want to be a boy, living a confused, tortured childhood. Which seems healthier?
Middle photos by Marc Lostracco; bottom photo by fffriendly.