Sometimes, you read an article or listen to a podcast segment that acts as a near-perfect microcosm for some debate: It contains, in compressed form, all the key questions and controversies that make the sprawling broader conversation so interesting.
An interview conducted by the BBC’s Jennifer Tracey with Leo, a British 10-year-old gender-nonbinary child who is a natal female, and Leo’s mother, is a perfect example. It implicitly touches upon just about every flashpoint in the debate over childhood gender-identity — that is, how to best help kids who don’t feel comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth. It’s fascinating and problematic and you should listen to it.
Some important caveats: The only glimpse we have of Leo’s and his mom’s lives is from this interview. We don’t know how the interview was edited, what was left out, and so on. There are some serious limitations on the conclusions that can be drawn from a single 25-minute radio segment. But it’s still an intimate exploration of how one family grappled with and influenced the emergence of their child’s gender identity, and it’s as noteworthy for the subjects it doesn’t explore as for the ones it does.
The basics: “Last term,” Tracey explains, 10-year-old “Leo attended school as a girl, but over the summer he began to speak openly about his sense that that gender identity isn’t quite right. With research help from his parents, he has decided he is nonbinary — he feels both male and female, though for the moment he dresses as a boy, has taken a male name, and is called he.”
The origins of Leo’s belief that something about his gender identity didn’t fit go back a fair way: “I don’t know what age I was when I identified that I wasn’t feeling right,” he says, “because I just know that for a long time I just felt a little bit not quite on the same board. [Tracey asks him to elaborate …] In my old school, we had a girls’ line and a boys’ line, and I just didn’t feel entirely part of that girls’ line. It just felt wrong — just like, No, this isn’t right, for quite a while.”
Here, Leo’s mom asks if she can pop in to “help out,” and she takes the story’s reins. She explains that she had a cousin whose daughter came out as transgender, and she wondered if that might account for the way Leo was feeling — maybe Leo was trans. When Leo found about this idea, it immediately made sense: “It just suddenly exploded in my head,” explains Leo to Tracey. “Like, Ding, this might be why I’m not feeling entirely part of that line.” This had been going on for a while. It was Leo’s behavior and play preferences, Mom explains, that led them all down this path in the first place.
It’s worth quoting her explanation of the situation at length (this might not be a flawless transcription):
For several years Leo has been quite a tomboy. The 3rd birthday party was pirates, and I think we asked, Do you want pirates and princesses, and it was very much, No, it’s pirates. Why would we want princesses there? So there have been those kinds of signs — every time Leo has had any kind of a role model in film or books, it was Peter Pan, and then it was Iron Man — [Leo pipes up in the background] and Wolverine, how could I forget the Wolverine years? Which isn’t to say that was always the case — we did have the bright-pink bedroom, age 5. Leo requested Barbies one year, and so we and other members of the family bought these dolls. Leo just never got into playing with them, and even up until quite recently, whenever we’ve said Look, do you want to get rid of these? Leo’s always said No, I need to own them — I need to have these. And I wonder whether this is where that nonbinary thing is coming out, where Leo … is still struggling, actually, “Am I a girl or am I a boy?” when in fact Leo is not a girl or a boy. Leo is definitely not a girl, Leo is more boy than girl …
Some people in the transgender community are quite interested in getting away from this he/she dichotomy, so we had a look into how we felt as a family about gender-neutral pronouns. So we tried xhe for a few days, that was horrible, we’ve tried they, but that’s the plural which is kind of complicated. So Leo then went to a sports camp in the identity of a boy with male pronouns. On Day 4, Leo came home and said “This doesn’t feel right either,” and we were feeling, Oh, have we rushed him into something? So we then went online and looked at what potentially was going on, and it’s very common for nonbinary individuals or gender-fluid or gender-nonconforming — these are all jargony words that are out there — at this sort of age to just rebel against the gender they’ve been assigned at birth and go all the way the other way and live in the opposite gender when in fact they’re not the opposite gender either. It’s just they’re more the opposite gender than the gender they were assigned. So we’re going with he … because he’s definitely more boy than girl. But he’s not, like a lot of transgender people, a male mind who happened to be born in a female body — he’s a nonbinary mind who happened to be born in a female body. That’s where we are at the moment, but we’re completely open to Leo deciding that that is not the case, in fact.
From Leo’s mom’s point of view, then, the fact that Leo was never into princesses, identified more with boys than girls, and had male role models, suggested — once she’d learned what it meant to be transgender — that Leo was never really a girl. And while she claims that she’s open to Leo changing his mind about his gender identity, she also states, as a fact, that Leo is “definitely not a girl.” Then, when being a boy didn’t feel right, the family adopted the nonbinary label. “I’m not a boy,” Leo explains to Tracey. At first, “I thought I was a boy, because I’m not a girl, or not entirely a girl. So we tried that for a bit, and I was like — No, that’s not quite right.” Leo discovered that the nonbinary label, on the other hand, “really works — it’s just me.” These days, when people refer to Leo as a “boy” or a “girl,” he points out that he’s neither.
One of the many fascinating things about this interview is the almost nonexistent role of gender dysphoria — the feeling of mismatch, often intense and in the worst instances seriously debilitating, between body and self that is a sign a child might end up identifying as trans (though most grow out of it). In the most extreme cases, a gender-dysphoric natal boy might, from a very early age, say things like “I want to cut my penis off,” or “God should have made me a girl.”
Leo doesn’t really seem to have physical gender dysphoria, at least based on anything in the segment — he doesn’t really exhibit any distress about his body, even when he’s asked that question directly. He’s a little bit uncertain about the prospect of growing breasts, but if he hadn’t socially transitioned, that wouldn’t be an odd thing for a 10-year-old girl to be apprehensive about. His mom acknowledges that puberty doesn’t seem to feel that threatening to Leo: “He’s just not distressed,” she says. “But he also would rather not [go through puberty], I think, at this stage.”
Because of her certainty that Leo would “rather not” go through female puberty, she’s looking into intervening medically to prevent it. “I am interested in finding out more about hormone blockers,” she explains, “the idea of putting a pause on things and giving him some time to think more.” Usually, these blockers are prescribed to kids with physical gender dysphoria. While delaying puberty is increasingly common and is very well-accepted among clinicians who work with trans and gender-dysphoric kids, it is a pretty major decision, and likely not a good idea for a kid who just feels a little bit uncomfortable with same-(natal)-sex peers and stereotypical activities.
Now, there’s no way to know how a professional, a gender-identity clinician, would view Leo’s case. For all I know, after talking to him for a few sessions maybe such a clinician would agree that blockers should be on the table here. But every gender clinician I’ve ever spoken with believes that when a kid expresses uncertainty about their gender identity, it’s important to separate out two very different things: deep-seated gender dysphoria and discomfort with gender roles and activities.
Some of them have also told me that it’s not uncommon for a child and parent to show up, for the parent to be enthusiastic about the kid socially transitioning and eager to get that process underway, but for solo sessions with the child to reveal that really, the kid just wants a place to explore their gender identity — not to rush into anything. Sometimes parents aren’t good with ambiguity; sometimes they can’t quite grok the fact that their little boy likes dolls and hanging out with girls. (I should say that most of the gender-identity clinicians I’ve spoken with practice in parts of the country that are generally progressive, and there are obviously huge swaths of the U.S. where the exact opposite problem is far more common: parents desperately wanting their kids to conform to their natal sex.)
All of this is why just about every competent mainstream gender clinician, even those who disagree fiercely on other stuff, communicate the same messages to their patients: You can be a boy who likes dolls. You can be a girl who likes sports. Instilling in kids (and, when necessary, parents) a certain level of nuance, flexibility, and sophistication about gender is a big part of what gender-identity clinicians do. If after that sense of flexibility has been instilled, a kid is still sure they were “born in the wrong body,” or however else they conceive their gender identity — if this isn’t just about toys and friends, in other words — that might be a sign something deeper and less fleeting is going on.
It doesn’t sound like Leo has been to a gender-identity specialist. And the family’s emphasis on traditional childhood gender roles and activities stands out. Leo is “definitely not a girl,” in Mom’s eyes, because he was into pirates, and because he didn’t quite feel comfortable lining up with the other girls in his early elementary-school years. The fact that he isn’t quite ready to get rid of his dolls is a sign that he isn’t quite a boy, but isn’t a girl either.
That’s so much pressure to put on a kid! It’s reifying gender stereotypes in this powerful way: You don’t like dolls, so we need to figure out what’s going on with you. We need to get to the bottom of this. As opposed to a simpler explanation: Leo doesn’t have any “problem” with his gender identity — he’s always just been gender-nonconforming. Leo’s always been a “tomboy,” as his mom herself put it. Isn’t that at least worth exploring? Shouldn’t someone, at some point, have explained to Leo that while if he does want to explore gender identities other than “girl,” that is wonderful and his family will support him as he engages in that exploration, there’s also no reason he can’t be a tomboyish girl, if that’s what fits best? Again, that’s why good gender-identity therapists can be such a lifesaving resource for children and parents.
But it sounds like none of that happened. Instead of fully exploring the tomboy possibility, and learning that it’s perfectly acceptable for a little girl to be into “boy” stuff, Leo has heard, from a young age, that because of his preferences in toys and peers and his vague discomfort with female classmates (ask a bunch of adult lesbians how they felt about their female classmates when they were very young), it’s important for the family to figure out what his “real” gender identity is. And not surprisingly, every time his family offers up a new label — first trans, and now gender nonbinary — it seems to fit perfectly. It seems to finally be the thing that will explain the (apparently) otherwise inexplicable mystery of Leo, the natal girl who likes pirates and Wolverine. An explanation is always going to beat no explanation.
It’s important to be clear about a couple things: If Leo were expressing serious distress about his body, it would be quite flippant to make this just about gender stereotypes and preferences. Cases involving severe and persistent dysphoria are a different beast entirely — some kids really do experience deep pain about their bodies that doesn’t relent from a very young age. Leo just isn’t one of them, if this interview if any indication.
Also, Leo seems very happy, smart, and well-spoken, and he has a loving and attentive mom. None of this is a tragedy or anything — it’s a process of exploration that seems to be guided a bit too much by his mom’s conservative views on gender (and dad’s, in all likelihood — he just didn’t participate in the interview). Leo will be fine; maybe, in the long run, even as an adult he’ll find that the gender-nonbinary label is what fits him best. All that said, there’s still something emotionally gripping and a little bit sad about this story: Listening to Leo’s mom describe his life, I just couldn’t figure out exactly what problem the family is trying to solve.