By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser.
“Hi, Avery,” I heard my daughter’s friend, Crystal call out earlier this summer. Clad in pink tank shirt and blue skirt, Avery’s hair cupped her chin. Avery waved, and turned back to the music. Crystal and my daughter continued through the farmers market.
Avery? Last summer, Avery was Henry—about to enter kindergarten, just like Crystal and my daughter. “As soon as Crystal learned about Henry’s transition, she instantly switched not just name but pronoun, and has never made a mistake,” Crystal’s mom reported.
I wasn’t entirely surprised. Very small kids pose big gender questions: “Can boys be princesses? Why do girls get babies in their bellies?” By age five, however certain they are that boys are one way and girls another, perhaps they remain closer to more fluid, flexible notions of gender.
A small child’s interest in clothes “meant” for the opposite gender—the boy in the tutu, the girl who rejects all dresses—often passes, a “phase” dictated by a sense of style or by preferred activities, such as dance or monkey bars. Classic picture books like Charlotte Zolotow’s William’s Doll and newer ones, like Ian and Sarah Hoffman’s Jacob’s New Dress endeavor to make such explorations amongst very young children accepted (and acceptable). This takes conscious effort. For example at my house, where three sons preceded the daughter, I didn’t need to buy her a baby doll: we already had three, along with trucks and train tracks.
But what happens when a child declares, like Avery did, a territory beyond mere experimentation? What if the child’s experience is an authentic transition? How does a school respond, and how do friends rally?
I knew for a fact that Avery wasn’t the only six year-old to transition in my town. Friendly with Avery’s mom, I asked whether she’d talk to me about Avery, and school. She readily agreed. “My son asked, on the way to our initial meeting with the kindergarten teacher, whether the teacher knew about the secret jewel inside me—and I found myself telling my child it wasn’t, didn’t have to be, a secret,” she explained over tea. “Although the cubby and class list had my son’s name, she introduced herself to the teacher as Avery, her chosen girl’s name—and all the adults scrambled to accommodate her.”
They’d believed this school would be open to gender non-conformity. Yet, they hadn’t imagined this entry. “Playing Avery was a game since preschool, and dramatic play, almost all of it female, was always Henry’s favorite thing to do,” my friend explained. Henry exhibited signs of anxiety beginning at age two, and the intensity “ramped up” as kindergarten—and the impromptu declaration—loomed closer. “Most of the kids did not know Henry,” she explained. This made Avery’s initial school transition fairly seamless. However, Avery, always aware of “who knows” signaled that “she really wanted people to know the truth,” especially by the spring. It was as if she’d begun to believe her mom that this jewel didn’t need to be hidden.
“One of my friends wondered whether a kindergartner’s transition simply signaled parents’ permissiveness,” I ventured.
“This is such a hard road,” my friend explained. “Even at this age. I know she wouldn’t choose it if it weren’t absolutely necessary.”
“We are,” my friend noted, “in the dark ages with gender.” She described how they sent a “rebirth announcement” to friends and family, including parents of Avery’s classmates, and the entire, very small school community. Since Avery’s transition, they’ve joined a support group of about ten families led by a therapist. They’ve found an endocrinologist/social worker team that specializes in gender issues. “Some professionals advocate that families take a proactive stance. The health implications for children certain of their identity to block the other gender’s hormones ahead of puberty’s onset are great,” she explained. The clinic took an initial x-ray of Avery’s bones, to gauge signs of puberty. “That way, we’re aware of when we need to make decisions,” she said, “possibly earlier than we’d imagined.”
Avery is not alone. . “The first thing I did was to read Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children (by Diane Ehrensaft, PhD.),” my friend recalled. A member of Gender Spectrum, a national organization that supports families with gender- nonconforming kids, she feels fortunate to have a support group, sympathetic health and mental health practitioners and a receptive school.
I wanted to know what someone like me, the friend you run into at the farmers market or has a child in your class can do. Psychologist Jennifer Bryan, an educational consultant and author of From the Dress-Up Corner to the Senior Prom: Navigating Gender and Sexuality Diversity in PreK-12 Schools, encourages people to “keep talking and listening with an open ear and heart.” She says, “We are all on a learning curve about ‘gender.’ In fact, we don’t even know how long the curve is! So it’s less about answers or saying just the right thing. It’s more about being a good, supportive friend, neighbor, class parent by inviting conversation, and being unafraid to ask questions that come from a desire to understand.”
My friend echoes this. “The most heartening part of this is how open people are to explore the questions that arise—and support our daughter in who she is,” she says. That’s what we want for all of our kids. And that’s what I’ll remember around the hallways of my kids’ elementary school this fall.
Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser’s work has appeared in the New York Times, on Salon, Full Grown People and Brain, Child Magazine amongst others. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.
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