Gender variance and society

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Our society considers gender variance only on the basis of the natural assumption that gender is either male and female. This has two important consequences: on  one hand, it implies that there must always be a correspondence between the biological sex, the gender felt and its expression; on the other hand, that there is only one correct way to be male or female and that any experience that deviates from the norm must be “realigned”. It is thought, for example, that, by nature,  girls are sweeter, more empathetic, quieter and more thoughtful, while  boys on the contrary are more into physical contact, sports and are naturally  more lively, reckless  and even aggressive. In reality, these associations are not natural and depend more on the interpretation that in a certain historical moment a given society makes of the concept of masculine and feminine. The definition of what is appropriate for males and females varies depending on the historical period and the cultural context we refer to and is often established based on what is to be considered normal and what should be considered a deviation (or disease). In some social groups, people who do not identify with their biological sex, such as for the Two Spirits among the Native Americans. Such people are not only recognised but have some privileges.

Western society, on the contrary, is extremely structured on a binarism that reduces the human being  to a series of oppositions forgetting the fact that each person is always much more complex. This can be clearly seen in the interpretation of the meanings that are attributed to gender: our society recognizes only two categories, male and female, and establishes well-differentiated rules of behavior for each of them. It is a very rigid system, with well-defined rules, constantly indicating  what are the limits that cannot and must not be exceeded in order not to end up socially isolated. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the requests for the intervention of a specialist, in prepubertal age, are greater for children who were assigned male  at birth, compared to those assigned  female. Our society becomes even more severe when people’s masculinity – and the values ​​it represents – is called into question.

Being aware that the ‘problem’ lies in the society in which we live and not in our gender variant children should be  the starting point for every parent. Such deconstruction is neither simple nor immediate, because we have always been told  that a person can only be male or female on the basis of their genital organs observed at birth. However, reality is more complex: the same biology informs us that, even with regard to sexual characteristics, there are not only two categories defined and opposite to each other, but a multiplicity of congenital variations within the sex spectrum (anatomical variations, chromosomal , gonadal, and/or hormonal), which concern the so-called intersex people. To refrain all these differences and to homologate them according to binary  criteria (male / female, normal / pathological), not only prevents us from  describing  the reality in which we live, but it is a real violence toward those who, for one reason or another, do not feel represented by these two categories.

The OTHERS

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One of the greatest issues that parents face, once having a gender variant child is accepted by them, is to constantly be accountable to others for their child’s behaviour and of his / her choices as a parent. This can also occur within the same family, where it may happen that not all members agree on how to handle the situation.

Even between the mother and the father there might be great differences about how to handle the situation. This creates conflictual situations for both. It is important to try to smooth these misunderstandings and that both parents understand that the well-being of a gender-variant child depends largely on the acceptance and support of those close to him. If necessary, it could be useful  to ask for the help of an expert ho could provide some mediation between the parts.

Particular attention should also be paid to the brothers and sisters of gender-variant children who may sometimes experience embarrassment or disapproval toward their sibling. It is important that parents, while respecting their feelings, demand a little effort to try to understand the experience of their gender variant brother or sister  and how important it is for everyone to accept it.

Gender variance alone is not a sufficient reason for asking the advice of a specialist. Very often  gender-variant children live their gender at ease with themselves and, despite being aware that the rules of society do not agree with their behavior, they are not interested in modifying it.

As parents, however, it is necessary and advisable to continuously watch their behaviour to immediately identify any discomfort and sufferings.  In this case, it is advisable to seek the help of a specialist who is not only prepared to deal with children, but also demonstrates that he knows very well what being gender variant means.  The search for a professional in this sense is not easy, but it is really worth spending some time. It is important to ensure that the specialist does not consider gender variance the real problem and that his/her main goal is not to change the behaviour of the child, but to help him / her  overcome the difficulties that may arise from the lack of social acceptance.

As for the parents, the experience of raising a gender variant child might, especially at the beginning, feels truly devastating: feelings of guilt, fear, anxiety, confusion, anger and pain are the  most common. Trying to repress them or not take them into account is not the solution. Instead, it is advisable to contact other parents who are experiencing the same issue.  In addition, it may be useful to contact a specialist, able to provide useful information regarding gender variance in childhood and to offer support.

 

At school

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A gender variant child in a school is not always easy to manage for teachers and the people who work there. There are several reasons why this happens: the lack of information about it, the inability to manage it in a positive  way and the moral prejudices of the professionals involved. It may therefore happen that the behaviour of such children who break  gender norms and stereotypes is interpreted as being unrespectful of school’s rules or as a behavioral problem of the child, or as something that has to be  contained as much as possible. This creates conflicts and problems that might contribute to the child’s unhappiness forcing him /her sometimes even to leave school.

In reality, gender variance should be a great opportunity to re-think and to undertake diversity-related activities that will benefit not only the gender variant child, but all students and the educational institution as a whole. Dealing with extracurricular issues such as gender, ethnicity, sexuality, functional capacity etc. provide the new generations with an inclusive culture that not only makes the school    safer for everyone, but also facilitates relationships with classmates and the bond with teachers, transforming the atmosphere of the educational center in its entirety.

As parents, it is important to try to keep a open, honest and fluid communication with your children’s teachers  in order to create a sort of continuity between the child’s experience at home and at school. If the teacher is not particularly willing to accept the way the child expresses his/her  gender,  it will be useful to search within that same school someone (teacher, principal, coordinator, etc.) that demonstrates a greater sensitivity and a better understanding. Collaboration between parents and teachers is at the basis of the child’s happiness that allows him/her to feel comfortable and accepted  for who they are.

