"God made a mistake"

frillydress1Nothing stirs up as much GetReligion guilt in my heart as the arrival of a new issue of The Atlantic Monthly in my mailbox at work. Month after month, it seems that there is some giant story that I want to write about on the blog -- immediately, post haste -- yet it is so long and involved that it just keeps slipping and slipping and, well, then that new issue arrives and stirs up my guilt. The recent "A Boy's Life" by Hanna Rosin -- an in-depth study of issues linked to the raising of transgender children -- is a classic example of why people who love journalistic writing keep reading the Atlantic, even years after the tragic loss of super-editor Michael Kelly in Iraq.

Rosin is a liberal's liberal, when it comes to issues of science, religion and culture, but she is a brutally candid reporter and writer. Thus, this story wades right into the bitter gender wars in the dangerous territory between nature and nurture. There are few answers here, but many questions that will frustrate people on the religious right and the lifestyle left. Here's a crucial passage about young Brandon Simms that sets the scene:

At the toy store, Brandon would head straight for the aisles with the Barbies or the pink and purple dollhouses. Tina wouldn't buy them, instead steering him to neutral toys: puzzles or building blocks or cool neon markers. One weekend, when Brandon was 2, she took him to visit her 10-year-old cousin. When Brandon took to one of the many dolls in her huge collection -- a blonde Barbie in a pink sparkly dress -- Tina let him bring it home. He carried it everywhere, "even slept with it, like a teddy bear."

For his third Christmas, Tina bought Brandon a first-rate Army set -- complete with a Kevlar hat, walkie-talkies, and a hand grenade. Both Tina and Brandon's father had served in the Army, and she thought their son might identify with the toys. A photo from that day shows him wearing a towel around his head, a bandanna around his waist, and a glum expression. The Army set sits unopened at his feet. Tina recalls his joy, by contrast, on a day later that year. One afternoon, while Tina was on the phone, Brandon climbed out of the bathtub. When she found him, he was dancing in front of the mirror with his penis tucked between his legs. "Look, Mom, I'm a girl," he told her. "Happy as can be," she recalls.

"Brandon, God made you a boy for a special reason," she told him before they said prayers one night when he was 5, the first part of a speech she'd prepared. But he cut her off: "God made a mistake," he said.

This story is set in the Bible Belt and religious statements and beliefs emerge early and often. That said, Rosin includes all kinds of material that will upset people on the lifestyle left as well as the religious left. One thing is clear: All kinds of people have beliefs -- world views, even -- that affect their decisions and actions. This is true in homes, Christian and secular. It is also true in schools, medical offices and research facilities.

One thing is very clear, however. There is a major news story here that is not going to go away.

Around the world, clinics that specialize in gender-identity disorder in children report an explosion in referrals over the past few years. Dr. Kenneth Zucker, who runs the most comprehensive gender-identity clinic for youth in Toronto, has seen his waiting list quadruple in the past four years, to about 80 kids -- an increase he attributes to media coverage and the proliferation of new sites on the Internet. Dr. Peggy Cohen-Kettenis, who runs the main clinic in the Netherlands, has seen the average age of her patients plummet since 2002. "We used to get calls mostly from parents who were concerned about their children being gay," says Catherine Tuerk, who since 1998 has run a support network for parents of children with gender-variant behavior, out of Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "Now about 90 percent of our calls are from parents with some concern that their child may be transgender." ...

It took the gay-rights movement 30 years to shift from the Stonewall riots to gay marriage; now its transgender wing, long considered the most subversive, is striving for suburban normalcy too. The change is fueled mostly by a community of parents who, like many parents of this generation, are open to letting even preschool children define their own needs. Faced with skeptical neighbors and school officials, parents at the conference discussed how to use the kind of quasi-therapeutic language that, these days, inspires deference: tell the school the child has a "medical condition" or a "hormonal imbalance" that can be treated later, suggested a conference speaker, Kim Pearson; using terms like gender-identity disorder or birth defect would be going too far, she advised. The point was to take the situation out of the realm of deep pathology or mental illness, while at the same time separating it from voluntary behavior, and to put it into the idiom of garden-variety "challenge." As one father told me, "Between all the kids with language problems and learning disabilities and peanut allergies, the school doesn't know who to worry about first."

You really need to read the whole story, because there is no way for me to walk you through all of the twists and turns. But, for me, here is the key. This story is really about the parents, parents who want so badly to be able to make one decision and be able to know that they made the right decision, a decision that will produce a future that is predictable and relatively "safe" and rewarding.

Of course, the parents want what is best for their children. But they also want the problem to go away. Right now.

But that doesn't appear to be an option. It seems that some people a really are able, over time, to change their behaviors and attitudes. But the change is hard, hard, hard. Meanwhile, others do not seem to be able to do so or believe that the effort required is too hard or too cruel. It seems that the beliefs of the parents and their support communities are crucial. There are religious considerations, as well as political.

Looking for easy answers? They are not here and that is sure to frustrate people on both sides of the culture wars.

Read it all. I dare you. This is what in-depth magazine journalism is all about.

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