Gender specialist Aidan Key is the founder of the Gender Odyssey conference and the Gender Odyssey Family conference for families with transgender children (Aug. 14–17 in Seattle). He started and facilitates a trailblazing support group at Seattle Children’s for parents of transgender, gender-questioning and gender-nonconforming children, which now serves several hundred families from Tacoma to Bellingham. Key, who was born a girl, also provides parent, staff and teacher training at schools around the state, and has helped schools and organizations expand their antidiscrimination language and implement new policies. Key also founded Gender Diversity Education and Support Services and wrote the chapter on children in the newly released book Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, A Resource for the Transgender Community.
Why did you start a gender conference for families and kids?
I started with the adult conference, where people could come and find resources, connect, even talk with doctors. It was about trans people trying to find a path in a society that doesn’t have a pathway for someone who fits outside of the male-female binary. Then, in 2004, three families showed up with their teens. At first I was surprised that someone of a young age might actually have the support of their family. These parents were asking me how they should navigate. I realized that if somebody was traveling across several states to come to my fledgling conference and ask transgender adults for their advice, they must be pretty desperate.
You get daily phone calls from parents and youths. Has society’s outlook on gender-nonconforming people completely changed?
It's not like it’s a new phenomenon. But what we do about it is changing. In the past, experts and families, churches, schools, would say, “Boy, that’s cute,” that gender variance in a young child. But by first grade, second grade, it was “Time for this to go away.” Parents were afraid for what the future held. They worried about their child’s safety, teasing, bullying, job discrimination.
What we have now is information that says that old approach is failing miserably: homelessness, drug use, the rate of HIV infection, the high rates of suicide attempts among transgender youth.
So we’re turning to these children to say instead that we’re going to support this, and that’s where all the question marks come up. How? When?
What do parents who are afraid or reluctant to accept their child’s gender preferences need to hear?
Support means believing your child. There are many ways children disclose this information, and how it’s received is crucial. If your parent, whom you rely on for love and life sustenance, shuts you down and says, “That’s not true. I don’t ever want to hear you talk about that again,” that kid is going to learn very quickly to keep that quiet and feel as if something is fundamentally wrong with them.
You say you live for the day when the bathrooms-at-school question is a no-brainer. Why?
The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction rule is that the transgender student will use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. Often when there’s a conflict about bathrooms, the students will say, “Of course he should use the girls’ bathroom. He’s already a girl anyway.” They’re ready to go there, they get it. They can do a name and pronoun change pretty darn easily. They do have questions, but answering them directly and at age-appropriate levels makes it smooth sailing.
The adults, on the other hand, are often conflating the gender identity piece with the sexual orientation issue. That’s one of the biggest hurdles right now toward societal understanding.
A surprising number of kindergarten teachers have said, “I have at least one kid like this every year, and I assume he’s gay.” That’s how it usually goes. But what we’re looking at is not their sexual orientation — we don’t know that yet. What we’re seeing is a sweet little boy who happens to like a certain color backpack, or who is not rough-and-tumble. But we see that behavior and go, “OK, feminine equals gay.”
The problem is that you’ve got an incredible number of years there where the precedent for teasing and harassment is unchecked.
When you have honest conversations at a young age, you create a sense of inclusivity. It builds respect.
What do you talk about to students when you visit a classroom?
Sometimes I talk about my gender story, sometimes I don’t. Even if I do, they’re not so interested. They love to talk about what gender means for them.
The way a classroom discussion might go for younger ages is “How do you know if someone is a boy or a girl?” And they’ll list off some reasons: Boys have short hair and girls have long hair. But then they’ll look around, and there are girls with short hair and boys with long hair. So they’ll readily counter what someone offers, and that’s an amazing conversation — is there anything they can find that really is exclusive?
So when they say, “Boys have a penis”?
That’s when the conversation about being transgender comes in: You can say some people happen to have been born with the body of a boy but the heart and mind of a girl. And sometimes they’ll say, “Oh, that sounds like my cousin.” Oftentimes they don’t even bring up body parts, because they’ve been taught that those are private. They do really get the “Who am I inside?” question.
We also talk about what it means to assign gender to things that aren’t gendered. Like, “She’s got pink pants on.” They’re pink — they’re not girl pants or boy pants. When you ask them, “Who likes dolls?” especially the younger ones, the boys’ hands go up. Later, the older boys admit they like action figures. Those are little dolls. So toys are toys, colors are colors, activities are activities. We all want to engage in the activities [we love] and express ourselves without teasing. That’s universal.