Psychologist Diane Ehrensaft can point to many inspirations for her work with gender creative children. Born in the 1940s, Ehrensaft was a tomboy who chafed at rigid gender roles and remembered feeling "schizophrenic" about aspects of her identity in high school. As a college psychology major, she discovered the woman's movement. Much of her early research was on gender equity: did preschool teachers treat boys and girls the same? Could dads raise children as well as mothers?
Her interest in gender changed and deepened when she became a parent.
"I had a little boy who loved tutus, so it was like trial by fire," said Ehrensaft, now the author of many books on gender, including 2016's The Gender Creative Child. "My experience as parent made me very dedicated to both learning more and being an advocate for kids who go against the gender grain. And I've been doing it ever since."
Ehrensaft sees her field exploding as of late. "I'm turning 70 and it feels like a woman's work is never done," she said. "I'm learning from the little kids, because they're the ones who are going to be the revolutionaries here. They're going to carry that torch. They already are."
From a child Ehrensaft met who wanted to be called "rainbow kid" to the others who describe themselves as "boy-girls" and even "Priuses" and "Teslas," Ehrensaft is astounded at the overall creativity of gender-creative children. "I've never met a group of kids who are just so expansive about life," she said. "When they stop being expansive is when people tell them, 'you can't be who you are', and then they close down. And what I'm very happy to see is when you remove those pressures, then they blossom."
The concept of trans and genderqueer are understandable for even the youngest of kids, even if the language isn't standard yet, but Ehrensaft sees that changing. "Because it's in the culture now, kids are picking up the language at a really early age," she noted.
This movement towards accepts delights Ehrensaft. "I think that all children should be exposed at a very young age to every kind of diversity," she told Windy City Times. "And they're not exposed enough to gender diversity. We are better about having racial diversity, all kinds of people can build families, gay people, straight people, people in between, and I think we have to be thinking about people all come in all kinds of genders."
She said there are lots of different ways to achieve that goal, whether children see books about gender-creative kids or simply see acceptance of gender identities and differences around them. Ehrensaft has recommended that parents, teachers and community members listen to child when they express thoughts about their gender identity.
"It's not for us to tell, but for the children to say who they are around their gender. If we impose our dreams on them rather than listen to theirs, we will collapse gender health," she said.
Ehrensaft also pointed out that mirroring, or how we react to others in social situations, can be both helpful and harmful when it comes to gender. "We need to think about our mirroring in terms of promoting acceptance for all kids, for people of all genders," she said. "If you give back a distorted mirror or a blank, like they can't find themselves at all, that is what I call at least a microaggression. At its worst it can be a trauma. If you flip that, the most positive thing we can do for gender-creative people of all ages is make sure you mirror back who they know themselves to be, rather than who you want them to be."
While there has been a shift around acceptance of gender identity, there has been a notable backlash, with anti-trans laws popping up around the country.
"It's instilled in the culture that you have to be able to locate somebody around their gender, you have to be able to do it early, and anything else makes us anxious. Due to the feminist movement, due to the LGBT movement, due to civil rights before that in the '50s, we've cracked that open," Ehrensaft explained. "Gender is no longer bedrock, it's moving boulders. And when you have moving boulders, people can get really anxious trying to traverse them. So they retreat. And they call on their religion, their belief systems and they get stuck there. But I will say that I have seen so many parents move beyond that, when they discover their own child is one of those people."
Ehrensaft finds the high rate of homeless among LGBTQ youth and attempted suicide among trans individuals often makes parents rethink their lack of acceptance. "Either they're going to let love win out, or they can let their principles smother that and reject the child," she said. "When you try to stop people from being who they are, that's when they become suicidal. And if you teach them pride, and give them acceptance, then they can really avoid many of those risk factors."
Beyond individuals, she sees gender acceptance fomenting good for the world. "Remember, children are taught to hate. It's not innate," Ehrensaft pointed out. "The more you promote gender creativity, you have a whole group of kids and adults who breathe easier, a much healthier, stronger group of people who will eventually feel more confident, empowered and determined to demand rights. And, you'll let other kids and adults go, 'oh, what about me? Let's open it up for me too.'"
"I feel that gender exploration is a positive thing for everyone to do," Ehrensaft concluded. "It makes, I think, for a much more exciting terrain of development. In my own value, flexibility is much better than rigidity, and gender creativity creates flexibility in our thinking, feeling, and our actions, and creates a more socially just world. And I think socially unjust worlds, whatever your politics, come from a collapse of creativity, and a retreat to rigidity."