A secret to better transgender youth health
Janet was a Cleveland schoolteacher for decades. Now happily retired, she blogs about her rural life in Pennsylvania, quilt hearts, town council, surprise bear visits, and her three rescued barn cats. Given the transgender debate, she shares her stories.
Story #1: A self-portrait
I helped a first-grade boy with beginning reading in the late '90s. His parents told his teacher that he talked about wanting to be a girl. The teacher shared that with staff who worked with him so that we could support him if he needed us, but he didn't talk about his feelings at school.
For an art project, the art teacher traced each child’s full body outline, and the children colored their portraits with crayons. Afterward the classroom teacher wrote names on the portraits to hang them in the room.
She brought one to me. “Can you guess who this is?” I stared at a girl in a detailed frilly, pink dress. The child had taken great care and pride with that drawing. It was the little boy I was teaching to read, of course. The teacher rolled the portrait up, secured it with a rubber band, and said instead of hanging the portraits in the room this year, she would send all the portraits home.
Story #2: Missing body part
I worked with a girl in the early 2000s. Her foster mother told the teacher and me at a conference that the girl had asked when she would get her penis. The mother hadn’t thought much about it at first because all the other children in the home were boys, but the girl kept asking.
The foster mother realized there was more to the child’s question. She grew up with boys as her friends – dressing and acting like them. Children considered her a “tom boy.”
When the sixth-graders prepared to go to Williamsburg, the teacher asked me whether he should put her in a girls’ or boys’ motel room. I asked which bathroom she used at school. The classroom assistant answered the girls' room, so I advised putting her in a room with girls. The mother’s plan was to move if the child needed a transition so her new friends would only know her as him.
Janet said, “In those days, we accepted the children but protected them. Dark ages maybe…”
Today, doctors still have much to learn about transgender medicine. What we know: transgender is not a disorder. What’s very alarming is the extent of depression, anxiety, stress. Data showed eight in 10 transgender individuals contemplate suicide while four in 10 have attempted it.
An important predictor for mental health is the support and acceptance from family, schools, and peers. A University of Washington study showed among socially supported transgender children, their rate of depression was no higher than their peers'.
So color me optimistic. We can be the problem or the solution. It costs us nothing to call a child by their preferred pronoun. Even if we don’t consistently get it right, let's show them that we care and try.