Congratulations: It's a girl! Well, at least that's what you thought you had. For parents of transgender children, not everything is what it seems. Some children are wracked with what's called a "gender-identity disorder" and are profoundly depressed and can even become suicidal if they are not allowed to express themselves as the opposite sex.
Tina Simms had a difficult decision to make: Should she allow her son, Brandon, to live his life as girl? After all, Brandon had expressed a desire to be a "she" instead of a "he" almost as soon as he could talk.
In typical transgender fashion, when Brandon was a little boy, he rejected all things "male." He only wanted to play with dolls and preferred dressing up in his mom's clothes. Once, holding his penis between his legs and obscuring it from view, he gleefully told his stunned mother, "Look, Mom, I'm a girl!"
After years of therapy and family counseling, Brandon, now 9, has made a complete transformation. He is now called Bridget. He only dresses in feminine clothing, has his ears pierced and is by all accounts the happiest he's ever been -- and his parents fully support his decision. Eventually, as he nears puberty, he will begin receiving puberty-blocking hormones.
And he might not even have to wait until his teen years to start treatment. Pediatric specialist Dr. Norman Spack opened a clinic last year in Boston for transgender kids as young as 7. While some critics argue that it is morally wrong to put a child through that process at such an early age, Ritch Savin-Williams, professor of human development at Cornell University, disagrees. "The quicker you are able to intervene hormonally, the easier [the] transition from a boy to a girl in terms of physical appearance," he tells momlogic. "By not even allowing the masculine effects of puberty to begin, you can prevent years of misery for the child."
Only time will tell if Brandon will eventually make the leap to a total sex-change surgery. (Most American doctors will not perform a sex reassignment until the age of consent, which is 18.)
So how can parents tell if their child might be struggling with a gender-identity disorder? Just because a boy plays with a doll, does it mean he's transgender?
"This is not just a boy wanting to dress up like a girl for Halloween," says Savin-Williams. "It's about persistence. It's when a child is so miserable that the only thing you can to do to lift the child's spirits is to let them become the opposite sex. And it's also a matter of time: If a child is consistently communicating their gender preference -- for over a year -- to family, it might be time to seek counseling."
But again, Savin-Williams advises against putting off facilitating a child's transformation. "It doesn't make mental-health sense for a child to be miserable," he says. "And it's not like the problem is going to just go away."