By Rachel GieseUpdated Jun 11, 2019
Photo: Jonathan Hobin
As soon as Warner could speak at around age two, she told her parents she was a girl. “God made a mistake,” her mother, Melissa Schaettgen, recalls Warner saying. A mistake, because Warner, like her twin brother, Emery, had been born male. But while Emery embraced stereotypical boy stuff, like Lego and trucks, Warner preferred dolls and dresses, fairies and the colour pink. All of this was tough for Melissa and her husband, Elmar, who are Catholic and live in a conservative rural community outside Ottawa. In addition to the twins, they have two older sons and held fairly traditional ideas about gender. They didn’t know what to make of a kid who felt she was born into the wrong body. “We had no previous experience with LGBTQ issues,” Melissa says. “No exposure—nothing.”
But they wanted Warner to be happy, so at home she was allowed to dress like a girl, provided she wore boys’ clothes when she was in public. So for the next few years, the family lived a double life: one in which Warner was a boy, the other in which she was a girl. Melissa and Elmar feared their then son would be bullied and worried they would be seen as bad parents. “We tried to make Warner something she wasn’t: a boy.”
Lots of kids don’t adhere to pink and blue gender norms, but in Warner’s case the situation was pronounced. “Consistent, persistent, insistent,” is a marker used by doctors to determine whether a child is transgender—someone who is born one gender but feels they’re the other. The clinical terms for this are gender dysphoria or gender identity disorder.
No one knows why some people are born into bodies that don’t match their sense of self, although there’s some growing evidence that there is a biological basis. Until recently, most people didn’t “come out” as transgender until they were adults, after hiding their real identities for years, the situation that athlete and reality-TV star Caitlyn (previously Bruce) Jenner has described in stories about her gender transition. As part of their gender reassignment process, adults undergo hormonal treatment and, in some cases, surgery.
While it’s difficult to find stats on how common transgender identity is among kids, its visibility has swelled. It’s possible that parents and medical professionals are simply getting better at identifying and supporting trans kids, and advocacy and education by transgender adults has also paved the way for younger people to transition earlier. One prominent young trans activist is 14-year-old Jazz Jennings, an author and now star of the new TLC reality show I Am Jazz, about growing up, as she once put it, “with a girl brain but a boy body.”
Most kids will at some point pretend to be the opposite gender or try on opposite-gender clothing. However, there’s a minority for whom the conviction that they’re the opposite gender, or that their identity is somewhere in the middle, never goes away. Norman Spack, a paediatric endocrinologist at Boston Children’s Hospital who works with transgender kids, has noted several ways transgender identity begins to be reveal itself at a young age.
Gender awareness—understanding that there are boys and girls, and knowing which one you are—emerges around 18 months. From the start, children who are transgender or genderfluid will begin to tell their parents that they are a different gender. Other signs that emerge in the toddler and preschool stages are bathroom behaviour (girls who want to stand to pee, for instance), a preference for opposite-sex bathing suits and underwear, and a desire to play with toys that are typically associated with the opposite gender. As Spack explains in his foreword to Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper’s book The Transgender Child, “These kids are making a statement with every move and word.” Children who are born male but identify as girls tend to get treatment sooner than girls who identify as boys. There’s more latitude and even admiration for tomboyish behaviour, while a boy who insists on wearing a dress and nail polish causes a much bigger stir.
Warner, who is now eight, began to feel upset every time she had to return to her boy identity. The summer before she entered grade one, she had been allowed to let her hair grow shaggy, and the prospect of a back-to-school haircut led to a meltdown. “She said, ‘I’d rather die than be a boy,’” Melissa says. She and Elmar had hoped it was a phase and would pass, but Warner’s persistence and increasing unhappiness meant they couldn’t ignore the issue. They sought help at the Gender Identity and Diversity Clinic at Ottawa’s Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), one of a growing number of medical centres across the country that provide treatment for kids who fall into the categories of transgender, gender creative and gender nonconforming.
Until recent years, the standard treatment for children like Warner was conversion, or so-called reparative therapy, which aimed to correct gender nonconforming kids by encouraging feminine boys to be more masculine and masculine girls to be more feminine. The practice has now been widely discredited, and Ontario even recently passed a law banning conversion therapy on LGBTQ children and preventing medical practitioners from billing the province for it.
There’s good reason to take a new approach to working with trans kids. The ones who aren’t supported in living as their true selves experience staggeringly high rates of depression. According to Trans PULSE, a research initiative with Rainbow Health Ontario, 22 to 43 percent of trans people in Canada, the US and Europe have attempted suicide. A UK study found that nearly half of transgender people under the age of 26 have attempted suicide, while recent results from the University of British Columbia’s Canadian Trans Youth Health Survey report that 65 percent of transgender youth ages 14 to 18 had seriously considered suicide, more than a third had attempted it at least once, and nearly one in 10 had attempted it four or more times.
