Parents and schools are seeing increasing numbers of children, some as young as kindergartners, who are challenging the gender into which they were born.
Every few weeks, Aidan Key might get a call: a little boy in school is dressing as a girl — in frilly tops or pink skirts. A girl in first-grade will be returning from a holiday break as a boy.
Public- and private-school administrators and the parents of these kids want guidance navigating such sensitive terrain; they want to help children become comfortable calling a classmate by a new name, or know how and when to refer to another student as he or she.
There was a time when these calls were almost exclusively about middle- and high-school kids. But increasingly they involve children as young as kindergartners — 5- and 6-year-olds who don’t believe their bodies match who they feel they are inside.
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Key turns to a simple — but familiar — narrative: “When I was your age,” he tells them, “I was a girl.
“Everybody saw me as a girl and I looked like a girl. But inside that’s not how I felt. I felt I was a boy, so when I got older I worked with a doctor. We call that being transgender.”
Lisa Love, health-education specialist with Seattle Public Schools, said the district is seeing more children in elementary schools struggling with gender identity.
And over the last decade or so, the parents of a growing number of these kids have sought guidance from Seattle Children’s hospital, the associate director of psychiatry there said.
Experts say young children have always had these feelings, but only in recent years as society has become more accepting of gender differences have they felt more free to express them.
“A lot of my adult clients had these feelings when they were quite young,” said Jana Ekdahl, a Seattle psychotherapist who works with many transgender people.
“But 20, 30, 40 years ago, you didn’t know why you were feeling that way, but you knew it was wrong to say anything. You just knew it.”
So many parents have been seeking answers and guidance that four years ago Key began a monthly support group at Children’s that now draws some 50 families.
At the same time, he expanded a conference he’d started in 2001 for transgender people to include a concurrent conference for families.
The Gender Odyssey/Family conferences are scheduled for Friday through Aug. 7 at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle. Several hundred people from across the country are expected to attend the series of workshops, panels and seminars.
A complicated journey
Aidan Key, who lives with his wife in Bellingham, is not a therapist, nor does he hold a degree in psychology or psychiatry.
As a gender specialist, he is a practical resource on gender issues for teachers, doctors and administrators and for families trying to understand what their children are going through.
His expertise is based on a 47-year journey of self-discovery that began with a little girl named Bonnie Bowers.
Born in Michigan to a single mom, Bonnie had an identical twin sister, Brenda, and the girls were best friends — still are.
Bonnie hated most of the things Brenda loved — sparkly, girly things; dressing up.
A tomboy, she made a fuss on the rare occasions, such as Easter, when their mother made her wear a dress.
In the eighth grade, Bonnie found it icky when Brenda became a giggly mess over boys. By high school, Bonnie was feeling a distance from Brenda and their mother that even now is tough to explain.
“I didn’t know why I felt so different and nobody seemed to understand why or even notice,” Key said, noting that back then, there were few role models for young people with such feelings.
“Today kids can plug in … They’ve heard the word transgender, they’ve seen a character on a TV show or in the movies. They know more that the possibility exists.”
At 19, Bonnie came out as a lesbian, thinking she’d finally figured it out. Living in Seattle at the time, she found a close-knit community of lesbians, fell in love and later, with her partner, had a daughter. As the nonbiological mother, she adopted the child.
Yet, inside, she remained unfulfilled.
In her early 30s, after struggling with intimacy and deep self-questioning, she began a complicated journey to become Aidan Key.
She began attending support-group meetings to try to understand what lay ahead. She underwent a mastectomy — though not genital reassignment — and began testosterone treatment. The transformation from she to he launched Key into a life of activism.
He launched the national conference for transgender people and, later, the one for families. Along with his sister, he appeared on “Larry King Live” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to share his story.
Seeing a growing need, Key approached Children’s around 2007 to start a support group similar to one at a hospital in Oakland, Calif.
Elizabeth McCauley, associate director of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Seattle Children’s, said the hospital has many other support groups, so one for gender variant and transgender children and their parents made sense.
There are two primary ages, she said, where parents might first notice opposite-gender preferences in their children: preschool and early adolescence.
The hospital does assessment and consultation around gender identity for children at all grade levels.
Fifteen years ago, she said, parents sought help to rid their children of gender-variant behavior. Now, they are more likely to ask for help supporting their children’s choices.
“It’s been my experience that parents are a lot more accepting than they were in the past,” McCauley said.
“In my opinion, however, the first step should be to try to help that child feel more comfortable being in the biological sex they were born into.”
Over the years, there have been only a few long-term studies for such kids, and the numbers studied were small.
Outcomes have varied, showing between 20 and 30 percent of children who display persistent cross-gender preferences grow up to be transgender adults.
In cases where opposite-gender preferences persist, McCauley said, the children she works with may benefit from additional help — from mental-health treatment to the use of puberty-blocking hormones.
Key said he often refers families of children who appear to need deeper professional help to those trained to provide it. He said he’s been contacted by parents of children as young as 2 ½.
They’ll tell him, “We’re seeing signs and want to be prepared. I tell them: ‘Have a good time with your child and simply love and support them for who they are.’ “
“Redirection” to acceptance
Cheryl Kilodavis’ younger son, Dyson, was not quite 3 when he began exhibiting a preference for female things — putting on her tank tops or using her T-shirts to make little dresses.
While her husband wasn’t particularly troubled by their son’s actions, she was and began what she calls “soft redirection”: offering to buy the pink soccer ball instead of the dress and jewelry.
Kilodavis, who lives in Seattle with her family, said a lot of the concerns she had centered on image — what others would think, particularly members of her African-American family. And, “a lot of it was the mama-bear mentality,” Kilodavis said. “You don’t want your child to be teased.”
Her outlook changed in a moment two years ago when she took her two boys shopping for Halloween costumes. Her older son selected a Ninja outfit, while Dyson made a beeline for the girl’s section to search for a princess dress.
When she objected, his increasingly loud protestations drew attention, until her older son, tugging at her arm, admonished: “Mom, why don’t you just let him be happy?”
Kilodavis wrote about her family’s experience in a book, “My Princess Boy.” She runs a website of the same name and has started a series of “acceptance” groups nationwide. She has told her story many times on television, including the “Today” show, and will be a presenter at the gender family conference in Seattle.
Fostering safe environments
Key said his presentations to schools often grow out of his work with the support group at the hospital, with parents asking him to visit their child’s school to talk not just to schoolmates but to administrators.
Love, the go-to person on sexual orientation and gender issues for Seattle schools, said she, too, has turned to Key for help with staff training and consultation on some transgender issues.
Schools, she said, have an obligation to foster a climate in which every child feels safe.
“We are lucky to have such a resource-rich community and access to someone like Aidan, with his knowledge and skills.”
How kids react to Key’s visits depends on their age. While those in higher grades tend to be more guarded with their views surrounding gender, kindergartners tend to be open and uninhibited.
The discussions revolve around gender roles and how the rules are not always hard and fast.
“What is something that only boys do?” Key would ask the kindergartners.
Two boys responded: “Play soccer.” “Blow things up.”
Then a girl spoke up: “I like to blow things up.”
Key recalls one class where a student offered: “My cousin paints his fingernails,” and another who added, “My dad sometimes likes to wear my mom’s clothes.”
And so it goes.
Key said, “I simply want the conversation to be easy and nonjudgmental.”
Seattle Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org