Gender and Schooling

Ending bullying and harassment, and promoting sexual diversity in schools.

“I Am a Parent of a Gender-Nonconforming Son”

Five tips I shared with an old friend

I got a Facebook message yesterday from an old friend. She has adopted two boys and one of them is gender-nonconforming. Having read the content of my Facebook feed, she decided to reach out to me for some support. Here is the slightly edited text of our Facebook chat:

Friend: I'm struggling through trying to raise my "non-gender conforming" son without scarring him for life by doing the wrong thing. I would love a book, article, or other recommendation of how to deal with preparing or strengthening them against being teased. I want him to be him, wear what he wants, etc. but I often find myself not wanting him to take something to school that could get him teased relentlessly but that seems like the wrong message too. He loves Hello Kitty, pearl jewelry, etc. I want him to always feel he was loved and accepted by me for who he is. He also had a few bad foster placements that told him negative things about what he likes, so I'm trying to undo all that at the same time. Any suggestions of where to look for help?

Cover of book: Gender born, Gender made
ME: It's so good to hear from you & bless you for affirming your child. First book to get is: Gender Born, Gender Made by Diane Ehrensaft. Great resource. I also have a book I co-edited with a colleague coming out in a few months with chapters by parents, researchers, social workers & educators called Supporting Transgender and Gender Creative Youth: Schools, Families, and Communities in Action (Peter Lang).

How old is he? There are some great affirming children's books like: My Princess Boy, 10,000 Dresses & Pink! (About a penguin who wakes up pink). On a related note, my cousin Molly Bang wrote a wonderful children's book about adoption called Goose. I hope this is helpful -- the most important thing is to do what you are doing: love & accept him for who he is & listen to what he tells you. Let me know if you have other questions or need support! Schools can be brutal, which is why I chose gender as my area of interest in bullying research.

Friend: Thank you for your help. He is about to turn 10 next month, but is developmentally about 2 years behind. I will look for those books. I feel like such a hypocrite when I say he can't have a “Hello Kitty” backpack that is meant for school because of teasing. Now it's more "you might get teased, it's only words but you will be ok with that". 

school cartoon: line up by gender - what if you just identify as awesome?

ME:
Many parents experience that same struggle, but it is the school’s job to keep him safe and support him as he is. If he wants Hello Kitty & he gets bullied for it, then the teachers & principal will need a friendly meeting to discuss gender bullying & Title IX. Let me know if it ever comes to that... I really hope it doesn't, but schools vary hugely in their openness to all forms of diversity.

We are launching a website soon: gendercreativekids.ca full of resources. Check it out!

[end of chat]

So, in summary, here are five suggestions for families with gender-nonconforming kids:

  1. Create an affirming home: Ensure you have established a supportive and affirming home environment. You can’t protect your child from everything, but the buffer provided by a loving and supportive family who accepts their children exactly as they are is the absolute best thing you can offer your children. (Research bears this out. See recent studies published by the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University & TransPulse)
  2. Educate yourself: Read Diane Ehrensaft’s Gender Born, Gender Made , an accessible and powerful resource for families with children whose gender identity and expression is not what you expect. What she calls “gender creative”.
  3. Educate your family: Find children’s books that model and affirm gender diversity and read them with your children and donate them to your child’s classroom library. Titles such as:
    1. My Princess Boy
    2. The Sissy Duckling 
    3. 10,000 Dresses 
    4. Are you a boy or a girl? 
    5. The Different Dragon 
    6. Pink!  
    7. The Paperbag Princess 
  4. Connect with groups online: Visit some websites of excellent organizations providing useful resources for families, schools, and their communities:
    1. Gender Spectrum 
    2. Gender Creative Kids 
    3. Gender Odyssey
    4. Welcoming Schools
    5. GLSEN’s Transgender Student Rights project
    6. P-FLAG 
  5. Work with your child’s school: Don’t hesitate to meet with your child’s school to ensure their safety. It is not your job to monitor your child’s behavior to reduce chances of bullying; it is the school’s job to keep all children safe. Contact me if you are experiencing difficulties with your school. I can help you put together some documents that will gently, yet clearly remind/inform them that Title IX grants explicit protections from gender-based harassment in any federally funded educational institution.

image of androgynous person asked
For parents with gender-nonconforming kids: what's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

For individuals who are/were gender-nonconforming youth: what do you wish your parents/caregivers had done for you?

Elizabeth Meyer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California.

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