Today, the standard protocol in North America and northern Europe is to provide social support for kids to live as the gender that feels right to them. Around the age of nine or 10, some kids may be put on hormones that temporarily block the onset of puberty. When they become a teenager, they then might decide to pursue more medical intervention, such as a hormone treatment that promotes the development of secondary sex characteristics for the gender they desire, like a deeper or higher voice and less or more body hair. Later options upon adulthood include surgeries like breast implants or mastectomies.
For the Schaettgens, Warner’s transition has been a mix of struggle and joy. After receiving advice at CHEO, Melissa says they decided to “follow our hearts and follow Warner’s heart.” For the past two years, Warner has lived fully as a girl, growing her hair, wearing dresses and skirts, playing fairy princess, and using the pronouns “she” and “her.” Melissa and Elmar announced Warner’s transition to family and friends on Facebook, and some people rejected them. The process has been tough on Emery, too. He has grappled with understanding that his brother is now his sister, and Melissa admits he and Warner’s other siblings have, at times, gotten a little lost as the family’s focus has been on Warner. For a while, Warner couldn’t ride the school bus because she was taunted, and Emery got hassled, too. But their Catholic public school has been supportive. The day Warner made her debut at school as a girl, the teachers and administrators met to discuss how to support her and how to talk about her transition with the other kids. It gets easier every day, Melissa says, and Warner’s confidence is proof they’ve done the right thing. “As soon as she could live as a girl,” Melissa says, “a whole different happy kid emerged, like a beautiful butterfly.”
Kimberley Manning is one of the founding board members of Gender Creative Kids Canada, a national support and advocacy group based in Montreal. She laughs when she admits how long it took her to figure out that her nine-year-old, Elijah, who was born a boy, identified as a girl. An associate professor of political science at Concordia University in Montreal, Kimberley was well-versed in LGBTQ issues. She and her husband, Jason, practised feminist parenting and provided Elijah, who has a seven-year-old sister and a three-year-old brother, with toys and books that were free from gender stereotypes.
Elijah gravitated toward items that are more commonly associated with girls, but her parents thought it might be a phase. “I teach gender politics, and I had access to all kinds of academic work on transgender issues, and I didn’t see it,” Kimberley says. It wasn’t until Elijah was four and displaying a consistent preference for “girl” toys and clothing, and identifying herself as female, that a preschool teacher suggested Elijah might be transgender. Kimberley and Jason sought advice from the gender clinic at the Montreal Children’s Hospital.
One of the struggles for Kimberley was overcoming her initial shock. “Even though I was very open, I still experienced guilt and shame,” she says. Kimberley even wondered if she was responsible for Elijah’s gender nonconformity. A psychologist suggested Elijah might be identifying as a girl because she was jealous of her younger sister, insinuating that Kimberley wasn’t giving her older kid enough attention.
Support at schools and daycares varies. Elijah remained in her progressive preschool for an extra year as she began her transition to living fully as a girl. While her hair grew out, she loved to wear a headband with braids that her mom bought at a dollar store. “We must have gone through 10 of those,” Kimberley says, also recalling how thrilled Elijah was when she bought her her first pair of tights. In the meantime, her parents searched until they found a public alternative school that had inclusive policies and was LGBTQ positive. Elijah began attending it in grade one and is thriving. Because of her presence in the school, several staff attended a conference that Gender Creative Kids Canada held in Montreal, and Kimberley brought in a psychologist to talk to her classmates about gender diversity.
“Some of Elijah’s friends’ parents have thanked me for helping to educate their kids,” Kimberley says. “I think we’re at a moment of profound change and hopefulness when it comes to supporting transgender children, but there’s an incredible amount of work to be done. The kids who do get help are a minority.”
And then there are some children who don’t identify with a specific gender—or with any gender at all. M is a nine-year-old in Toronto who was born female but identifies variously as a girl, a boy or non-gendered. Her mom, Rebecca (who asked that her child only be identified by her initial), says M mostly uses female pronouns but prefers to wear boys’ clothes, like baggy pants and baseball caps. For the time being, Rebecca wants to keep all options open. “I neutralize a lot of language when I talk about M,” she says. “I use ‘kid’ instead of daughter, and I use her initial on social media instead of her full name because I don’t want to pressure her to be either a girl or a boy. She may continue to be most comfortable as a non-binary person, or she may settle on a gender.”
Joey Bonifacio, a paediatrician at the Transgender Youth Clinic at SickKids hospital in Toronto, says it can be more difficult to provide care for people who identify as genderfluid or agender. “Our broader culture divides us into males and females,” he says, “and the main way we’ve been treating transgender children is to help them fit their affirmed identity as male or female. But we’re seeing more and more children who don’t fit into those categories, and we need to start talking about how we help them.”
