Experimenting with children's sexual identity

Adolescents, by definition, are immature people. Once, the pop scientific diagnosis of teenage rashness was all about “raging hormones”. Now, it’s mainly about brains; hardly a week goes by that does not bring new revelations about the teen brain and its unfinished, evolving nature. No-one is really grown up until they are at least 25, we are told.

It turns out that some people have significant lapses of common sense even then. Among them are the mother of 12-year-old Australian girl who is encouraging her daughter to become a boy; the psychiatrist, family counsellor and endocrinologist who support the move; and the Victorian family court judge who decided last December after a two-day hearing that the girl had the right to begin hormone treatment with a view to a complete sex change. It has taken six months for the judgement to be issued. 

Despite the claim of her lawyer that she is capable of giving informed consent, and a claim that the hormone treatment is reversible should she change her mind, the girl is patently too young to make such a life-changing decision According to researchers, someone of her age has barely begun the process that should ultimately see the higher functions of the brain -- those connected with self-awareness, empathy with others and wise decision making -- wrest control from the pleasure seeking functions that burgeon during adolescence.

One has to feel sympathy for the girl’s state of mind. Allegedly she was stressed and anxious at the prospect of pubertal changes. She is said to have once threatened to kill herself if she had to live as a girl. According to one report, her mother is sad about the daughter’s problem but wants to “stand by her”. Another report has a relative claiming that the mother, who has another, younger daughter at home, “brainwashed” the older girl from an early age into thinking she should have been a boy. Her father, estranged from his wife, opposes the sex change. It seems likely that family conflicts played a role in the girl’s gender dysphoria, or discomfort with her given sex. 

But sympathy alone cannot dictate an adult response. Nor should a philosophy predisposed to see this young girl’s masculine leanings as indicating her real “gender”, as though this could be different from the sex of her body. A genuinely therapeutic, scientific response must take account of the fact that gender dysphoria is usually a symptom of gender identity disorder (GID), a mental illness for which a diagnosis is given in the bible of the American Psychiatric Association, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM IV-TR). “Only a very small number of children with Gender Identity Disorder will continue to have symptoms that meet criteria for Gender Identity Disorder in later adolescence or adulthood,” it notes.

These children can be successfully treated. “The psychiatric literature clearly demonstrates that children with GID can be successfully treated if both parents cooperate in the solution, especially fathers,” says Dr Richard Fitzgibbons, a Philadelphia psychiatrist with clinical experience of such cases. Treatment should begin as soon as possible, he adds. His approach reflects that of Dr. Kenneth Zucker, a psychologist and head of the gender-identity service at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. Over the past 30 years, Dr. Zucker has treated about 500 preadolescent gender-variant children. In his studies, 80 percent grow out of the behaviour, but 15 percent to 20 percent continue to be distressed about their gender and may ultimately change their sex. 

These facts have not prevented gender activists and assorted experts from taking up cases like that of the anonymous Victorian girl and turning them into social and scientific experiments. She is not the first minor to be treated in this way. In Australia her case was preceded in 2004 by that of “Alex”, a 13-year-old girl whom the courts allowed to take hormones to become masculine. Early last year Spiegel magazine revealed that a 14-year-old German boy had been the subject of a similar gamble for two years already. A Dutch team has been conducting a trial involving youths since the late 1990s, according to Spiegel. The prestigious Boston Children's Hospital runs a clinic where children arehelped to change their sex.

Behind this activity is a philosophy of the person in which the body carries no essential message to the psyche about sexual identity. On the contrary, sexual identity, or “gender”, is seen as primarily a psychological category which ought to dictate the form of the body. Medical technology has the means to effect this topsy-turvy view of the body, ergo, there is no problem. This is what should be done. And the earlier the better.

Last month parents connected with a Philadelphia elementary school received a letter advising them that the guidance counsellor would meet with the school's 100 third-grade students to explain why a nine-year-old boy in their class would now wear girls' clothes and be called by a girl's name. The principal, who had called in TransYouth Family Allies as consultants, wrote that a transgender child is one whose biological gender does not match his or her gender identity -- an explanation that failed to mollify some parents who were angry not so much at the child’s coming out as with the school’s formal endorsement of it. There have been other cases of elementary school children coming out as the opposite sex at school. 

Paul McHugh, a psychiatrist and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studied sexual reassignment surgery in the 1970s, told the Philadelphia Inquirer there is no evidence that supporting such a transition helps a person. In the 1970s Hopkins was pioneering sexual reassignment surgery but stopped when follow-up showed that although few regretted it, the men who had undergone a sex change were no better off psychologically. “People came to us saying that if we changed them, we’d solve all their problems. So we changed them, and their problems remained,” said McHugh.

If anyone really wants to help children suffering gender dysphoria they should look at all the problems in a child’s background. According to research by psychologist George A Rekers in the 1980s, common problems -- for boys, anyway -- are histories of mental illness in the parents, especially the mother, the absence of the father from a young age owing to marital breakdown and the lack of a substitute male model. Rekers says it is not accidental that the questioning of sex-role distinctions and the normalisation of father-absent families have gone hand in hand with evidence of the destructive effects of father absence on children and the accumulation of clinical data leading to the APA’s recognition of childhood GID in 1980. 

Of course, it is much easier to dose a girl with hormones than do anything about the mess that today’s sexual ideology has made of family life for so many people. But it is clear which way true happiness for children and their parents lies.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.


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