Therapists Must Be Allowed To Help Kids Struggling With Gender

David Benkof Contributor
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Yesterday’s announcement that the Obama administration supports bans on “conversion therapy” for LGBT youth represents an understandable response to a deceptive and harmful practice. Since 2003, I’ve been one of the Jewish community’s most outspoken critics of reparative therapy. While I’m nervous about the government ever trying to regulate our minds, I share the president’s impulse against forced conversion therapy for gay and lesbian youth.

Regarding transgender youth, though, the administration’s new position could not be more wrong.

I have tremendous compassion for people of all ages who feel they were born in the wrong body. Barring evidence of fraud, I strongly advocate referring to people by their preferred gender. I also support bathroom and other policies that respect the identities of transgender people while still safeguarding the privacy of traditionalist Americans.

But if implemented, the administration’s new policy will hurt some of the very people it’s supposed to help: gender-variant children themselves. The proposed ban doesn’t seem to recognize that most of those kids eventually shed the self-understandings of their youth.

For a 2012 New York Times Magazine cover story, Ruth Padawer reviewed the research on transgender children. The surprising data about the typical futures of so-called “pink boys” and tomboys should give tremendous pause to those who wish to regulate therapy for transgender children:

“By age 10, most pink boys drop much of their unconventional appearance and activities, either because they outgrow the desire or subsume it. The studies on what happens in adulthood to boys who strayed from gender norms all have methodological limitations, but they suggest that although plenty of gay men don’t start out as pink boys, 60 to 80 percent of pink boys do eventually become gay men. The rest grow up to either become heterosexual men or become women by taking hormones and maybe having surgery.

“Gender-nonconforming behavior of girls, however, is rarely studied, in part because departures from traditional femininity are so pervasive and accepted. The studies that do exist indicate that tomboys are somewhat more likely than gender-typical girls to become bisexual, lesbian or male-identified, but most become heterosexual women.”

So a ban on helping a child accept his or her body-sex could help lock in an identity that for most children actually reflects the proverbial “just a phase.” It would mean our society has gone so far in “accepting people for who they are” that we’ve started making it harder for them to grow in other directions.

By supporting broad restrictions on therapy for LGBT youth that would limit the kinds of help available to transgender kids, the Obama administration is opposing one practice widely disdained by the medical community while trying to abolish another that’s widely accepted by doctors. Gender dysphoria (discomfort in one’s assigned gender) is an illness still recognized by the medical community. Though the old understanding of homosexuality as a disease pretty much disappeared a generation ago, many transgender men and women continue to get medical help for gender dysphoria – and they do not want that category destroyed, lest insurance stop covering the costs of treatment.

Today, most people agree what sexual orientation is. But no such consensus exists regarding gender identity; indeed, the category “transgender” covers people with vastly different experiences and self-understandings. The situation is even more complicated among gender-variant children, who don’t have the conceptual sophistication or advanced vocabulary to articulate precisely how they feel different. A policy of telling therapists they can’t help these kids progress to a new self-understanding will actually increase the suffering of some of them.

Now, one might suggest that only treatments aiming at “conversion” should be banned, not therapeutic approaches of “clarification” or “exploration.” But each child’s needs are different, and the approaches overlap too much. A vague ban involving real punishments would confuse therapists and lead some of them to decline to treat young transgender clients altogether.

For the last two decades, conflating sexual orientation and gender identity has made sense as a political and social strategy for sexual minorities. But the two are not identical, and the man-made category of LGBT (or, as the Obama administration’s press release calls it, LGBTQ+) should not dictate health care policy.

The inclusion of gender identity in the administration’s opposition to conversion therapy is more likely an oversight than a deliberate attempt to push adult categories onto the nursery set. Either way, it should be dropped post-haste.

David Benkof is Senior Political Analyst at the Daily Caller. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof); or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.