Editor’s Note: Lisa Selin Davis, author of the upcoming book “TOMBOY: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different,” writes about the psychology, biology and culture of gender nonconformity.
To protect their privacy, some names have been changed.
Ben has liked Disney princesses, nail polish, jewelry and long hair since he was 3. His mother Carrie assumed his preferences would not only be tolerated but celebrated in their liberal enclave of South Orange, New Jersey.
Instead, Carrie said, “Everyone made fun of him.”
At elementary school, things got worse. Ben would come home every day defeated because other children bullied him about his “girlish” preoccupations and his heavy body. Those kids “made him feel really self-conscious,” Carrie said.
This year Ben, now 7, became more withdrawn, unable to make friends and vehemently resistant to school. His parents and teachers would be “begging him to go into class, and he wouldn’t go,” Carrie said. In March, she signed him up for a psychological evaluation to see if he had learning or emotional issues. Before they could go, the pandemic hit.
Now, Ben is home with his 4-year-old brother and his parents, sheltering in place. Every day, he dons his sparkly golden ninja outfit, paints his nails and lifts his ever-longer hair into a ponytail, with no kids to tell him he shouldn’t.
“He went from being very angry and sad all the time, really negative, to just blooming,” Carrie said. “He gets to be around parents who celebrate him and don’t give him [crap] about what he looks like or his weight or what he likes to wear.”
Ben falls into the category of “gender-expansive” children — those who veer away from traditional notions of gender expression and identity. Some are transgender — they have a gender identity that doesn’t align with sex assigned at birth. Others don’t abide by the culture’s expectations of what boys or girls should look like or do.
Gender-expansive children living in unsupportive families might be miserable or even in danger quarantined at home. For some such children, school was their safe place.
But there are many kids for whom school presented daily anxiety and dread. Now at home with their affirming families, they’re flourishing. And they’re helping parents see their experience in a new light.
Tiny gender police
Research has suggested gender stereotypes are often instilled in children by age 3, before they understand the difference between gender norms and the biological categories they pertain to. They use peer pressure to show they’re doing boy or girl right, and correct those who aren’t.
As they age and understand that wearing dresses isn’t required to be a girl, and playing baseball isn’t required to be a boy, sometimes the gender enforcement relaxes. That tends to happen more for girls than boys, however, because gender stereotypes are often more rigid for boys.
For trans kids, that policing sometimes doesn’t fade with age. Fourteen-year-old Jude had to start a new public school in Texas last fall, after some classmates in his old school bullied him and told him their religion meant they couldn’t accept him.
But there were still problems in his new school, with people not being able to fit him neatly into a new category because of his short hair and high voice. “They asked me things like, ‘Are you a lesbian? Are you a dude?’
“It was gross but it ended,” Jude said, after he started taking testosterone and his voice changed.
He’s not out in his new school, which has been both a relief and a source of anxiety and confusion. “It was really hard just in my head,” he said, even as he’s made friends and likes being there.
“For kids who are different, the constant interaction can be exhausting,” his mother Fiona said. At home, away from school, she said, “This has been a real breath of fresh air. It’s different — it’s light.”
A vacation from bullying
Jenna Redmond is director of online programming at Gender Spectrum, a nonprofit that helps create gender-inclusive environments for kids.
Since lockdown began, there’s been “an overall decrease in a sense of anxiety” in their online support groups among some trans, gender-expansive and non-binary (not identifying as either a boy or a girl) kids in affirming families, Redmond said.
Some of that relief comes from being free from how many schools operate, dividing facilities like bathrooms and locker rooms by gender or dividing students into boys and girls for lineup or lunch. This can be painful and confusing for kids who don’t fit neatly into those groups, either because of their internal sense of themselves or because of other kids’ narrow notions of gender, Redmond said.
Sometimes gender-expansive kids devote a lot of mental energy to navigating their school world, explaining themselves, correcting people about their name, pronouns or identity, and metabolizing the hurt, confusion and anger hurled by people who don’t understand or accept them.
“Both my kids are getting a reprieve right now from the social pressure,” said Sara Kaplan, a mom to two transgender children in Berkeley, California, even though their schools are incredibly supportive.
“Taking away these layers of anxiety and trauma that many youth experience in their school settings is allowing a spaciousness,” Redmond said, meaning a sense of room to breathe and relaxation.
“It’s almost a vacation from bullying, a vacation from being bombarded with having to be ‘other’ all the time,” added Yarrow Halpern, manager of online programming and community development at Gender Spectrum.
Kaplan’s son has been able to leave his chest binder off and can easily avoid the unsupportive kids, sticking to communicating with his true friends. “It allows him to prune his contacts,” Kaplan said.
“There was a lot of relief,” Jude said, about the reprieve from the social pressures, but he had another reason for his newfound relaxation, too. “I get to sleep in.”
A surge in seeking help
Parents are now playing a larger role in supporting their gender-expansive children. Before, some kids sought help from friends or teachers when their families weren’t understanding; now families are their major source of support.
