Tuesday, June 06, 2006

See Tom Be Jane

The country's youngest transgender child is ready for school. But is school ready for her?

by Julia Reischel
The Village Voice
May 31st, 2006

It's a spring break morning, and by 11 a.m. at the Anderson home, chaos is erupting. School is out for the week, and the twin boys are throwing a ball inside the spacious, two-story house. Upstairs, the preteen daughter pretends not to hear her mother calling. Lauren Anderson, a tanned and well-dressed stay-at-home mom who seems incapable of sitting still, cajoles her offspring to behave as she waits for a babysitter to arrive.
Her youngest, Nicole, five, is frowning. Nicole's face is framed with delicate brown braids, and her fingernails are painted a rainbow of colors. She plans to go swimming with a friend at the community pool, but at the moment, she doesn't like the way her dress feels. She yanks the hot-pink halter-top over her head, telling her mother, "This is poking me. I want to change my dress."

Minutes later, she scampers back, now as naked as a jaybird except for her underwear. Without the dress, you can clearly see her penis, tucked carefully into her pink patterned panties.

Born a biological male whom the family named Nicholas, Nicole today dresses, acts, and lives like a girl. She's been insisting she's female since she could talk, say the Andersons, who asked that their real names not be used for this article. "He has always been attracted to the flowers, the bright colors, his Barbie dolls, and his beloved mermaids," Lauren says, using the male pronoun for her child. In fact, talking with Lauren, who fully supports Nicole's desire to live as a girl, it's clear that the family is still working out the grammar of how to refer to its youngest.

"As a young toddler, he wouldn't let me snap her onesies together because she wanted to wear a 'dwess' like his sister," Lauren says, mixing pronouns like he and her interchangeably.

Lauren admits that the family is feeling its way down a path very few families find themselves navigating. Although it's common for young boys to play with dolls or paint their nails—what parents classically refer to as "a phase"—it's much rarer for a child to so completely identify as the opposite sex. And what to do about it has been the subject of fierce debate for decades.

Nine years ago, a Belgian film, Ma Vie en Rose, explored the most common reaction to a young boy's decision to live as a girl. In other words, the parents panicked. So did the rest of the neighborhood, who shunned and ridiculed the boy's family until they felt compelled to move away. In real life, meanwhile, another famous case in 2000 ended even worse. When Zachary Lipscomb's parents attempted to enroll him as a girl named Aurora in an Ohio school at age six, a state child protection agency took the child away.

Some therapists insist that such children should be discouraged from living as the opposite sex because, they have found, the large majority of such children grow out of it. Studies show that many end up as gay adults. But a growing coalition of therapists, scientists, and activists disagree and refer to such children—even those as young as three years old—as transgendered, insisting that the child's new identification shouldn't be discouraged.

The Andersons are in the latter camp, encouraging Nicholas to be Nicole. Experts consulted by this reporter say the Andersons are the only family in the United States supporting a five-year-old's choice to live as the opposite sex. This fall, the Andersons plan to enroll Nicole in a Broward County, Florida, kindergarten class as a female. They are convinced that's the only way she'll be happy.

That decision has rallied much support for the family's side. There's attorney Karen Doering of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, for example, who represented Michael Kantaras, a female-to-male transsexual, in a widely publicized 2004 victorious custody battle in the Florida Supreme Court. Kantaras, who won joint custody of his two children when the court ruled that his parental rights were not nullified by his sex change, was the first transsexual parent to win such a high-profile victory. Doering is advising the Andersons as they wait to hear from school officials, who so far have given no indication of how they plan to prepare for Nicole's enrollment.

And that's where Nicole's story veers even further from the ordinary. Because trying to pressure school officials to address the Andersons' concerns is a person who could be either a big help or a big distraction.

Mark Angelo Cummings, a man who once was a woman, has become something of a Spanish-language television talk-show phenomenon. Cummings's outspoken appearances, which have wowed Latino TV hosts with stories of his transformation, are leading to a new openness about transsexuality in the Latino community. And Cummings plans to use his celebrity, such as it is, to promote Nicole's cause.

This fall, whether it's ready or not, the Broward School District will make some sort of history. Thanks to a showboating transsexual guardian angel and the little boy who insists he's a girl.


On a recent morning, it takes a lot of coaxing to tear Nicole away from watching The Ten Commandments to tell a reporter how she feels about being a "special girl."

"Do you know why you're a special girl?" her mother asks.

"Because... I have a girl brain in a boy body," Nicole says, lowering her usual penetrating voice to an almost inaudible sigh.

"What does that feel like? Does it feel good? Or is it hard?"

"Hard," Nicole says.

When her mother asks her if she's happy with the way she looks, she says no.

"What would you change about yourself?"

"Mm... my penis," Nicole murmurs.

"What would you do with it?" her mother asks.

"Um... cut it," Nicole replies, very softly.

"And what would you do with it then?" asks a surprised Lauren, who later says she's never before heard Nicole express dislike for her penis.

"I would hammer it," Nicole says.

"What?" Lauren says.

"Hammer it," Nicole insists more strongly.

Later, Lauren says she constantly feels as if she's flying by the seat of her pants. "There is no protocol," she says. "Nobody knows of anybody. No five-year-olds who go to school fully transitioned. There's no book called How to Raise Your Gender Variant Preschooler."

Nicole "carried like a girl" when Lauren was pregnant, but when Nicholas was born, he was definitely a baby boy.

"So we dressed him all boyish," Lauren says, as she fondly turns the pages of a fat baby album. There are pages and pages of little Nicholas—with his family smiling at his bris, dressed in a tiny football uniform, being hugged by his older siblings. Nicholas looks happy. But Lauren says his desire to be treated like a girl was constant.

