Transgender Children and Youth: A Child Welfare Practice Perspective

By Mallon, Gerald P.; DeCrescenzo, Teresa | Child Welfare, March/April 2006 | Go to article overview

Transgender Children and Youth: A Child Welfare Practice Perspective


Mallon, Gerald P., DeCrescenzo, Teresa, Child Welfare


Using an ecological framework, the existing literature and research, and the authors' combined 60 years of clinical practice with children, youth, and families, this article examines gender variant childhood development from a holistic viewpoint where children, youth, and environments are understood as a unit in the context of their relationship to one another. The focus is limited to a discussion about the recognition of gender identity; an examination of the adaptation process through which gender variant children and youth go through to deal with the stress of an environment where there is not a "goodness of fit"; and a discussion of the overall developmental tasks of a transgender childhood and adolescence. Recommendations for social work practice with gender variant young people are presented in the conclusion of the paper.

The film Ma Vie en Rose (My Life in Pink) (Berliner & Scotta, 1997) is a story about the innocence of childhood as told through the experiences of a seven year old boy, Ludovic. Ludovic desperately wants to be a girl and everything about him says that he already is one. He has it all figured out; God messed up his chromosomes, simple as that, no judgment, no morality. Ludovic is a prime example of a female brain in a male body and he is putting up a valiant struggle not to be erased as a person. It's all very honest and natural to him. He is only a small boy and is much more in tune with his needs and desires than is his family.

Ludovic is 7 years old, born to a middle class, suburban family. He is very much like other children, but he is different in one key way-Ludovic is sure that he was meant to be a little girl, not a little boy-and he waits for a miracle to "correct" this mistake. Whenever able, he dresses in typical girl outfits, grows long hair, and is certain of his gender identity despite the fact that others are less sure. His parents, while tolerant of his gender nonconforming behaviors, also are embarrassed by his insistence that he is a girl, not a boy.

His siblings, although loving their "brother" in their home, are fatigued by having to fight for him in school when he is teased and harassed. Even though everyone else is unsure, Ludovic muddles along, praying for the miracle that will change him into the girl he knows he is. Everything falls apart however, when he falls in love with a boy who happens to be the son of his father's boss, a man who is uncomfortable in his own skin.

When Ludo's father is fired from his job because his boss cannot abide by Ludovic's crush on his son, Ludovic's mother increasingly blames his gender nonconforming dress and behavior for the family's estrangement from their community. The gender variant behavior that was once tolerated is now unsupportable: Ludovic's hair is cut into a typical boy's style; he is forced to wear traditional boy's clothing; he is brought to therapy; and he is encouraged to play sports and to be more like his brothers-all "corrective" actions designed to make him to be more like a boy, to make him "fit in," by force if necessary.

Ostracized by his schoolmates, misunderstood by his family, and eventually run out of town by bigoted neighbors, Ludovic accepts that he cannot be the boy his family wants him to be. In a desperate attempt to break away from his life, Ludo tries to end his life, at which point, his family realizes that in spite of what their community thinks, Ludovic should be accepted for who he really is. The final lines in the film, "Do whatever feels best. Whatever happens you'll always be my child."

"Our child" is a line that every transgender child longs to hear from his or her parent.

Ah, if life could just be as simple as it is in the movies... although, Ma Vie en Rose is a powerful story of a gender variant child who struggles to be accepted by his family, and finally is, contemporary real-life childhood undoubtedly is a very difficult period for gender variant children or youth and their parents. …

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