Social Transition

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One of the most controversial aspects of the scientific debate on gender variance and also one of the most difficult choices for parents of gender variant children concerns the so-called social transition. Choosing to allow the children to make a social transition means opting for a change that concerns the way he / she is perceived  by others, in terms of gender, outside the family environment. Changing the name, choosing to use different pronouns, dressing or, in general, presenting himself/herself to others according to the gender the child feels to belong to – and therefore no longer according to the one assigned at birth – are the more common aspects that define “social transition”. It must be said that this is an absolutely reversible change and that, in the prepuberal phase, it has no medical implication.

Nevertheless, this choice is one of the things that worries  parents  the most because they often keep thinking it might just be a phase and a social transition might harm  their children. Still it is very important to embrace the child for who he/she is no matter what the future will be. Even today it is not possible to establish, even for specialists, which children will continue to persist with identification in the opposite gender and which will identify themselves as cisgender (ie non-trans).

The key role of the family

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One of the main points that emerges from the numerous researches made in recent years is the importance of the role of parents of  gender variant children   for their psycho-physical health and their well-being. In fact, several international studies show that those children who have been able to count on the support and acceptance of their families from an early age show higher levels of self-esteem and well-being than those who have not been supported.

But how can a parent support their gender variant child?

Raising a gender variant child is generally committing experience to overcome the prejudices everybody has when gender is concerned. At first most parents find it very difficult  to manage both on an emotional and practical level.

Becoming aware of the gender variance of your child is not a very simple process and can take quite a long time, sometimes even a few years. The information available is little and the concepts of gender, identity, expression, sex and sexual orientation are not so easily understood. Health professionals, who often did not receive specific training in the field of gender, when asked by  parents, tend to reassure them by claiming that this is only a temporary phase they do not need   to pay attention to. Though it is true that gender expression might realign to the biological sex, it is important to remind parents that yes, there are children who do identify with the opposite gender (or with no gender or with both genders) and that this  can continue also in adolescence and in adulthood.

Therefore, the first precaution that parents must follow, perhaps the most important one, is to listen to and consider the requests of their child giving it the right importance and not considering it a sign of a rebel child. It is not in any way and it would therefore be a mistake to try and correct or change their behavior at all costs. Firstly, because it would be a useless  effort: gender identity is the way we perceive ourselves as males, females (or others) and this sense of belonging to a group is something intimate and profound, that a simple scolding won’t change. Secondly, showing them our disapproval and encouraging a gender expression  that does not correspond to the one desired by the child will end up in our child thinking that what he/she is doing is wrong, internalizing a sense of guilt.

Often parents, with the good intention of protecting their  children, decide to allow them to behave freely inside the house, but forbidding  the same behavior outside. The bargaining of the limits that define where and to what extent it is legal (and safe) to allow the child to break social rules is a natural phase of acceptance of gender variance by the parent, justified by the good intention of wanting to protect them. However, if it is prolonged, the child may feel that something is wrong with him / her, that there is something to be ashamed of (since it is something that embarrasses his parents), generating a sense of guilt and insecurity that should instead be prevented.

It is very important, therefore, that parents affirm and reinforce the desires of their children, educating them that being different is  a positive value,  regardless of what others may think. Increasing self-esteem and resilience in children is the most effective way to guarantee well-being and a peaceful future.

This does not mean denying the difficulties that can arise from relationships with others. The society in which we live is unfortunately still transphobic and it is therefore important to explain to the child that certain behaviors are not always easily understood by all  and that some people might disagree with their choice to freely express the gender they feel. In doing so, it is important to stress that the problem  does not belong to  him / her nor in his/her way of being, but in those people who do not accept his/her diversity. Only the child can feel and decide who to be and in what way. Parents can only support and walk along their children  on this journey.

Gender variance. What does it mean?

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Gender variance  in childhood is the most widely used expression to indicate the experience of those who do not feel comfortable in the gender assigned socially at birth on the basis of their genital organs, or who do not conform with the social rules usually appropriate to their biological sex. They are children  who live their gender differently than in social norms, expressing  behaviors considered most appropriate for the opposite gender. To give some examples,  gender variant children (or transgender, trans , gender-creative, -expansive, -independent, -fluid, etc.) are  those boys who, from an early age,  prefer toys and clothes considered more suitable for little girls, like dolls, tricks, skirts, crowns, glitter etc. Or those little girls who identify themselves, for example, with superheroes, and prefer activities and games generally performed by males and who refuse to dress with items considered typically feminine.

For some of these children  variance concerns only their gender  expression, that is the way in which one expresses  feelings through  behaviors and preferences that are considered appropriate for one gender and not for another. For many, on the other hand, however, gender identity  is a little more complex and concerns the intimate process that allows us to identify ourselves with the socially available categories of the gender. Some  gender variant children can identify themselves, with more or less persistence, with the opposite gender , as well as with neither gender, others still with both genders, in a stable or fluid way.

This situation can often generate concern and a real suffering for parents who, in the absence of information or people who can offer support, end up living this experience alone, continuously asking themselves where they went wrong. But it should be made clear that gender variance is not caused by an error in the way parents have raised their children or by an excessively permissive behavior, and it is rarely associated with a traumatic event. In most cases, the behaviors of these children are to be considered simply as the natural expression of human diversity, which should therefore be accepted as a resource and not as a problem.