"At first, I thought it was cute," she explains. "I don't have a problem putting nail polish on a little boy. I don't have a problem if my son plays with dolls. His older brothers went through a similar period of doll playing and asking for nail polish on their toes. There's no reason to say no to a phase. I never once said 'no.' A phase is a phase."

So baby Nicholas was allowed to wear high heels. To play with Little Mermaid and Barbie dolls. To grow his hair a little longer. But instead of being satisfied with these concessions, Nicholas always asked for more. One day, he asked for something his parents weren't expecting.

Lauren was sitting at her computer working when two-year-old Nicholas, who, like all the Anderson children, had a frank understanding of anatomy, came to her with a request: "I want the fairy princess to come and make my penis into a vagina," he said.

Lauren mentioned Nicholas' strange demand to his pediatrician at the child's three-year birthday checkup, expecting to be told that the behavior was part of the phase. "She got a concerned look on her face," she says. "This was not the reaction I was looking for." The Andersons were advised to look into Nicholas' desires with the help of a therapist.

Frightened, Lauren says she turned to her college copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and looked up something called "Gender Identity Disorder," the clinical term for transsexualism. It seemed to describe Nicole's behaviors exactly.

The Andersons called Marcia Schultz, a psychologist in Coral Springs. One session with Nicholas, who was then three, convinced Schultz that he had a form of GID.

"Nicholas is a transsexual who wants to be a woman," Schultz says.

Through Schultz, the Andersons met Heather Wright, a jovial and frank male-to-female transsexual with a hearty handshake who lives in Green Acres with her female partner and their three children. They took Nicholas to see her. Wright immediately noticed that little Nicholas seemed uncomfortable in his body.

"He was definitely very quiet," Wright remembers. "He definitely wasn't happy with having to wear the clothes he was wearing. One of the things he was upset about was he wanted to wear girl clothes. All he got away with was getting Little Mermaid flip-flops."

After meeting with Schultz and Wright, the Andersons began allowing Nicholas to act and dress like a girl in the safety of their home or in the anonymity of the grocery store or at Disney World. That summer, Nicholas' camp even allowed him to wear a girl's bathing suit. But at preschool, Nicholas remained a boy and seemed satisfied with relegating his girl time to afterschool hours. Until he turned five.

"Right at the age of five, it was like 'boom,' " Lauren says. "Since he hit five, he totally rebelled and refused to wear boy clothes. Every single day was a fight. By the end of the school year, she looked like a totally different child."

Today, Nicole gets to be all girl at home and is supposed to be "neutral" in public at her preschool, where many of her friends, all girls, call her "she." But every day, Nicole chips away at the vestiges of her boyhood.

"I try to do the neutral thing, and it doesn't work," Lauren says, "Slowly, every day, a new article of clothing will come out of the closet. And we end up looking like a girl."

Nicole has settled on a gender, but there's little else that's settled when it comes to Gender Identity Disorder. Even the name itself—that a child like Nicole has a "disorder"—is contested.

Until 1973, homosexuality was listed in the DSM as a mental disorder; then it was removed after intense debate in the psychiatric community. And many transsexuals believe GID should have been tossed out at the same time. For some, however, GID continues to be a useful diagnosis that helps determine whether a person is a good candidate for sex reassignment surgery.

Politics about transsexualism permeates any discussion of GID. The only long-range scientific study conducted by psychologists, harshly criticized by transsexual activists, shows that many boys diagnosed with GID as children grow up to be gay males and that only a few continue to identify as female. Studies by endocrinologists, on the other hand, have uncovered some biological similarities in the brains of transsexuals, a finding that suggests that transgenderism is not something one can merely "grow out of."

All of which means that there's little anyone can agree on when it comes to treating five-year-old boys who want to be girls.

"There are three basic types of attitudes about this," says Heino F.L. Meyer-Bahlburg, director of the Program of Developmental Psychoendocrinology at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. "There are people who are strictly anti-trans kids who always try to modify the behavior. There are people who are strongly supportive, who from the outset would strongly encourage a transgender identity. Then there are the people sitting on the fence."

Kenneth Zucker, a psychologist who has treated hundreds of young Gender Identity Disorder children at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health at the University of Toronto, is a well-known proponent of modifying behavior. He advises that children with GID undergo therapy to work through their hatred of their bodies before being accepted as transsexuals. His clinical research shows that he has an 80 to 90 percent success rate of steering young GID children away from living as trans adults. Gay and transsexual groups are harshly critical of Zucker, saying that his work encourages religious-right organizations that seek to "cure" gays of their homosexuality. But Zucker himself has taken pains to separate himself and his work from those organizations.

Told of the Andersons and their plans to enroll Nicole in school as a girl, Zucker says he's concerned that the Andersons have been swayed by an activist transsexual agenda and are ignoring the possibility that Nicole might simply be a troubled child. "Let's see if there are ways to try and help this child work this through," he says. "Instead, they're going to cement this in more and more." He says that what the Andersons are doing could be considered "some type of emotional neglect."

Meyer-Bahlburg is more ambivalent. "Force doesn't really work very well. On the other hand, I don't feel clear about strong encouragement in the transgender direction, because the vast majority of kids fall out of it," he says. When he treats GID boys, he advises his patients to beef up boyish activities and play with carefully selected male playmates.

The Andersons, however, side with experts who consider children like Nicole transsexuals. Lauren attended the annual Philadelphia Trans-health Conference this January, where gender-variant children was a main topic and the subject of panels such as one titled "How Young Is Too Young?" Most parents at the conference seemed to agree that it's never too early to support a child as a transsexual, even at age five.

"I would never want to force any person to be something they're not," says Tom Anderson, Nicole's father. "This is different from 'It's time to stop drinking chocolate milk from a baba' or taking away a blanket. This is the essence of the person."

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