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Diane Ehrensaft, PhD

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All Kids Deserve to Reach for the Stars -- and Dance With Them, Too

Posted: 09/18/11 06:54 PM ET

For many viewers of ABC's mega-hit series Dancing With the Stars, the announcement that this season's roster of contestants would include Chaz Bono, the son of Cher and the late Sonny Bono, marked a historic decision and a milestone for transgender people. To some, it made a less than welcome addition to the fall television line-up.

One viewer comment online stood out for me, given my work with gender non-conforming and transgender children and their families: "YOUR choice to bring Chaz Bono into the mix goes too far. I am not about to risk the potential for on screen dialogue about sex changes and gender confusion while my 7 and 9 year old are watching."

It is time to address and make sense of the outcry over whether "sex changes and gender confusion" are inappropriate subjects for young children. Let's talk about the real reality here -- how damaging and dangerous those comments are to the thousands of transgender and gender-nonconforming children out there who live their everyday lives among the adults who are so agitated by Chaz's participation as a dance partner.

Over the years, I have worked with so many children who, often from ages much earlier than 7, did not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. These children are not merely boys who play with Barbies or girls who play with trucks; they insist on dressing a certain way and being referred to with the pronouns of the gender they see themselves as, which is opposite the one others think they are. They are not "acting out" or mentally ill. They are simply children who are telling us who they really are. Contrary to the viewer's concerns that her children will be damaged by being exposed to a grown-up who is just like the transgender children I work with, seeing Chaz dance with the stars provides a wonderful opportunity for all children to be able to see a transgender role model on television and open up a conversation about gender diversity and gender acceptance.

These conversations are already happening as more and more parents, families, and schools all around the country are learning to embrace and support the transgender children in their communities and beyond, even in the face of a larger world that is not so accepting.

For example, in Ohio, a 10-year-old girl named Jackie was born as Jack. For years, he was interested in his sister's things -- dolls, tutus, and playing dress-up. These interests didn't go away. And as children so often do, his peers teased him for not conforming to how boys were "supposed to" behave. After Jack began having panic attacks, his parents realized that they needed to let him live as Jackie, the girl she was, her "true gender self." Today, Jackie is far happier and far more popular, even as two of her grandparents have struggled to accept her as their granddaughter rather than grandson.

What do stories like Jackie's tell us? For the children I work with, being transgender is not a choice; it is simply an intrinsic part of who they really are as a person. Their identity does not come from imitating a transgender celebrity on TV. It comes from within, sometimes as early as the first year of life, when the children begin to reject the activities or behavior expected of them based on the gender assigned to them at birth. For their parents, it is often a shock and surprise, whenever it shows up, and it is the parents' job, along with all the rest of us, to listen carefully to what the children are telling us and learn how to help the children let their true gender selves come out.

Some would suggest that these children be forced into therapy to "cure" their condition. And often, this impulse comes from a desire to protect children from a world that can be incredibly cruel to those who don't conform. But it is anything but beneficial for children to deny their true gender -- protect it from harm, perhaps; but suppress or deny it, never.

Few of us who are not transgender can relate to the feeling that you are living in the wrong body, but that is what transgender boys and girls who have not transitioned must live through every day. The "boy" who tells us that he is actually a girl is telling us something that we would be wise to heed -- because as I have seen all too often, telling this child to suppress himself can lead to anxiety, depression and even to attempting suicide as a way out.

Transgender children, just as much as transgender adults, endure great adversity as they strive to live as the gender they are. But they are not fundamentally so different from other boys and girls. These children need support in a world that may treat them harshly for not fitting perfectly into the "boy" or "girl" gender boxes. We would all do well to recognize that, and to treat our transgender children, friends, and, yes, celebrities with a basic level of respect for their identities.

We seldom discuss these subjects with our children. But for our children's sake, we should, and Chaz Bono dancing with the stars provides the perfect opportunity, as we envision what a wonderful world it will be when all genders have equal footing on the dance floor.