Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Do boys always like blue, and girls pink?

Do boys always like blue, and girls pink? Boys like blue. Girls like pink. Boys like toy trucks. Girls like Barbie dolls.

These statements seem to capture what is normal and natural in most societies. Indeed, we cannot help but notice that it is natural for boys to lean towards cars, balls, and action figures. For girls, it is decorative activities and dressing up. We have never questioned why and how both genders in many cases pursue different paths in terms of their interests and activities in childhood. They just do.

For many young children, however, the above does not apply. Their bodies do not coincide with their minds. They are transgender children: females trapped in male bodies, and males trapped in female bodies.

As early as two years old, these children start showing early signs of discomfort with their physical appearance. They don’t like their bodies; they experiment with clothes of the opposite (physical) sex; they claim to be (not merely to want to be) the other gender, they play with things that children of the opposite sex normally play with. For these children, such inclinations come as naturally as they do for non-transgender children, at ages 2-3.

It is because transgender children deviate from the above-mentioned socially constructed norms that the conflicts arise. Conflicts of intolerance, hate, bullying, and alienation . . . just because of they way they were born. Many of them struggle silently, afraid to tell their parents or anyone they meet for that matter. Life becomes a daily struggle for these children to wonder who knows their secret and who doesn’t, who to tell and who not to tell, fear of how people would react: whether they will learn to accept them for who they really are, or break ties with them and alienate them.

Socially constructed expectations are all around us; we have normative models of masculinity and femininity. Transgender children, like any other children, are expected to follow these models that correspond to their physical appearance. It is indeed a most difficult time for transgender children when society forces them to be people they are simply not. The fact that it occurs during a period as innocent and fragile as childhood makes it all the more painful.

Many people question the reality of being born in the wrong body. Boys are meant to act like boys, and the same goes for girls, most people would say. But why does such questioning arise? We don’t seem to question the gender identity of non-transgender children. We don’t usually ask: why do girls like pink and wear dresses? We do not have a rational explanation that links boys with blue and girls with pink. So the questioning that arises surrounding many children whose gender identity does not match their physical sex must be some sort of “fear of the unknown”.

There is no general consensus in the scientific community as to the causes of being transgender, but the American Psychological Association says genetics, pre-natal hormones, and early life experiences may be possible influences. One scientific study (Swaab et al, 1995) suggests that there is a brain area responsible for sexual behavior, and that this area is larger in males than in females. Interestingly, this area in the brain of a female-to-male transsexual (male body but identifies with female gender) corresponded to the female brain area. This suggests that gender identity is at least partly biological.

Regardless of scientific discoveries, children need a safe and nurturing environment in which to grow. They need to be loved no matter how they are born. Being transgender is not a choice. Way too many transsexuals have been driven to suicide and depression. Life can’t be easy when transgender children battle with the discomfort of their own bodies. We don’t need to make it worse for them by forcing gender stereotypes upon them.

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