Approaches to gender diversity in Western culture have had a chequered past. Gender-variant children have been institutionalised, subjected to aversion therapies and pressured into maintaining secrecy and conforming to society’s gendered expectations while also dealing with bullying and harassment at school. Gender-variant adults struggle with a lack of acceptance and live in fear of violence and discrimination while at the same time dealing with the legacy of their childhood. Parents of gender-variant children are forced to contend with societal bias and assumptions that allow their children to be marginalised. Moreover, they have scarce resources to help them manage their child’s welfare and deal with their concerns on a day-to-day basis.
The idea of gender variance confronts widely held assumptions that children born as male will act like ‘boys’ and children born as female will act like ‘girls’. This imposed binary perpetuates negativity towards people who express themselves with gendered variations in attire, behaviour or preferences. Despite the existence of cross-gender presentations and behaviour in every culture and throughout time, society still appears to be unaware that diversity in gender expression and sexual formation is a naturally occurring phenomenon.
Previous research on gender-variant children has largely been focussed on the etiology and treatments of gender identity disorder, investigating demographics, heritability, co-morbid conditions, gender development, and genetic and environmental influences. However, current research within the social sciences draws attention to a range of gender variance topics such as: the challenges and inequalities affecting children presenting with gender diversity; their victimisation; their social transitions; and professionals’ use of language in referring to gender variance. Research studies on the parents of gender-variant children have generally utilised parent-reports on gender identity questionnaires relating to their child. Recent studies have explored parents’ stories and mental health ratings of their child as well as their emotions and attitudes towards their child. Combined child and parent reports have focussed on therapeutic support procedures and outcomes for parents and families with gender-variant children. These studies contribute important information that aids in the diagnosis of gender identity disorder and work continues towards suitable approaches for the support of these children and their parents. However, much of the evidence provided thus far is anecdotal and interventions are based on little or no evidence. Anecdotal reports, although important contributions to understanding individual circumstances, tend to privilege certain viewpoints.
By establishing the needs of gender-variant children and their parents, this qualitative enquiry aims to contribute to research-based evidence and the development of supportive programs, training and policies. This study brings into the open forum some of the challenges that children with gender variance and their parents face, identifies ways in which the children and their parents are marginalised and explores how they cope. Evidence is provided so as to inform the practices, interventions and recommendations relied upon in supporting gender-variant children and their families.
This research was conducted through three Internet surveys which used open-ended questions to provide a rich source of thick description of personal experiences. These questions enabled a thematic and reflective analysis of data sourced from the experiences of parents raising a gender-variant child, the childhood experiences (retrospective) of transgender adults, and the views of professionals who work with the transgender community.
The results of this study indicate a severe lack of resources and access to professional help for gender-variant children and their parents. The needs of the children emerged as: the need to be heard and accepted by their parents without punishment; the need for information and peer contact; the need for personal gender expression; and the need for safety. The most common needs for parents were for information in the way of stories, research and guidelines as well as educational resources to prepare schools, professionals and local communities for providing trans-positive support for them and their child. Other identified needs of the parents addressed support from community, professionals, peers and governments.
The goals of this project include the promotion of trans-positive approaches, and awareness and education regarding bullying and ostracism of gender-variant children. Outcomes are suggested in the form of recommendations and training policies for professionals, governments, schools and parents. These suggestions aim to reduce the debilitating experiences and outcomes that gender-variant adolescents and adults have to endure.
This study of the needs of gender-variant children and their parents relies upon the voices of those in the community and fills a void in the current understanding and treatment of gender non-conforming children. The identification of these needs provides fundamental information for the development and application of resources and services that will foster positive mental health for gender-variant children during their formative years.