No one believes Kathy. Not her friends, her teachers, her parents, not even Santa Claus. No one believes that she really is a boy.
But Wallace Wong, a clinical psychologist of the Adolescent and Children Sexual Health Program of the Child and Youth Mental Health Services in Surrey, does. In fact, he made a book about it.
Wong wrote the illustrated bookWhen Kathy is Keith, which broaches the sensitive and often misunderstood issues that transgender children face. It follows the story of Kathy, a young girl who says she is a boy but no one takes her seriously.
Wong says in a phone interview that he was inspired to write this book because many children he counselled had difficulty finding “things they could relate to” and their parents also had trouble finding books about these issues.
In general, he says that help in this specific area is limited locally. “In [the] B.C. area…we have really limited support for transgender population,” he says. “And therefore [among] those who are specialized in seeing this group of population, many of them are focused on adults and only a few of us are focusing on children and youth.”
The use of children’s books addressing LGBT content in Metro Vancouver schools have had been met with controversy and debate. In 1997, the Surrey School Board banned three books about gay parents. (The Supreme Court of Canada rejected the ban in 2002.)
But it sounds like schools could use such reading material. Wong says he also often hears from teachers who have students dealing with these issues. “I think a book like this can help them to open a lot of doors for discussions, for potential additional help that the kids may need,” he says.
Wong, who has worked with children and youth with gender and sexual identity issues for over 16 years, feels it’s important for adults to know that such content is meant to help children, not influence them.
“We still have a long way to go, to have schools and the parents be open up to this,” he says. “For us, as psychologists, we definitely do our share to promote that, but I really think that the government also needs to promote that on a broader level, to let people know this is needed so that people will understand that when you’re talking about transgender, we’re not promoting a kid to be a transgender. But we’re helping people understand this issue…. Talking about gay [issues] doesn’t make you be gay. Talking about transgender [issues] doesn’t make a kid transgender. However, I think it would help someone who is struggling with these issues.”
The media has been increasingly covering issues about transgender children. The CBC documentary Transgender Kids aired on October 30. Anderson Cooper addressed the subject on his show Anderson on November 16.
Wong, who is openly gay, points out that it’s not just transgender kids who get bullied about subjects like these.
“A lot of times, parents with straight kids, they think like, ‘You know what? That would never happen to my kid so why would my kid need to learn something like this?’ And I think the key is your kid doesn’t need to be LGBT. As long as your kid is perceived with any trait associated with LGBT, they can be bullied. They can be made fun of. Your kids can be a victim of any of that.”
He adds that parents of transgender children go through a difficult emotional process of their own.
“Parents, they have to go through different stages themselves,” he explains. “In the beginning, they tend to deny it. They hope their kids will grow out of it. They are having a tough time. They have to grieve over losing a son or a daughter and welcoming a new gender of a child. And I think that’s a process. It’s not easy for any parent to accept that because no parent has a kid and then think that this kid may be a transgender kid.... It’s tough… [when you have] a dream for your kid and all of a sudden that dream vanishes, and you have to recreate a dream for your kid[’s] future, and at the same time, knowing that society is not so tolerant out there. And I think that is very tough [for] a lot of parents to accept that.”
He advises parents who have transgender children to talk as much as possible with other people about these issues.
“I really think that [they should] talk to people about it, talk to other parents about it. And don’t just talk to one person. I would talk to multiple people. Talk to the school principal, talk to the counsellors, talk to the professional psychologists or social workers...even family doctor[s], so they can know there are people like this out there, they are not alone, and they can get help.”