Last week, Fox News psychiatrist Keith Ablow decided to move beyond diagnosing celebrities he's never met -- like Chaz Bono and Bill Maher -- to pick on children. Like Tammy, an 11-year-old transgender child.
Tammy, a biological boy who has identified as a girl since age 3, recently appeared in a CNN story. Tammy is on the cusp of puberty; to give her more time to decide if she will continue to live as a girl, Tammy's parents, doctors and therapists have decided to intervene medically to postpone puberty.
Ablow tore into Tammy's parents, Pauline Moreno and Debra Lobel, suggesting that they are forcing Tammy to be a girl. "We have two women raising a child, he's adopted, and he's come to believe that he, too, is female," Ablow said. "That argues for a complete psychological evaluation not just of the boy but of his parents, as well, to see whether psychological forces are at play here to make him say such things."
Never mind that Tammy's parents have been working with doctors and therapists for many years. Never mind that Tammy's parents have two older sons who are gender-typical. Never mind that Ablow's never met this family. They're lesbians! Perhaps Ablow fears that their sheer gayness is enough to coerce a child into maintaining a false identity. (That would be a neat trick, actually. Imagine putting a trucks-and-football-loving boy into a tutu and making him play with Barbies and an Easy-Bake Oven -- for a decade.)
Are Tammy's parents harming her? No one really knows -- doctors debate the merits of puberty suppression as we speak. What Tammy's parents do know is that Tammy has insisted she's a girl for most of her life -- and that living as a boy, Tammy, then Thomas, was depressed, antisocial, and had self-mutilating impulses. Once allowed to dress as a girl, Tammy became happy, outgoing and full of life.
As a parent, it's hard to imagine making the choice to give a child puberty-suppressing drugs. But it's not hard to imagine making the choice to bring a child happiness and well-being that they could find no other way. Will Tammy continue to see herself as a girl? If she does, will she move on to taking hormones to go through puberty as a female? The point of delaying puberty is to give Tammy a few more years to develop as someone who can answer these questions. Because really, only time will tell.
I'm not here to make an argument for or against the use of hormone blockers in prepubescent children. As a writer and the mother of a child who is not Tammy, it's not my place to comment on the medical choices of a family not my own. (One might also argue that it also shouldn't be the place of a psychiatrist recently chastised by the American Psychiatric Association for his bigotry, as Ablow was.)
But I am here to say that when you have a child who defies expectations, you find yourself making choices you never thought you'd have to make. My son is not transgender, but he is gender-nonconforming -- he has long hair and loves opera and spent his younger years dressing like a girl. When my husband and I first looked at our newborn baby boy, we could not have imagined sending him to kindergarten wearing a dress -- or that he would thrive that way, and no other.
I'm part of an online community of hundreds of parents like me, parents like Tammy's parents, parents whose kids in some way do not conform to the behaviors typical for their biological sex. And shockingly, we are not all lesbians. As a group we are conservative, liberal, straight, gay, married, single, urban, suburban, rural, religious, non-religious, and the whole rainbow of races. Many of our kids have other siblings -- even twins -- who are completely gender-normative.
I talked to parents from this community after the Fox show. Mark*, from Maine, said, "Just after turning three, our son told [my wife and me] that he hoped his fairy godmother would 'turn his penis into a vagina.'" The 10-year-old has a fraternal twin brother who is "very rough-and-tumble and macho." Many families of both twins and various-age siblings report a mix of gender-nonconforming and gender-typical kids; why this happens is a mystery.
A bigger mystery is why Ablow thinks any parent would want their child to be different in this way. Parents like Tammy's are demonized; children like Tammy are ostracized and bullied. The notion that parents would try to make their children targets galls many parents. Judy, from Maryland, says her 6-year-old son Taye has expressed preferences for feminine toys and clothes "since he could form full sentences," in contrast to her gender-typical 8-year-old son, even though Taye was judged by parents at their conservative, black, Christian school. "It drives me crazy to hear that parents can influence their children's gender expression. If anyone actually paid attention, they'd find that it's simply not possible."
And while we don't fully understand the health consequences of blocking puberty in transgender children, we do know that supporting them is crucial to their well-being. According to research by the Family Acceptance Project, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender kids who are accepted by their families have far lower risks of depression, substance abuse, and suicide, while parental rejection is predictive of all of these poor health and mental health outcomes. Our love and acceptance -- including our efforts to care for our kids based on the limited information available to us -- can literally be lifesaving.
Anna, from Virginia, had this to say about Ablow's commentary: "At one time, I would have felt the way these [Fox News] critics did. Until my precious, beautiful... daughter insisted that she was a boy. Over and over. For years."
Anna's advice to Ablow? "Don't be so quick to condemn, until you yourself have a child who expresses the opposite gender of their birth. No one would choose this path for their child. I love my child more than ever and will do whatever I can to give her the life and happiness she deserves. Whether my child is a boy or a girl. My child is my child."
Fox News feels confident attacking Tammy's parents because they have made a medical choice that is, for most parents, utterly unfathomable. And yet it's a choice many parents have made, after great debate and struggle, because they feel it's the best choice for their child. The rest of us simply cannot know what decision we would make if Tammy were ours.
"We're not looking to bully anyone," said Ablow, hoping to disguise his use of a powerful media corporation to attack a child and her family. "I'm reminded of the words of Abraham Lincoln: 'With malice toward none.'"
Which reminded me of something else Abraham Lincoln said: "The time comes upon every public man when it is best for him to keep his lips closed."
*All names have been changed for safety and privacy.