A Night of a Thousand Genders

'Girls Toys' and 'Boys Toys' read the two signs hanging above separate display cases at my local Duane Reade store during Christmas last year -- the former displaying rows of pink and purple ponies and dolls, the latter filled with blue and green action figures and racing cars. Standing there, two questions immediately came to mind:
'Why do we need to be told which toys are appropriate for girls and boys?' and 'Why are toys even categorized according to a child's gender?' But, there was still a more crucial question that even I, a life-long feminist, did not think to ask: "Are there really only two genders?"

This question was answered with a resounding 'No' by dozens of parents and children who attended last month's 'A Night of a Thousand Genders', an annual event hosted by the Ackerman Institute's Gender and Family Project dedicated to supporting children and adolescents who do not fit into the typical male/female categories.

"You can't underestimate what it means to have the freedom to be who you are," said Cynthia Nixon, host of the event. "It's also crucial that all individuals feels safe in their authenticity." For far too many transgender people, however, their safety is often compromised. One parent recalled that when she first learned her son was transgender, she immediately went to her computer and typed the word 'transgender' into an internet search. "The first things that came up were the high suicide rates among transgender people," she continued. "I was horrified."

And she had every right to be. The prevalence of suicide attempts by transgender people is staggering. Respondents to a recent National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 41 percent of transgender individuals have attempted suicide, compared to the national average of only 4.6 percent. This dramatic difference is mostly due to two things: The family chooses not to speak or spend time with their transgender relative (a 57 percent elevated risk), and the transgender person experiences discrimination, victimization or violence at school, at work, or when accessing health care (a 50 percent -- 70 percent elevated risk).

The Gender and Family Project was therefore created to provide the acceptance transgender people urgently need because, as Jean Malpas, the Program's Director says, "Acceptance provides protection. By empowering families of gender nonconforming and transgender children and adolescents through affirmative clinical services and professional training and community building, these families have been able to create a safe space of intentional support," Malpas continues. "We have a commitment to collaborate around safe spaces for families to find each other, and to support one another."

And the Project's success was echoed throughout the audience, particularly by the family of Jazz Jennings, who understands the importance of loving their child unconditionally. Honored with The Gender and Family Project's 2015 Family Award, Jazz's mother recalled, 'When our youngest child Jazz was born, we were honored to welcome another son into our family. Little did we know that Jazz would blossom into our beautiful daughter," she continued. "As parents we believe it is our children's birthright to receive unconditional love from their family." It therefore comes as no surprise that Jazz, at only 14 years of age, has already become the honorary co-founder of the Transkids Purple Rainbow Foundation, an organization committed to the premise that Gender Dysphoria is something a child can't control and it is society that needs to change, not them. She is also the co-author of the children's book, I Am Jazz.

But the need to feel safe doesn't stop at home. Since children spend a significant portion of their childhood at school, it is crucial that this environment be supportive as well. That is why the Gender and Family Project selected the Central Park East II Elementary School to be the recipient of its 2015 Community Award. A small but progressive public school in New York City, it has created a safe space for all of its students by valuing its diverse population regardless of race, class, gender or orientation. "Children must develop a deeper understanding of their peers," said Naomi Smith, School Principal, upon accepting the award. "We look forward to the day when all schools honor all students for who they are."

Fortunately, the Gender and Family Project is on a mission to help make that happen.
In only the past two years the Program has serviced over 100 families and trained more than 500 professionals, while also providing family-centered services including support groups for parents, play groups for children and their siblings, and even Spanish-speaking support groups. Further, the project helps the community-at-large by providing gender-inclusive training for schools and health professionals, while additionally serving as a liaison for medical and legal referrals.

"When people transition, everything in their lives has to transition with them," Malpas says. "We are here to make that as smooth as possible, while making sure they know, throughout the process, that they are not alone."

Lori Sokol, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist and the founder and publisher of Difference Matters magazine.