Public bathrooms are a major source of stress for kids like M, forcing them to choose a gender, and causing confusion and confrontation when other people see their presence as a threat. M has been teased for going into both a boys’ washroom and a girls’ one. “I keep a mental index of washrooms in the city that are single-stall and ungendered,” Rebecca says. “There have been times I’ve picked M up from an after-school program and she’s desperate to go to the bathroom, but the community centre only has boys’ and girls’ bathrooms. She’d rather go in a filthy grocery store bathroom that isn’t gendered than have to use a washroom labelled ‘girl’ or ‘boy.’”
Rebecca says many gender nonconforming kids develop bladder infections from holding it in because they can’t find a washroom they can comfortably use. This is slowly being addressed. Last year, for instance, the Vancouver School Board adopted a new policy that allows students to be addressed by the name that corresponds with their gender identity (including non-gendered identity) and to make school washrooms single-stall, gender-neutral ones.
Gender declarations on official documents, like passports and birth certificates, are another hurdle. The requirements to change gender identity vary from province to province and types of documentation. But Rebecca says it’s not just the official papers that demand a declaration of gender—it’s everything from permission forms for field trips to applications for after-school programs. For trans kids who identify strongly with a gender, parents can easily tick the boxes. For M, that’s not the case. “Every time I get a form that says ‘male or female,’ I cross it out and write ‘gender nonconforming.’”
M goes to Cub Scouts (Scouts Canada became coed in 1998), and when Rebecca signed her up, the form asked for the child’s gender. It turns out that one of the leaders of their local unit is a transgenderman, and when Rebecca raised the issue with him, he agreed the gender question on the form was unnecessary: When the Cubs go camping, they all sleep in the same tent and use the same washroom. “So much of the time gender isn’t relevant, and yet when you have a child like mine, you realize how often we expect people to be one thing or another.”
Melissa says connecting with other parents of trans kids has been essential for her and her husband, as has finding a way for Warner to meet other kids like herself. She and her husband go to Pride Day celebrations in Ottawa, are members of a support group and have become public advocates for transgender children and their families. Warner is doing well, and Melissa expects she will start taking puberty blockers in the next year or so.
Recently, Melissa organized Warner’s first sleepover, with a group of other transgender girls. It was a smashing success. “She would have had apprehensions about having a sleepover with natal (biological) girls. Her parts are still different, and I think she’d be nervous getting undressed. But with other trans girls, she could just be herself and talk about her crush on Justin Bieber.”
Melissa marvels at how far her family has come since Warner first told them who she really was. “The rest of us had to catch up. We’re still learning, but we’re more loving and more accepting of all people now. And we wouldn’t be where we are now without Warner.”
Sex is a person’s biological identity, based on their genitalia, gonads and chromosomes. People are male, female or intersex (having a combination of female and male physiology).
Gender refers to one’s sense of being a male or a female.
Trans or transgender refers to a person who doesn’t identify with or conform to the gender assigned to them at birth.
Non-gendered, gender variant, genderqueer, agender, gender nonconforming, genderfluid and gender creative refer to people who don’t identify as strictly male or female, or who have characteristics of both genders or who don’t see themselves as having a gender at all.
Gender expression refers to how a person presents their gender to the world through their hairstyle, clothing, voice and mannerisms.
Sexual orientation refers to a person’s sexual and romantic attractions. Common orientations are bisexual, lesbian, gay and straight.
Two spirit is used by some indigenous communities to refer to those who have both a male and a female spirit. It is sometimes used for Aboriginal people who are LGBTQ.
LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.
Gender Creative Kids/Enfants transgenres Canada is a national parent-action group based in Montreal that provides information and resources for parents, caregivers, educators, health and social-service providers, researchers, activists and children across Canada. gendercreativekids.ca
Gender Spectrum is a US organization that aims to “create gender sensitive and inclusive environments for all children and teens,” through consultation, training and events. The group’s comprehensive website is a great starting place for parents and families of trans kids. genderspectrum.org
PFLAG Canada is a bilingual national group that supports,educates and provides resources to LGBTQ youth, adults, and their families and friends. 1-888-530-6777 pflagcanada.ca
The Ten Oaks Project is an Ottawa-based group that engages and connects children and youth from LGBTQ+ families, identities and communities. It offers an annual summer camp for kids. tenoaksproject.org
Camp Aranu’tiq is a week-long overnight summer camp in New England and California for transgender and gender-variant youth ages eight to 15. camparanutiq.org
TransYouth Family Allies is a US group that supports transgender children and their families through education, outreach and support. imatyfa.org