Mum and dad locked in battle over child's gender identity: What happens when parents disagree?

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor
What happens when parents disagree on their child's gender identity? (Photo: Getty Images)

An American mother and father’s battle over the gender identity of their seven-year-old is sparking a large-scale conversation about parental rights and transgender children.

“You’ve heard of people who can’t agree if the sky is blue. These parents can’t even agree if their child is a boy or a girl,” the attorney for the child’s father, Jeff Younger, reportedly said at a recent court appearance in the 255th District Court in Dallas, Texas in the US.

He and the child’s mother, paediatrician Anne Georgulas, had their marriage annulled in 2016, and have been in the midst of a contentious custody fight for the child and a twin brother.

On 24 October, a judge awarded joint custody to the mother and father (after Georgulas had previously had sole conservatorship), despite their extremely different views regarding the child.

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Younger had taken the fight public by pleading his case through an elaborate website (since taken down by court order) and by granting interviews to conservative media outlets and attracting the attention of Senator Rand Paul, Senator Ted Cruz and Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

He says his child is simply a boy. He contends that Georgulas “manipulated” the child, who was born male and named James and who now allegedly identifies as a girl called Luna, into a “false gender self-identity.”

But Georgulas says she is just affirming what she says is the child’s expressed gender identity — by using the seven-year-old’s chosen name and gender pronouns and by allowing dress-wearing and use of the girls’ bathroom at school.

Georgulas wanted Younger to follow suit, but he disagrees that the child is transgender, calling the concept “against my religious beliefs” and “scientifically false.” He claims the child has “never dressed as a girl at my house and violently refuses” to do so.

Experts, though, tell Yahoo Lifestyle that a child expressing gender in different ways, depending on which parent is present, makes a lot of sense, based on what feels safe.

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“Gender identity comes from within, and certainly a child could shut down their identity and hide it,” says Michelle Forcier, director of the Gender and Sexual Health program at Rhode Island Hospital, who specialises in gender-diverse children and adolescents. “It could be the child shutting down because it makes Dad unhappy and uncomfortable,” which is something she’s witnessed with kids who find angry resistance from a non-affirming parent.

Forcier, who is also a professor of paediatrics at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University, says that parents who disagree over the best way to care for their gender-variant child are, “unfortunately, all too common,” but that it’s important to address everyone’s issues.

“We really want to try to work with both parents to try to educate them — what does this gender exploration look like and mean? For the affirming parent, we give them support, because they often question, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’” For a non-affirming parent, she says, “we really try to educate them about how not providing recommended care — just as with diabetes or asthma — is harmful. It’s not a neutral event where just doing nothing is OK.”

Forcier, who credits the research of psychologist Kristina Olson for much of the scientific knowledge in this arena, stresses to skeptical parents that even something as simple as using the child’s “asserted name and pronoun” helps protect against an increased risk in suicidal behaviours. “It says, ‘I hear you, I see you, I respect who you are and your identity,’” she says.

Therapist Jean Malpas, founder and director of the Gender & Family Project at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City, agrees. “What we always say to folks is we will only recommend what is the most affirming and safe for the child — but we will take the time to hear everyone’s fears and concerns,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Parents typically want to protect their children, but just may have different ideas of how best to do that, Malpas says, explaining, “We’re not debating the best practice or if transgender children exist. … But once parents feel listened to, they’re willing, then, to listen to us and hear us when we say acceptance is the best form of protection — research has shown over and over.”

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Taking the affirming approach with a transgender or gender-diverse (TGD) child, as Georgulas seems to have done, is considered the evidence-based best practice by the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) and the American Psychological Association (APA). Forcier explains that the AAP, in its guidelines, came to this conclusion after an extensive review of three models of care — one of which was the reparative directive to just “live in your skin,” meaning basically to “deal with it” because being transgender is not a good outcome. “That has harm,” Forcier says, with evidence showing that it leads to a “fourfold increase in suicidality [a term which covers suicidal thoughts, plans and attempts]” when it’s pushed onto kids 10 and under.

Another model is known as “watch and wait.” But then, she says, “gender becomes the elephant in the room” and is ignored. “Maybe you’ll get to play dress-up, but only at home where no one else can see you — and nobody is offering you therapy or support.”

The recommended affirmative model, Forcier explains, may sound to some like it’s suggesting, “A kid says, ‘I’m a boy,’ and you say, ‘OK! Tomorrow we will change your name.’” But it’s really more nuanced. “It’s saying, ‘Gosh, everybody’s gender is a little bit different, and everybody deserves the opportunity to think about and talk about their gender. How can we help you figure out what it means to be gendered? Wherever you end up, we love you.’ You listen carefully, you keep an open mind and open heart, and depending on what each kid needs, you give them space and room to be their authentic self.”

Many of the critics in the Texas case — including Cruz and Paul — have raised the issue of the child’s young age, with Paul tweeting, “We don’t let kids drink alcohol til 21. … But we will allow a seven year old to have his life and body altered like this?”

Both Forcier and Malpas dismiss that point.

“We cannot imagine a child can know themselves to be transgender at seven, but we never question that a child can know themselves to be cisgender at seven,” Malpas says. “If a cisgender girl says to you, ‘I’m a girl,’ you don’t say, ‘We don’t know that, let’s wait until you’re 18.’” But the reality is that “children are aware of having a sense of gender identity as young as two or three,” even though it doesn’t mean that gender is necessarily fixed. “Our gender identity can change over the course of a lifespan, and we all come to terms with who we are at different times in life, whether at five, 15 or 55.”

Malpas explains that’s why no paediatrician or psychologist with an understanding of gender would ever suggest that anything medically irreversible be done to the child in Texas, despite Younger’s suggestion that his ex-wife was calling for forced medical procedures.

“At seven, we’re not talking about medical care. We’re talking about listening to a child, understanding their identity and helping them understand their identity,” Malpas says. “It does not entail any permanent intervention — or any intervention.”

Even in the case that down the line the child might want to try puberty blockers — drugs that suppress the rise in sex hormones, oestrogen and testosterone, that accompany puberty (the long-term risks of which are not well known) — the effects are “completely reversible” if treatments stop, Forcier says.

As far as Younger’s assertion that Georgulas has manipulated their child into being trans? The experts reject that as well.

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“If parents could make their kids trans or not trans, how many trans kids do you think we would have running around in the U.S. right now?” Forcier asks rhetorically. “Being trans is hard. A kid’s not going to say ‘I’m trans’ just because Mommy says it’s cool.”

Adds Malpas, “It takes an enormous amount of courage for anyone to really be authentic and truthful. And for a kid to battle the world and go against all those expectations and assumptions? It is not something a child can be forced to be.

“We often say, ‘You can’t make or break a child’s gender identity — you can make it harder or easier for them to tell you who they are.’”

If your child is struggling with gender identity, the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust offers specialist help in offering support and guidance.