Academic journal article The Psychoanalytical Study of the Child

Free to Be You and Me: Normal Gender-Role Fluidity - Commentary on Diane Ehrensaft's "Listening and Learning from Gender-Nonconforming Children"

Academic journal article The Psychoanalytical Study of the Child

Free to Be You and Me: Normal Gender-Role Fluidity - Commentary on Diane Ehrensaft's "Listening and Learning from Gender-Nonconforming Children"

Article excerpt

"I'm not! And if turning up my hair makes me one, I'll wear it in two tails till I'm twenty," cried Jo, pulling off her net, and shaking down a chestnut mane. "I hate to think I've got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China aster! It's bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys' games and work and manners. I can't get over my disappointment in not being a boy; and it's worse than ever now, for I am dying to go and fight with Papa, and I can only stay at home and knit, like a poky old woman!" 1

"Pudd'nhead Wilson says Hellfire Hotchkiss is the only genuwyne male man in this town and Thug Carpenter's the only genuwyne female girl, if you leave out sex and just consider the business facts."2

FROM THE WRITINGS OF SHAKESPEARE (twelfth night, much ado about Nothing); Mark Twain; Louisa May Alcott; and contemporary characters in literature that include Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird; Frankie turning into Francis in Member of the Wedding; Pippi Longstocking, who is full of phallic exuberance; and Smidge, the sensitive boy with strong maternal instincts, writers throughout the centuries have articulated the theme of gender role fluidity. Homosexual behavior and role reversal cross-dressing are as old as recorded history (Crompton, 2006).

Given that such feelings and behaviors have existed throughout time, gender fluidity might be considered a normal, classic aspect of human development. In my discussion of Dr. Diane Ehrensaft's paper, "Listening and Learning from Gender-Nonconforming Children," I will show how modern thinking about and research in development support the idea of gender fluidity throughout the life span and discuss some ideas of how this should or should not be treated in children.

A definition of terms is in order before further discussion of this issue. Gender and sexuality are researched, theorized, taught, and used in practice by several different professions and subspecialties within professions, leading to variances in nomenclature. Ehrensaft uses "gender identity" to define knowing the self to be male or female (often referred to as "core gender identity" or "natal sex"), and "gender expression" to mean all the external and internal ways people think about and express their gender identity (often referred to as "gender role identity"). In my discussion, I will use "core gender identity" to mean the biological determination of being a boy or a girl, and "gender role identity" to define the ways children use aspects of male and female gender role and expression in their conscious and unconscious sense of themselves.

Ehrensaft's paper gives us a particular view into the present-day mental health and pediatric discussion and treatment of fluid gender role identity and gender role nonconformance in children. She asks us to think about what is in the best interests of these children regarding the development of their minds, their senses of self, and their bodies when they have a fluid gender role identity or when they insist they are a girl in a boy's body or vice versa.

While she conceptualizes gender as fluid, her actual practice with children discussed in her paper indicates a conflict between dichotomous and fluid gender identity in children, adolescents, and adults. While she sees the construction of gender expression as a weaving together of the forces of nature and nurture, she also writes that "gender identity [knowing your natal sex] is far more resistant to environmental intervention or shaping." How, then, does one think about the children who from a very early age insistently believe that they are not the gender written on their birth certificate? Ehrensaft labels these children as transgender and describes them as gender dysphoric. While Ehrensaft's theory of True Gender Self Therapy includes listening to the child's gendered sense of self and allows for a more fluid and changing expression of gender, she becomes much more dichotomous when working with children who have gender dysphoria and express a persistent desire to become the opposite sex they feel themselves to be. …

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