Ways A Parent Can Accept And Encourage Their Child Who Might Be A Tomboy, Or A Boy That Plays With Dolls

So what if your child is a tomboy or a bit feminine if he is a boy? Does it matter? What does it mean? Should we try to change the way he or she acts just because society demands that girls, not boys, wear dresses? Writer Stephanie Wilkinson takes a hard look at gender identity and what the experts have to say.
Stephanie Wilkinson

Gender Identity Disorder?
When Daphne Scholinski was 14 years old, her distraught parents had her committed to a psychiatric institute in Chicago. She had become unmanageable, they said. She was doing poorly in school, experimenting with drugs, defying her parents. And she would not do anything to soften her behavior or appearance. Her hair was short, she liked playing baseball and she wouldn't wear dresses.

At Michael Reese Hospital, her psychiatrist gave her a diagnosis: Oppositional Defiant Disorder complicated by Gender Identity Disorder. He placed Daphne on a behavior modification program along with individual and group counseling sessions. Part of Daphne's treatment consisted of cosmetics therapy: Every day, Daphne's treatment partner became her beauty consultant, applying lipstick, rouge, eyeliner, foundation and eye shadow to Daphne's face. Professional counselors talked to Daphne about ways she could appear more feminine. Daphne was asked about her sexual fantasies. Her friendship with another girl on her ward was treated as a problem. When she spoke of male friends, she was told she was making progress.

Daphne spent four years in psychiatric institutions, all because she was "an inappropriate female," she says today. Her "treatment" didn't change her feelings about dresses or baseball or hair length. It only made her feel insecure, as though who she was wasn't acceptable to the world. It only made her sad.

Daphne's case is not unique. Across the country, there are parents who have looked at their "gender-atypical" little girls and boys and decided that the kids needed psychiatric treatment. The treatment for childhood Gender Identity Disorder can consist of behavior modification and play therapy for young children. Stubbornly gender-variant teenagers may be subjected to a regimen of psychotropic drugs, sometimes in locked treatment centers. According to the leading researchers in the psychiatric community, one child in 1,000 suffers from "gender dysphoria," or intense unhappiness with their sex. The exact number is unknown.

Causing controversy
Such treatment is causing controversy. Some parents are resisting the suggestion from school and private therapists that their children are ill. Instead, they're banding together to protest; they want to stop what they see as the systematic and institutionalized practice of looking at this atypical behavior and calling it a mental illness.

Groups like GenderPAC and GIDreform.org are petitioning the psychiatric community to drop Gender Identity Disorder from the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of the mental health community. The controversy is pitting the established mental health community against a group of upstart parents who are bent on nothing less than changing society.

"Homosexuality was dropped from the list of mental illnesses in 1973," says one activist. "So why is GID -- sometimes called 'pre-homosexuality' -- still in there?"

In the early 1990s, Phyllis Burke set out on a quest to uncover the roots of gender. As a lesbian mother, she had become sensitive to suggestions made by others that, without a male role model, her son would grow up not knowing how to be a man. "I wanted to be able to be a better mother," she recalls in an interview from her home in San Francisco. "What I found was a Pandora's box."

Burke tore through records of old federal grants, spoke with dozens of psychologists, psychiatrists and former GID patients, traveled to conferences, read hundreds of scholarly papers, and came to one conclusion: GID is a sham. It's a convenient tool for the psychological community that abets homophobia in the adult population, and it's been used over the years as a bludgeon for unruly kids or those who refuse to conform to gender stereotypes.

After three years of research and writing, Burke's Gender Shock: Exploding the Myths of Male and Female was published in 1996. It quickly became the focal point of a gender storm. In the book, Burke traces the genesis of the GID designation and treatments back to the 1950s. In the 1970s, a psychologist at UCLA named George Rekers opened a clinic for children. He got hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund his studies, finding children (often through newspaper ads) and testing treatments on them.PregnancyAndBaby.com


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