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What parents can learn from Charlize Theron and Zoe Saldana about handling their child’s gender and sexuality

meaww with Tiffany Muller Myrdahl 03 May 2019

Last year, after a then-13-year-old wanted to proceed with hormone therapy to help transition from a female body to a male body, the father opposed the treatment. The child in question had, with the support of his mother and a health professional, decided to go for hormone therapy. However, the father, who shares joint custody with the child’s mother did not want to transition to happen.

In February this year, the boy, who is in grade nine, sought an order from the court knowing that it was in his best interests to undergo treatment from gender dysphoria, adding that he had the capacity to consent to such treatment. Citing the boy’s risk to suicide, British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Gregory Bowden granted the request concluding that there shouldn’t be any delays. He also declared that any attempts to persuade the boy to abandon treatment, addressing the boy by his birth name or referring to the boy as a girl or with female pronouns “shall be considered to be family violence”.

But the father wasn’t one to back down. In multiple interviews (both before and after Bowden’s ruling) with conservative news portals, the father continued to refer to his child as female, openly discussed the child’s personal information and reiterated his opposition to hormone therapy. At one point, the father said he hoped that Fox News and Breitbart, a conservative website known for its far-right conspiracy theories, would cover the story.

This is one of the many stories we hear and see on the news — perhaps even know some of these instances in real life. Gender and sexuality are much more complex than what we were taught.

Some understand this. Like Charlize Theron, who is raising her child as a girl, after the child had said a while ago that he does not identify as a boy. At the same time, Zoe Saldana and her husband Marco Perego are raising their sons in a gender-neutral manner so they don’t abide by gender/sex-based stereotypes. Even singer Pink is raising her daughter in a “label-less” household.

It goes without saying that it is critical for children to have the support of the people who are closest to them. When someone is dealing with gender and/or sexuality issues, the world is already their enemy. And when parents refuse to understand, let alone support, it becomes especially difficult for the child.

Tiffany Muller Myrdahl is an urbanist and feminist geographer at the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. She specializes in equity and inclusion, as well as uses policy analysis and collaborative research with women and LGBTQ people to examine urban change. According to Tiffany, the first step is the most important one: believe in the child.

“A child has their own capacity to understand how they feel about their gender and sexuality. They’re understanding of gender and while they won’t use exact terminology, the child knows how to define themselves and parents should just listen to that,” she says.

Drawing from personal experience, she tells us how parental support is instrumental. “My four-and-a-half-year-old is friends with a child a year older, who identifies as a girl. “The parents are, as far as I can tell, one thousand percent supportive. They even spoke to the school, with other parents and the after-school care as well — all in order to educate and create awareness,” she says.

Parents should also be aware of inter-personal relationship within the household that could also play a role in how the child feels. “Say the child has an older sibling, it is important to talk to the sibling, sibling’s friends and teacher as well,” she says. But it all begins with “believing that the child can make that decision for themselves and it needs to be respected.”

Ryan J. Watson, PhD., is an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Connecticut. He has used both population-based and non-probability data sets from the U.S., Norway, and Canada to examine how social support — friends, teachers, and parents — may attenuate the impact of risk factors such as victimization, homophobia, and stigma.

In his paper titled ‘Disordered Eating Behaviors Among Transgender Youth: Probability Profiles from Risk and Protective Factors’, he examines “the relationship between disordered eating and risk and protective factors for transgender youth”. The study concluded that there was a high prevalence of eating disorders linked to stigma and violence exposure. Transgender youth aged 14-18 years with zero protective factors have a 71.2% chance of binge eating. The scale drops for those with support from parents to 52.8%.

“Among 19–25-year-olds, those with higher levels of enacted stigma and lower levels of social support had the greatest probabilities of engaging in disordered eating behaviors,” the paper found out.

Tiffany says that parents need to see beyond their authority and recognize the identity their children say they belong to. “I like to believe that parents are thinking in the best of their child’s interests, but don’t always see their [the child’s] agency over their authority.”

The child knows, reiterates Watson. “The child has been thinking about this, hiding it — or even struggling with this very issue for perhaps years — so they are very sure when they approach parents,” he says. And parents can only help by believing and understanding. Parents can only help their children to have a healthy, positive sense of themselves in relation to their gender.