Tough choices for transgender kids

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Dr. Jo Olson and a patient named Wes review paperwork at a support group for parents and caregivers with gender non-conforming and transgender children, teens and young adults. Photo credit: Aydin Kennedy

The profile of transgender Americans is rising. Transgender characters are on television in both “Transparent,” and “Orange is the New Black.” California now allows transgender public school students to use the bathroom they want and join the sports team of their choice.

More people are identifying themselves as transgender, and at younger ages. This presents tough decisions for kids and their families.

Within the medical community, there are differing approaches to treating transgender kids. Is there a to get young trans children to feel comfortable in the bodies they were born with? Should kids as young as 15 really change their bodies so much that they can’t change back?

Anna, Age 9

Anna was born a boy, but started saying she was a girl as soon as she could talk. “At about three years old, once he was verbal, we started getting feedback that he was not a boy, that he was a girl,” says her dad, Josh (both names have been changed for this story). Josh explains that he could convince Anna to dress like a boy until one school-day morning. “We’d had the whole weekend in Disney princess outfits and Monday morning I was pulling this dress off of his shoulders and he was resisting,” he says. “And as I pulled one of the seams ripped. At which point my son just collapsed into my lap, sobbing. Like I had broken his spirit. And that’s kinda what it felt like for me too. So I was crying and he was crying and I realized I can’t do this anymore. I can’t force this kid into a straightjacket of expectation. It was not fair.”

So they went to see Doctor Johanna Olson, the medical director of the Center for Transyouth Health and Development at Children’s Hospital in L.A. It’s the largest center of its kind in the country. And Dr. Olson, whose center currently sees 355 young people, with 60 more on the waiting list, had a plan. Dr. Olson and her team recommended that Anna go through a “social transition” — that she present herself to the world as a girl. Ever since she was four years old she’s been called Anna by her friends at school, is known as “she,” wears girl clothes and lives her life as a girl.

Quinn, Age 15 

Quinn’s mother, Mary, like many parents of trans kids, assumed Quinn was gay until she was 10 years old. “Someone astute enough to see that this was a transgender child, asked me if I had ever thought about it, and I thought to myself, no I had never thought about it and I asked her. And she said, ‘well of course I’m a girl.’ And it just clicked in my head. Right at that moment.”

Before puberty hit, Quinn started taking drugs called blockers. Traditionally blockers are used to treat children who start puberty too young, but now they’re being used for kids who are developing in a way they don’t want to. “I probably would have killed myself, if I had to go through male puberty, if I’m being honest,” says Quinn.

She now takes hormones, which more permanently change her body into that of a girl’s. Ultimately, this means that she won’t be able to have children.

Press Play’s Madeleine Brand gets a closer look at the lives of transgender kids, their families and the different approaches doctors can take: