Conference Offers Lifeline for Gender Variant Children, Families

(Originally published as my Mombian newspaper column.)

The two eight-year-old girls said that meeting each other was like a dream come true. They both had similar interests—gymnastics, dance, singing, and songwriting—and similar styles in hair and clothing. Not only that, but for each of them, it was the first time they had met another child who knew what it was like to be a girl born with a boy’s body.

They met at the Gender Spectrum Family Conference, now in its fifth year of supporting families that have gender variant, gender non-conforming, and transgender children. Stephanie Brill, executive director and founder of the Gender Spectrum organization behind the conference, related the story of the two girls as but one example of the impact the event has had. “Each of their parents said it was miraculous going home, that [the children’s] self-esteem was so high, and it did carry them through the year,” she said.

Gender Spectrum grew out of a support group Brill started at Children’s Hospital Oakland in California. The immediate interest made her realize the “huge need” for such resources. She envisioned a national conference “where educators, medical providers, mental health care providers—and of course families—could come together for support” and for current information and best practices.

Now hundreds of families and individuals—from a variety of religions, classes, geographic areas, and racial and ethnic backgrounds—attend the conference each year, many on full scholarships from the organization. 

For the youngest children, there is a Kids Camp of all-day play. The conference also offers separate youth programming for 9- to 12-year-olds, 13- to 15-year-olds, and 16- to 18-year-olds. The youth have “both the opportunity to interact with gender or to stay off the gender topic, wherever their comfort zone is,” said Brill.

Programming for adults includes workshops on the legal rights of children in schools, sports, and other activities; creating safe and welcoming spaces in schools; medical concerns; and reconciling gender non-conformity with one’s faith.

There is also a day-long workshop for medical, mental health, education, and human service professionals.

But the conference is an emotional as well as an intellectual experience. “There’s a lot of struggle at the conference, a lot of pain and emotion. There’s a lot of realization and celebration,” Brill said.

Brill explained, “Frequently parents will come to us at the end of their rope, saying, ‘I’ve tried everything to change my child, and it isn’t working.’” They may be afraid that their child will be teased or bullied, or frustrated that the child is refusing to obey rules they have established.

On the other hand, she has found, ultra-liberal parents may sometimes jump too quickly to the conclusion that their child is transgender, when the child might be at another point along the spectrum.

And LGBT parents, she said, although they may already have an understanding of gender issues, may also feel additional pressure from a society that already looks to see if we are pushing an “LGBT agenda” on our children.

“One of the profound experiences” that parents have at the conference, Brill said, is realizing that for an entire weekend, they don’t have to be defensive or worried about their children, or concerned about their own responses. They know the other parents there are going through the same thing.

For the children and youth, she said, “The conference gives them a lifeline.”

Jane Smith (not her real name), who has attended every Gender Spectrum conference with her own transgender girl (now 10 years old), agreed, saying the conference is “a place of freedom” for her child and has been “life changing.”

Smith noted that her family is gaining different things from Gender Spectrum as the years go by. At the beginning, she said, it was important for her and her spouse to go to the workshops and learn the content, “but also to meet other families, and for our kid to . . . be around all these different kids who were in different places and see that she wasn’t the only person.” Now, they are attending with an eye to the challenges they will face as their child enters middle school and approaches puberty.

They also want to support their younger daughter, now three. “She’s going to grow up with this really different basis of definition [of gender],” Smith said. “I’ll be happy to have the conference for her as a sibling, to have the support of other siblings and to normalize it for her.”

All of the children’s and youth programming is open to siblings as well, and all the kids are mixed together, gender variant and not. Smith observed, “You don’t know who’s who. It doesn’t matter who’s who. I love that.”

She advised other parents, “You don’t have to jump to find any kind of label for your kid, even if you realize it’s not a phase. . . . The best thing you can do for them is let them be who they are and follow them where that goes.”

And if that is sometimes difficult in everyday life, Brill said that at the conference “You don’t have to worry about anybody else’s perception.” It is “a place where you can breathe easy.”

The Gender Spectrum Family Conference ran July 29 to August 1 in Berkeley, California. Gender Spectrum also offers phone-in and in-person events throughout the year. Visit genderspectrum.org for details.