When we surveyed our parents on topics they were interested in or what they felt they needed more information on to be better parents – one area that has come up repeatedly is talking with their children about gender diversity. With this in mind we decided to create a community event for our families, educators, medical providers and community members on this topic.
A few weeks ago, we had the wonderful opportunity to host Aidan Key as a speaker at our school (with thanks to our co-sponsors, Rainier Valley Co-op Preschool). Mr. Key is an author and educator who has worked for many years to build support networks for transgender and gender non-conforming children, and he shared with us what we can do to talk to the children in our lives about the ways they or their peers might experience and express their gender.
His take-away lesson: talking to kids about gender is easy. Yes, really. Kids, Key says, just get it – they understand that lots of people feel a sense of being different. It’s whether the adults in their lives take it in stride or freak out that makes the difference. Even an adult who is feeling new and uncomfortable to discussing gender identity can make the conversation with their kids simple by being honest. “This is something I didn’t know about until recently too. Isn’t that interesting?” Key suggests saying.
One line that stuck with me is Key’s statement that, much as kids absorb stereotypes about gender easily, they also dispel them easily. As long as the topic is brought to the light of discussion, kids will find counterexamples to disprove their own rules. “Nuh-uh,” says one such imagined kid, “my aunt has short hair and she’s a girl.”
So what are we talking about when we say gender, anyway? Key breaks it down into three spectrums that describe gender – and one that doesn’t. First, there’s anatomy, which most people used to think defined gender. But even at this level, things aren’t black and white. Being born with an intersex condition – whether different chromosomes, genitals, or other characteristics that are different from what is typically male or female – is actually more common than being an identical twin. (Key, incidentally, happens to be an identical twin himself.) Second, there’s expression, which ranges from feminine to masculine. Whether a person wears purple or brown, ruffles or plaid, or keeps their hair short or long, may be examples of their gender expression, but this doesn’t necessarily tell us what their gender is either. The short-haired aunt, again, is still a “girl”. It’s the third spectrum that gets at the root of what gender is. This spectrum is called gender identity. When talking to kids, Key would call this “what they feel in their heart and in their mind”. This is the thing he says kids are so willing to get. We all have ways we feel in our hearts and minds that aren’t visible from the outside. What would someone not know about you just by looking? he asks, and the kids have plenty of answers.
The fourth spectrum, the one that doesn’t define gender, is sexual orientation. Don’t just assume a gender non-conforming kid is “gay”, says Key. When they grow up they may be straight or gay or bisexual or any number of other things – but not only do we not know which, a kid isn’t any of those things right now. We don’t have to sexualize them to understand the idea of what they feel in their hearts and minds.
After this more in-depth lesson for the adults, Key takes us back again to the idea that talking about this with kids can be easy. What happens when Key goes into a classroom where a transgender or non-binary kid is looking for support in coming out to their peers? Well, he says, at its best, it starts just like he’s told us – he’ll talk to the kids about who their friend is “in her heart and in her mind”, maybe help dispel some gender stereotypes…and then…then another kid raises his hand. He wants to talk about how he’s different too. His parents are getting divorced, and he’s been teased because of it. Another kid has freckles. Another kid’s dad is in prison. One has an accent. The difference of gender becomes one of many differences, which become ways to connect to one another.
One more thing. Key has proof that support from families works. While the young people who’ve gone through his support network at the Seattle Children’s Hospital may end up on any different number of paths, they have one thing in common: none of the 700 youth he’s worked with have lost their lives to suicide. In comparison to the statistic that over 40% of transgender people attempt suicide, this is a resounding success. Even parents that feel awkward and uncomfortable make a positive difference in a transgender child’s life simply by doing the best they can to support that child, he says.
As parents, we spend so much time trying to convince our kids to show us what’s in their hearts and in their minds. Key is just asking us to listen when they tell us.
http://www.genderdiversity.org Aidan Key’s website
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