“For some kids, pre-Covid, it was: ‘My parents aren’t the priority. I’m wanting to celebrate this within myself and my community,” said Mere Abrams, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in gender, who is trans and non-binary. Now, parents “carry so much more weight.”
Gender Spectrum has seen a surge in participation in online support groups for gender-expansive kids, their parents and their grandparents — a sign, they say, of parents wanting to be supportive and involved. Some parents are reaching out because their kids came out to them in quarantine. Others are finally seeing what they could only glimpse peripherally when they weren’t sheltered in place together.
“They’re showing up because they care, and they want to learn,” Redmond said.
Abrams said that some kids are experimenting with social transition in ways they might be reluctant to in the wider school social setting. “They’re trying different names or pronouns or clothes in a more predictable space,” they said.
“A big part of coming to school in a new outfit is worrying about people’s reactions,” Redmond said. “In a home setting, if you have a family that’s supportive, you’re able to explore those things in a way that feels less vulnerable and scary.”
Is it me or is it school?
Ben’s mother has always been supportive, assuring him that he can wear and do whatever he wants, but the time at home has been an enormous revelation.
“Before the pandemic, I thought my kid had a major problem,” Carrie said. “He’s not going to school, he’s so unhappy, he doesn’t have any friends, what’s wrong with him? Watching him blossom and be so much more connected to himself and more expressive, I’m like, ‘Oh, he’s not the problem.’”
Knowing whether external pressures to conform are causing the bulk of the distress, or if it’s something more internal, can help parents make decisions about how to help, Redmond said.
“Comparing the behaviors and mental health of kids at school versus at home can help them identify and pinpoint: ‘What are the things that are causing stress for my kid, and what makes them happy and thrive?’” Redmond said. “If they’re thriving this much outside of school,” she said, we need to ask, “What changes do we need to make those spaces feel affirming for those kids?”
Perhaps the kids at Ben’s school may not have been properly educated about gender — that pink or dresses or jewelry don’t belong to one sex gender or the other, Halpern noted. Or the school hasn’t taken seriously the problem of gender-based bullying.
“We need to do so much more to allow them to feel safe,” Halpern said. “They should be able to have the same quintessential middle and high school experience that other kids get.”
“I think in a welcoming culture, he’d be so happy,” Fiona said about her son. “He just wants to be who he is.”
The question, then, is how to maintain this newfound freedom when he returns to school.
What schools can do to become more welcoming
Schools in which gender-expansive kids didn’t feel safe can make revisions to curricula and policy to be more inclusive.
“We listen very carefully to the students in our GSA [Gender and Sexuality Alliance],” said Carrie Bakken, a teacher at Avalon School in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The teacher-run school has held school-wide seminars on gender identity and expression; changed facilities like bathrooms to be more accommodating to transgender students; and intervened in cases of bullying or misunderstanding.
“It’s our job as staff to protect our students,” Bakken said.
The result is an inclusive school where some LGBTQ+ kids feel safer than they do anywhere else.
“They gave me a lot of freedom to explore my identity,” said Logan Grover, 19, who just graduated from Avalon. When Logan was coming out as non-binary and pansexual to their parents, Avalon teachers facilitated talks and provided books, to help them understand.
Many schools already facilitate name and pronoun changes. In addition to creating safe bathroom and locker room options and not dividing kids by gender for lineup or lunch, Halpern suggested curricula tweaks like math lessons: There are 24 students in the class and six are non-binary; what percentage is non-binary? Or switching up examples: A girl is pitching at 35 miles an hour; how long does it take her ball to travel 30 feet to home plate?
This kind of expansiveness isn’t just good for LGBTQ+ kids.
“There are social expectations for what it means to be a girl, social expectations for what it means to be a boy,” Halpern said.
“If you’re conditioned to think that there’s only one way to be and it’s the right way, and your whole life you’re trying to be the right kind of girl or boy, what is that doing to you? How are you limiting yourself?”
Taking that confidence back to school
Changing the culture, whether of school or the world, can take a long time. In the meantime, parents can help their kids maintain their newfound self-esteem. Abrams suggested parents remind children that they deserve to feel loved and supported in every environment. They suggested role-playing the return to school with a new name or outfit, imagining how they’d navigate an adverse reaction.
But going back will be tricky. Carrie isn’t sure that Ben will have enough confidence to face the bullies again, or if she wants him to. After this new normal, Abrams said, “the idea of having to go back to school is 10 times harder than it was before.”
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Some parents will likely homeschool after this, and some of Abrams’ young clients have asked to not return. “Some parents are going to say, ‘Is my young person going to be a happier, healthier person if I just take school into my hands?’”
For many families, what they’re seeing now is what happens when gender is, in fact, an unremarkable and normalized feature of a person. In Gender Spectrum’s groups, kids get to talk about gender identity as well as every other part of their lives.
“They want to talk about their pets and their friends,” Redmond said. This is the kind of freedom these kids crave all the time, in any environment. “They finally have some room to just exist and be a kid.”