Monday, October 25, 2010

Let's Make Sure All Kids Know It Gets Better

When I called the house on Friday night, to say I'd be home soon, my eleven year-old son sounded a little upset when he replied " I have some news for you".  Knowing his flair for the dramatic, I didn't panic.  "What's that?" I casually asked.  "Squirt isn't a boy." he replied.  Squirt is the rabbit that our animal-loving neighbor had bought Cameron for his birthday almost three months ago.  Squirt was just a tiny baby bunny when he-I mean she- first came to live with us.  Now he-I mean she- is bigger than the smallest breed of dog.  Apparently the reason the nearly invisible testicles were hard to see back in August is because they weren't actually there.  Squirt, now known as Trixie, was a girl all along.

This story resonated as we've had other experiences with gender issues. When our oldest son insisted that a Barbie was all he wanted for his third birthday, we got one for him, along with a fire engine and a kiddie basketball hoop. At age four, we struggled to find a boy's Halloween costume that he would wear.  When he was five and a half, and wished out loud that he were a girl, I found a therapist who specialized in "gender identity disorder".  I wouldn't have recognized the term reparative therapy back then, but I'm guessing that is what was really going on.

It wasn't easy to parent a gender non-conforming child, and I know damn well it wasn't easy to be one.  Now I believe the best therapy for kids like mine is therapy for those individuals who make their childhood hell.

When our fifth child, at the age of two, showed signs of taking after his brother, I was a lot better educated, but just as anxious as I'd been six years before.  That doesn't mean that I tried to change him, but his first therapist did.  No wonder he began to shut down.  Can you imagine getting the message that something is wrong with you not just at school, but from a doctor as well? We tried desperately to understand him, and to help him to understand himself. It's confusing to be a boy who thinks like a girl.  No wonder both my older and younger sons wished they were girls; girls don't get taunted for playing with dolls, loving princesses, or having long hair.

Three years ago our newer therapist gently broached the possibility of transgenderism.  The word is so rarely used, that my computer has underlined it, indicating that it doesn't exist.  Funny, the notion that a person's brain and body could possibly not match up in terms of gender identity is novel, and to many people, impossible.  Before I began educating myself on the topic, I was pretty ignorant, too.

The fact is,  the same way that other things can go wrong during fetal development, so can gender identity.  When some kids announce they were born in the wrong body, they're right.  What a terribly difficult thing to grapple with, especially in a society as sexually and psychologically stilted as ours.

After joining a listserv for parents of gender non-conforming children, I was horrified by some of the stories of I heard.  Children being threatened, pets being murdered, families being stalked.  No wonder my child was guarded and reticent to leave the house.  He already knew what the world thought of people who were different.

My oldest son told us he was gay at age 15.  Fortunately for him, and for so many other GLBT teens, he attended a high school where, for the most part, it was safe to be out.  It wasn't until recently I heard about some of the bullying he'd experienced in middle school.  But I guessed that bullying would be a problem for his younger brother at that same private school and pulled him out after second grade.  At his new school, he wasn't bullied, but he wasn't included either. What's worse: being left alone or being left alone?

When I talk to GLBT adults, I hear more childhood stories of isolation than I do of bullying.  Most of them survived those hard, lonely years and emerged into happy adulthoods where they have found welcoming gay-friendly communities. For gender non-conforming children and teens today, however, bullying seems to have trumped isolation as the biggest issue and because of it, more and more of them aren't ever making it to adulthood.  Whether driven to suicidal desperation or victims of homicidal homophobia, bullying is the common theme in a rash of  GLBT deaths over the past decade.

What can be done to stop this tragic trend?  Two things.  Address the bullies. We should insist that all  public schools provide a program such as Challenge Day to all students in 6th grade and up.  Read more about how this powerful program has changed lives in Denver.  Address the bullied. Let's follow the lead of writer Dan Savage, creator of the It Gets Better Project and make sure we tell desperate kids that the future is brighter.

Yesterday my daughter's best friend, Zach, came up with his own spin on the  It Gets Better Project. He filmed a public service announcement featuring nearly fifty members of the Denver theatre community to get the word out that gay is okay. I hope it gets lots of attention.  The more we can make the topic safe, the more people will talk about the topic.  The more that they talk, the more they will teach, and learn.

Many people have expressed shock and, occasionally admiration, when they hear that our oldest son felt safe enough to come out to us at 15.  Mostly, I think people are surprised that we talk about him so openly.  I hope and believe the thousands of videos that have been made for the It Gets Better Project will bring hope to LGBT or questioning teens; I also hope and believe that sharing my story will bring hope and education to their parents.

As he approaches puberty, it seems that our youngest son is more likely to be gay than transgender. But no matter what his adulthood turns out to be, having watched his brother, and witnessing our whole family's support of him and other members of the GLBT community, he now knows it does get better and that the rest of his life stretches out before him...with open arms. I pledge to try my best to make sure that other kids like him know this too. I hope you will join me.


  1. Well done, Gretchen. I know of no other parent like you ( I also know of no other parents with the same wide array of children!), and I respect the hell out of you. Your kids are turning into the wonderful adults they're becoming with their parents' love and guidance.

    As for bullying and taunting of GLBT kids, I just don't get it. What about our culture is teaching that that is ok? TV? I don't think so. Music? I don't think so either. But I do think about an NPR piece I heard last year, citing the increase in domestic and other violence during hard economic times. Unless GLBT bullying just wasn't on the radar 2 and 3 years ago, I'd say that families' financial frustrations may be brought to school and the community through it kids, who don't know any other way to express themselves. Then again, it could be that the issue has been in the dark for way too long, and with this heartbreaking rash of violence, it is now making its way to the light.

  2. One of the actors who participated in Zach's video project, said that it was safer back when gay people stayed quiet. While it's true that domestic abuse sky-rockets during economic downturns, I believe that the rash of anti-gay hate crimes is much like increased attacks on African-Americans during the civil rights movement. Unless brave individuals in the spirit of MLK and Harvey Milk stand up and say ENOUGH, fear of "the other" will keep raising its nasty little head and fist. (