Dear Dr. Ponton,
I'm a father and single parent of a 15-year-old son. I'm very worried about my son's safety, and not sure what to do. My son has always liked to wear women's clothing, ever since he was a toddler. When he was 5 years old, his mother thought it was cute and encouraged this behavior. I was not so thrilled, but I thought it would end as he grew older.
His dress-up behavior used to be limited to the home environment, but lately he's been dressing as a girl when he goes to school and the local mall. Other kids have been teasing him. The school officials have not been much help about the teasing, and say that my son has brought this upon himself, given his "provocative" behavior. A boy was recently killed in California for similar behavior and that worries me very much. What do you advise?
-- Worried Father
This father needs to speak immediately with a support agency such as PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) or LYRIC (Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center), which will help him better assess the possible risk his child is facing from his peers.
In addition, he must insist on help and sensitivity from his son's school. School administrators who look the other way are contributing to the problem.
An excellent resource for parents dealing with these kinds of fears is a publication, "What Does Gay Mean: How to Talk With Kids About Sexual Orientation and Prejudice," available from the National Mental Health Association. The organization recommends that parents encourage their children to "stand up for themselves without fighting" and take action when they see bullying behavior against others. They should inform a teacher or authority figure if the harassment doesn't stop. But they should also be told to "walk away in dangerous situations."
This father is worried about the dangers his son might face -- and he has reason to be. Young people who are courageous enough to express their sexuality often face hatred, name-calling, social ostracism and even physical assaults.
Homophobia and genderphobia can result in serious harm. Aggressive behaviors triggered by homophobia are believed to be linked to the drop in self-esteem and the rise in self-harming behaviors, sometimes even leading to suicide attempts, experienced by gay and transgendered youth. One third of all teen suicides are committed by these sexually questioning teenagers.
This father refers to the recent tragic death of 17-year-old Eddie "Gwen" Araujo, a transgendered youth in Newark, Calif., who was allegedly killed by a group of youths at a party when they discovered that Araujo, who was dressed as a girl, was a biological male.
What can we as parents and a society do to alter this threatening picture? First and foremost we can listen to our teenagers in a nonjudgmental manner. We can support them, as well as teach our children to be tolerant of all forms of sexual identity.
We also need to educate ourselves about sexuality. Core gender identity, gender roles and sexual orientation are often confused by parents. Many falsely assume that a boy with a more feminine gender role will have a homosexual orientation. Core gender identity usually develops in childhood and is a sense of oneself as male or female. For transgendered youth, the feelings of being in the "wrong" body usually begin in childhood, and grow stronger in adolescence.
Gender roles are characteristics, behaviors, and interests defined by society or culture as appropriate for members of each gender. Sexual orientation concerns which gender a person is attracted to. Sexual identity is an all-inclusive category, which refers to how a person describes, expresses and feels about his or her sexual self. Core gender identity, gender roles and sexual orientation are all important parts of sexual identity, but no one of these make up the entire story. Self-esteem, sexual fantasy life, sexual style and desirability are some of the many elements that constitute an individual's sexual identity.
Sexual/gender roles are changing, and today's teenagers are splitting into two conflicting groups. Some are more androgynous, adopting a combination of masculine and feminine traits to redefine their gender roles, and others are polarizing into rigid gender roles, in which teens are the enforcers of social norms.
Girls with a combination of masculine and feminine traits are reported to show greater self-acceptance and be better accepted by their peers. This is not the case for boys. Peer acceptance is greatest for boys with purely masculine traits, and not surprisingly, self-acceptance is also better for sharply defined masculine boys. Interestingly, this is not the case in either childhood or adulthood, when a combination of masculine and feminine traits is associated with good mental health.
Besides being good parents to our children, we can also play an active role in convincing school officials to enlighten students about tolerance. Many schools have already taken the initiative. Eddie Araujo's high school in Newark is one of three Bay Area schools performing "The Laramie Project" this fall.
Last week, I attended a performance of this courageous and innovative play, written by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project, and directed by Lorna Strand at University High School, the first of the three schools to perform it in the San Francisco Bay Area. It tells the story of Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who was brutally beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo.
High school plays like this can make a difference. Viewing this play performed by young people, close in age to Gwen and Matt, is a transforming experience. "The Laramie Project" captures the voices of the American scene and teaches us about the sexual landscape that teenagers, parents, and other adults are struggling with today. Its lessons are extremely painful, but necessary to hear. It underscores how our communities fail to offer support to young people who are dealing with issues related to sexual orientation and gender.
There is much to be learned. From Laramie. From Newark. And from your town.