Five-year-old Tyler, known until last fall as Kathryn, gets a haircut from… (Nikki Kahn/The Washington…)
Kathryn wanted pants. And short hair. Then trucks and swords.
Her parents, Jean and Stephen, were fine with their toddler’s embrace of all things boy. They’ve both been school teachers and coaches in Maryland and are pretty immune to the quirky stuff that kids do.
But it kept getting more intense, all this boyishness from their younger daughter. She began to argue vehemently — as only a tantrum-prone toddler can — that she was not a girl.
“I am a boy,” the child insisted, at just 2 years old.
And that made Jean uneasy. It was weird.
“I am a boy” became a constant theme in struggles over clothing, bathing, swimming, eating, playing, breathing.
Jean and Stephen gave up trying to force Kathryn to wear the frilly dresses that Grandma kept sending. Kathryn wanted nothing to do with her big sister Moyin’s glittery, sparkly pink approach to the world. (Moyin attends school with my son, which is how I came to know the family. The Washington Post is using the family’s middle names to protect their identity beyond their community, where their situation already is widely known.)
Kathryn didn’t even want to be around other little girls, let alone acknowledge that she biologically is one.
Jean tried to put her daughter’s behavior to rest. She sat down with a toddler-version of an anatomy book and showed Kathryn, by then 3, the cartoonish drawings of a naked boy and girl.
“See? You’re a girl. You have girl parts,” Jean told her big-eyed daughter. “You’ve always been a girl.”
Kathryn looked up at her mom, incomprehension clouding her round face.
“When did you change me?” the child asked.
The questions begin
Was something wrong with Kathryn?
Her little girl’s brain was different. Jean could tell. She had heard about transgender people, those who are one gender physically but the other gender mentally. Who hadn’t caught the transgendered Chaz Bono drama on “Dancing With the Stars”?
“But this young? In kids?” Jean wondered. She had grown up in a traditional family in the Midwest, with a mother who’d gone to medical school after having children. Jean considered herself open-minded, but this was clearly outside her realm of experience.
She went online to see if a book about transgender kids even existed. It did — “The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals.” Its summary read: “What do you do when your toddler daughter’s first sentence is that she’s a boy? What will happen when your preschool son insists on wearing a dress to school? Is this ever just a phase? How can you explain this to your neighbors and family?”
When it arrived at their Maryland home, Jean ripped through it, soaking up every word. But she couldn’t bring herself to share what she’d read with her husband.
Jean, 38, and Stephen, 40, had met at a Washington area gym, where both taught classes. They married in 2001.
Jean eventually quit teaching to stay home with her kids and continue her education. Stephen, who comes from an immigrant family, teaches science at a public high school, where he is beloved by many of his students. His Facebook page floods with their hellos and happy birthdays. He is vocal about encouraging girls to buck the stereotypes in science.
Still, Jean wasn’t sure how he’d react to her suspicions that Kathryn might be transgender. She decided she wouldn’t voice them unless she was totally convinced herself.
She went back online and watched videos of parents talking about their realization that their child was transgender. They all described a variation of the conversation she’d had with Kathryn: “Why did you change me?” “God made a mistake with me.” “Something went wrong when I was in your belly.”
Many talked about their painful decision to allow their children to publicly transition to the opposite gender — a much tougher process for boys who wanted to be girls.
Some of what Jean heard was reassuring: Parents who took the plunge said their children’s behavior problems largely disappeared, schoolwork improved, happy kid smiles returned.
But some of what she heard was scary: children taking puberty blockers in elementary school and teens embarking on hormone therapy before they’d even finished high school.
All of it is a new and controversial phenomenon.
In the United States, children have been openly transitioning genders for probably less than a decade, said Jack Drescher, a New York psychiatrist who is a leader in the field of gender orientation. There is very little to go on, scientifically, to support that approach, and the very idea of labeling young children as transgender is shocking to many people.
But to others, it makes perfect sense.
“In children, gender solidifies at about 3 to 6,” explained Patrick Kelly, a psychiatrist with the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.