New research digs into gender diversity in an attempt to understand families' journeys to acceptance.
toddler in pink hat playing with truck
Credit: Shutterstock

A new study, to be presented at the 111th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) on Tuesday, looks at the ways families navigate the journey of raising a gender-diverse child.

Researchers from the University of California-Davis worked with 36 parents with gender-diverse kids to try to understand these families' experiences. "Gender diverse" was defined as those who identify as transgender, agender (having no gender), bigender (identifying with both genders), gender-fluid (when the child identifies as a boy on some days and girl on others), or gender-nonconforming (when the child doesn't identify with "expectations" traditionally associated with his or her gender).

According to a press release, 33 kids, ages 5 to 16 (14 transgender girls, 10 gender-diverse males, and nine transgender boys), and 29 moms and seven dads were involved in the study. And while every family was different, one commonality emerged: moms play a central role in navigating their children's experiences with gender identification.

Interestingly, Krysti Ryan, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology, interpreted the mothers' key part in advocating for, and essentially becoming experts on gender diversity, as also reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes of women being the primary nurturers. She said about the moms she interviewed, "As they adhere to the mandates of their own gendered parenting role, mothers work tirelessly to create greater gender freedom for their children."

What I'm hearing is that the mothers are dedicated to helping their kids, no matter what, through any and everything. And that is what it seems Ryan teased out of her in-depth interviews with the families; that despite numerous challenges, moms were willing to rethink their own conceptions of gender to aid in their children's happiness. And I can't help but smile at that notion. Because as a mother, I truly feel I'd go to the ends of the Earth to make my kids happy, no matter what that journey looked like, or how much resistance we were met with along the way.

Meanwhile, another fascinating finding emerged as Ryan talked with the families. Parents were quicker to identify gender differences in kids who were born as boys versus those who were born girls. One explanation is that girls who express stereotypical tendencies of boys are presumed to be "tomboys" early on.

Parents met boys' desires to dress as girls or play with toys typically associated with girls with hesitancy, and thought what they were expressing was a phase. Parents of transgender daughters said their fear of bullying or their kids being shamed was a major concern. I'd agree it is more socially acceptable for girls to do "boy" things instead of the other way around. Therefore, parents attempted to guide the transgender girls to only wear dresses at home, and opt for pants at school.

But in many cases, when their kids started showing signs of depression or emotional distress, the moms Ryan interviewed said that was their tipping point in accepting their son or daughter's gender diversity. As one mom put it, "We were sort of dragged across the threshold of [gender] transition because our child was in crisis."

Finally, Ryan adds this eye-opening finding, "Nearly all parents I spoke with initially interpreted their child's gender expression as an indicator of future sexuality, not gender difference."

Here's hoping this research will help families who are just embarking on the journey of raising a gender-diverse child.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.