Monthly Archives: May 2008

Gender Identity: NPR, Zucker, and Ehrensaft

As I was driving on Wednesday, I heard this piece on All Things Considered. I heard most of it then, but I looked it up today after work. It’s part of a two-part series, and I listened to the second part today, as well.

The first part deals with small children (2, 3, 4) who strongly identify with the gender that is opposite of their genetic make-up. It details two boys, one on the east coast, one on the west — both who strongly identify with being a girl and with “girl-things.” The set of each boy’s parents goes to see a doctor about their son. The east coast set goes to Ken Zucker, and the west coast set goes to Diane Ehrensaft.

After listening to this piece, I began to read up a bit on Zucker and Ehrensaft. This article called “Drop the Barbie! If You Bend Gender Far Enough, Does It Break?” reveals how “behaviorist” and rigid Zucker is. As part of his therapy, he has parents take away all of the “girl” (in this case) toys. He has the parents disallow him to play with girls or pretend he is a girl character is his play. In the ATC piece, he brings up that if one were to bring a black child to a therapist, and that child says, “I’m white,” then should the therapist have that child live as white? or should the therapist try to make that child comfortable with whom s/he is? He says one would do the latter. He claims that both “confusions” stem from surrounding dysfunction.

This is not an apt comparison. At the very least, racial identity has more to do with cultural identity, since race is a social construct. Whereas gender is obviously cross-cultural, and it is biological to at least some degree. [Honestly, there is a lot more to this — I can intuit it. It is not an apt comparison, yet at the moment I do not have the words to fully articulate it. One one hand, a) a black child identifying as white — what does that even mean? White culture? The whole question of a black child claiming to be white relies on an idea that there is a limited way to be black and a limited way to be white. b) Does this happen? If anyone has thoughts on this — I’d love to hear them!]

In terms of Zucker’s idea that gender “switching” in small children is caused by dysfunction (thus nurture), he, of course, seeks to find the cause (from the article “Drop the Barbie!”):

Zucker and his colleagues try to uncover the psychodynamics in the family that might be at the root of the child’s gender distress. Girls may develop GID, he believes, because they’ve formed the perception that being a girl is weak or dangerous. One little girl he saw recently, for example, had witnessed her mother being assaulted by the mother’s boyfriend. A boy, on the other hand, in a family where the mother is suffering from depression and is emotionally unavailable, might make an effort to act like a girl to get closer to her.

He goes on to say:

Parents are encouraged to set limits on the cross-gender behavior of the child. “We urge them to say, ‘Let’s figure out what other things you can do besides play with that doll,'” Zucker says. “In some situations, we have to work hard with parents’ own issues about gender. Could be a mother who’s had difficulty with the men in her life and has a lot of mixed feelings toward men. That gets translated to the boy, and her fear that he’ll grow up to be like those men causes him to reject being a boy.”

Hmmmm. This smacks to me of the ol’ “Let’s blame it on the mother…” “Gay son — he was mothered too much!” Here, mom is the cause of both disorders. I can’t say I see sound logic here, either.

When Ehrensaft was interviewed, she said something that I thought was pretty profound (from ATC):

Ehrensaft, however, does not use that label. She describes children like Bradley and Jonah as transgender. And, unlike Zucker, she does not think parents should try to modify their child’s behavior. In fact, when Pam and Joel came to see her, she discouraged them from putting Jonah into any kind of therapy at all. Pam says because Ehrensaft does not see transgenderism itself as a dysfunction, the therapist didn’t think Pam and Joel should try to cure Jonah.

“She made it really clear that, you know, if Jonah’s not depressed, or anxious, or having anything go on that she would need to really be in therapy for, then don’t put a kid in therapy until they need it,” Pam says.

If it’s not a dysfunction, then don’t make it one. Human nature is such an odd beast, and I wonder if I’d take that approach if it were some behavior that seemed truly wrong from my perspective. I guess the difference is that in order for something to be truly wrong, I would think it would need a component of causing harm — causing harm to the self or to others. Part of what is difficult for me is that this feels like an automatic response for me, to use a phrase I don’t really like, a “no-brainer.” Yet, I am having a very difficult time articulating why. Anyway, check the series out and let me know what you think.

It’s Finally Launched!

Just about one year later, Sujal’s product is finally launched! It’s his website, Cool Spotters. Join it and check it out!