Contributed by Michele Angello, one of our 2013 keynote speakers.
I began seeing gender-nonconforming youth in 2001. I never intended to work with kids, but after several frantic phone calls from parents who sounded loving but were considerably confused about their child’s gender identity and expression, I sought supervision from my colleagues who were trained to work with children and slowly took on a few cases. This group of clients has grown exponentially over the years, to the point that it is the largest growing contingent of my private practice.
What I’ve found over the last 12 years is that these young people are both some of the most challenging and most rewarding clients. Challenging not because they are especially difficult and certainly not because they experience different levels of complex differential diagnosis than any other clients. But, challenging because I find myself walking a tightrope of clinician, advocate, peacemaker, educator and spiritual mediator that I never imagined would be a part of my everyday work. And rewarding, of course, because it’s an absolute privilege to see children as young as 4 years old articulate in no uncertain terms more about themselves and their core identity than many of us are able to do in a lifetime.
Beginning the gender exploration process with your child may be one of the most frightening things that you do as a parent. Many loving, well-intentioned parents put off “officially” claiming this exploration until their child is so uncomfortable or depressed that, out of sheer desperation, they begin to reach out and find kindred spirits. Something that I find amazing about the Gender Odyssey Family conference is watching families new to the scene initially interact with hesitation and fear, and by the end of the conference, see these same parents begin to relax, with a palpable sense of joy that neither they, nor their child, are alone in this journey. I work with parents everyday who want nothing more than for their child to have happy, healthy interactions with their peers and to know that they are loved unconditionally for the fantastic human beings that they are. At Gender Odyssey, this happens!
I know that for many families with gender-nonconforming kids, the decisions that parents of minor children have to consider are monumental. They are decisions that the majority of parents never even have to think about. In one of the workshops I’ve presented, about differing parenting styles, I’ve observed parents literally breathing sighs of relief when they are reminded that they should remain “the parent” during this period of their child’s life, meaning, there are still rules to follow, chores to do, and a family to interact with in the home. Several parents often approach me after that particular workshop to thank me and say that they were unaware of it, but as I was talking, they began to understand that, due to the difficulty that their child was experiencing, they’d become overly-permissive and were letting their child slide in ways that were impacting the entire family dynamic. Of course, this isn’t to say that gender-variant kids shouldn’t get a break now and then, just like any other kid going through some serious stuff, but if the expectations are lowered too much, I’ve seen kids expect less of themselves, and actually become less resilient at a time when they need to experience as much internal strength as possible.
Other workshops frequently offered at the family conference include ways to feel supported while working through such enormous considerations for young children, and ways to talk with gender-variant children about dating and safety issues, while still encouraging them to engage in peer-concordant activities and behaviors. There are also opportunities for attendees to talk directly to some of the leading medical and mental health providers in this field as well as to obtain real-life advice from other parents. The youth have unique opportunities to interact with other young people with very similar experiences. Many youth identify people who are farther along than they are and establish a sort of mentor relationship, but most of all they just enjoy being understood and having someone else really, truly “get it” because they’ve been there too. There are so many fantastic ways to be creatively gendered and it’s a bonus that this conference attracts a wide array of so many different identities.
In my experience as a therapist working with this community, I know that conferences such as Gender Odyssey Family jumpstart long-standing friendships and networking opportunities for both children and parents. I thoroughly enjoy witnessing the evolution that families experience in a few short, but very intense days at the conference and it warms my heart to see the smiles on attendees’ faces throughout the weekend. It’s a leap of faith and I encourage you to prepare for a phenomenal ride!