When people claim their goal in life is to make the world a better place for children, it typically comes off as a painful cliché. But when Stephanie Brill says it, you believe her.
The Orinda mother of four isn’t dedicated to reversing global warming or raising awareness of Darfur’s plight. She merely wants to help people understand gender. In particular, to help parents and educators realize that kids don’t automatically identify as the gender their chromosomes dictate. And that if your son adores dresses or your daughter considers herself more “boy” than “tomboy,” that’s okay. Or at least it should be.
That’s also the essential mission of Gender Spectrum Education and Training (GenderSpectrum.org), the Orinda pending nonprofit Brill cofounded and directs. In some ways, it’s a natural extension of Maia Midwifery & Preconception Services, Brill’s longtime practice catering primarily to queer couples. Through Maia, she helps clients understand that conceiving a child does not require a traditional partnership. And through Gender Spectrum, she spreads the gospel that being a child does not require being traditionally male or female: “If we were just to honor each child and each person as, hmm … who are you? What are you interested in? How do you like to play? What colors do you like? What kind of clothes do you like? How do you like to wear your hair?” she says.
For several years Brill has led a monthly support group for parents of crossgendered and gender-variant children. She prefers these terms to “transgendered,” which, she points out, can carry a negative — and very adult — connotation. Crossgendered, Brill explains, are kids who are anatomically one gender but identify exclusively as the other. The terms “gender variant” or “gender nonconforming” describe children who identify according to their anatomy but express themselves in nonmainstream ways.
“If it were actually an open slate, you know, we’d find lots of anatomically male people with long hair and jewelry and dresses,” Brill says. And, she adds, far fewer self-esteem and other mental-health issues: “Most of us are a blend when you look at it. We need to honor all parts of the spectrum, not just accept transgendered kids and ‘normal’ kids.”
Take her tree-climbing four-year-old son. Though he’s not crossgendered, she explains, “he deserves to be respected for who he says he is. He needs to be able to wear orange and purple and have long hair! What are we afraid of losing? What is so threatening, you know, to allow people to be themselves?”
It’s a question many parents are asking. Two years ago, Pam and Joel began attending Brill’s group, which meets at Children’s Hospital in Oakland. At the time, the East Bay couple, who asked that their last names be omitted to ensure their child’s privacy, were hunting for a school to send their daughter Jona, who began life as a “he.” Jona was three years old when she began asserting a female identity. She begged for dresses, gave her stuffed animals female names, and refused to let her parents cut her hair. Though Pam and Joel had always been progressive, they didn’t immediately jump on board.
“I’d have people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I thought you had a son.’ And I found myself saying, ‘Yeah, I did, too,'” Joel reflects. “It’s really been sort of this evolution for me and for Pam to grapple with, that this is our child’s reality. For a long time both of us were at a place, like, ‘This will stop here. We’ll buy a dress, but not the shoes …'” Before long, they’d found a local therapist specializing in gender identity, joined a national e-mail discussion group for parents of gender-variant kids, and begun attending Brill’s meetings. Since then, they’ve come full circle.
Pam regards the group, where people “cry all the time, and laugh a lot,” as a lifesaver. “I can’t tell you what it felt like to know that we weren’t the only people out there, and especially to find Stephanie, who knew so much about it,” she says. Still, the early meetings were a bit unnerving. “Jona was not a ‘she’ yet,” Pam says. “She was definitely wearing dresses and feeling like a girl, but didn’t mind being called ‘he’ at that point. It was a little scary because a lot of the folks there had a little bit older kids, who were transgendered. It was a little bit of a glimpse into the future, and hearing about how hard it was for their kids at different times — that was the really hard part.”
Pam and Joel eventually found a private K-6 school where educators are “supportive, open, and celebratory,” Pam says. “They’re not just tolerating us.
Sue Bodjak and Deb Yates, whom Brill helped conceive and birth two children, are grappling with a similar, if less intense, experience. Though their long-haired six-year-old son clearly identifies as a boy, he favors bright colors — purple Crocs with pink socks are a favorite combo — and is often mistaken for a girl. When it came time to enroll him in public kindergarten, “we had a lot of anxiety, not wanting it to be a struggle for him,” Bodjak says. She admits she wasn’t keen on buying her son a pair of pink pants as part of his back-to-school wardrobe, “but it’s been so not a big deal.”
“I still have this sense of, how long will this …? When will he be done?” Yates says. “I didn’t, in some ways, think that at six he would still be feeling strongly about this.”
Seeing their son fit in easily at school was a relief. Still, the couple feared that the gender-neutral mentality they’d encouraged in him would quickly go out the window. “We thought, there’s no way he’s going to get through this without getting the world’s gender stuff shoved down his throat,” Bodjak says. “But it’s been a testimony to how much of an influence parents can have. He notices stuff, like that every single girl in his class except one has a pink princess backpack. He’s able to get that while there’s this thing about girls and princess backpacks, he doesn’t need to accept it. He’s really getting to a place where he can identify what those patterns are, but make his own decisions.”
The couple attributes much of this to Brill’s influence. Her efforts also extend to schools, family service and mental health agencies, and other community organizations. While schools often ask Brill to help them create a comfortable environment for a crossgender student, she says her training transcends the individual. “It’s really changing the ethos of the school, and as the teachers learn and grow and change, that’s going to affect every class that they ever have,” she explains.
Park Day, a private school in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood, is ground zero for gender tolerance in the East Bay. Over the past four years, the school has held numerous staff training sessions with Brill and other specialists, and workshops for students. Some visible changes have included ending practices such as using gender to group students, and making some school bathrooms coed.
In March, Park Day held its first program for parents. The response has been fantastic, says Karen Colaric, the school’s K-6 program coordinator. “Even parents with children in kindergarten and first grade said they’ve had some incredible conversations,” she recalls. “They’ve said, ‘Thank you for bringing this to us. We weren’t sure about it at first, but you did this very thoughtfully and appropriately and my child came home saying wonderful things, and feeling free and liberated.'”
Part of Brill’s success comes from the fact that she’s wholly comfortable with skeptics. “People need education to understand that it’s okay, because the fallback theory is, ‘Oh, these kids are asking for it,'” she explains.
Over Labor Day weekend in Seattle, Brill will help pull off the first national conference for families of gender variant children and adolescents. Gender Odyssey Family Conference will include workshops and forums for parents and social events where entire families can interact. Joel will lead a talk for dads. “I’d like to create a place where fathers can talk about their fears, about what it means to have a ‘girly’ boy, or what their bosses are going to think, or their buddies on the bowling team,” he says.
It’s a rare opportunity for families to meet one another, because besides Brill’s support group and another in Washington, DC, the national e-mail list provides the only opportunity to connect. “Just this morning I opened up my e-mail and heard from a family in New York, a family in Florida, a family in Ohio, and a family in Arkansas,” Brill says. “They know of no one else.”
There are no reliable statistics to show what proportion of kids are gender-variant, or whether the figure has shifted over time. Brill suspects it hasn’t. “It’s just that parents are no longer predominantly trying to beat it out of them,” she says. “Many of the families in our group recognize that when you see a suicidal four-, five-, or six-year-old and you shift one thing, such as a pronoun, or what clothes they’re allowed to wear, all of a sudden their mental health and well-being completely turn around. You realize that maybe it wasn’t any kind of an emotional disorder that they had, but really, that they weren’t able to be themselves.”
Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University’s Cesar E. Chavez Institute, plans to publish a study she says demonstrates how important it is for parents to support their children’s gender identity. “When parents try to force them to comply, they feel like it’s the best thing for the child’s future,” she says. “But what they don’t understand is that it’s really, really harmful and traumatic for their child. That’s the real issue.
“What’s so revolutionary about Stephanie’s work is that she is helping parents learn to listen to their children,” Ryan adds. “You can only do it once — you can’t go back and do it again.”