WASHINGTON – Forced to wrestle with his brothers in the backyard of their home in San Diego,James De Jesus,a small,sensitive boy,would get upset,even cry. His father was trying to toughen him up,turn him into a man.
He yelled at James when he played with his sisters' dolls.
De Jesus,41,and now living here,recalls his childhood painfully. He remembers his father impersonating gay people,using the slang Filipino word for gays and making fun of what he perceived as their feminine qualities.
Growing up Catholic and Filipino,a “culturally intolerant environment” for gays,De Jesus wishes his family had been more supportive when he came out in his 20s.
The negative experiences De Jesus had with his father led him to a job as a program coordinator for the Outreach Program for Gender-Variant Children and their Families,a support group that meets at the Children's National Medical Center here.
Parents with gender-variant children meet once a month to discuss issues their children might be dealing with,including bullies and teasing. The children and their siblings play with anything from Barbies to baseballs while their parents meet,Tuerk said.
De Jesus' childhood memories reflect the experience of many gender-variant children,whose interests are typically those associated with the opposite sex. Gender-variant boys like playing with dolls,while girls usually take a liking to rough-and-tumble play and contact sports.
De Jesus now works part time as a staff assistant for Rep. Robert Wexler,D-Fla.,and lives happily with his 34-year-old partner and their adopted son,2. He wishes his family could have joined a similar support group.
“My self-esteem would have been much higher if I would have had the support of my family behind me,” said De Jesus,who recalls asking permission to join the school choir,which his father dismissed as “girly.”
While the support group focuses on helping parents with gender-variant children deal with issues affecting them now,the group's two co-founders say studies show that about two-thirds of gender-variant boys are gay,and some are transgender,meaning those who live as the opposite sex or seek sex change surgery.
There have not been many studies of gender-variant girls,as there isn't as much of a cultural stigma,said Catherine Tuerk,co-founder of the program and a nurse with a background in psychotherapy.
While this news can be difficult for some,most parents are relieved to learn this information and work to help their child assimilate into the community and feel more comfortable,said Dr. Ellen Perrin,a professor of pediatrics at Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston.
“It's not anything terrible. It's just the way their child is,” said Perrin,who has worked with Tuerk and the program's other co-founder Dr. Edgardo Menvielle,a child and adolescent psychiatrist.
The support group helps parents overcome any homophobia they might have,promoting open discussions about gays,Tuerk said.
Tuerk was inspired to establish the program after raising a gender-variant son in the 1960s. Spending thousands of dollars on therapy,she and her husband were told to put their son in “hyper-masculine” activities such as soccer.
“We were told there was ‘too much Mom and not enough Dad,'” Tuerk said,recalling that her instincts were telling her something different.
Tuerk and Menvielle use the term “gender-variant” to describe gender identity disorder. They used the most “benign” term because they don't think these children have a disorder; rather,they are “variant,” Tuerk said.
Not all gay men are gender-variant. Because a majority of gender-variant boys are gay,the program supports about 15 families,typically with boys who are considered to be extremely interested in feminine objects and activities,Tuerk said.
The program declined to contact any of them for interviews for privacy reasons.
It is a “very reassuring place” for the children to play,and it helps siblings see other children who have the same interests as their gender-variant brothers or sisters,Tuerk added.
The average age of children in the group is 7,but they range from 3 to 10 years old,Menvielle said. There aren't any other similar groups in the U.S. that they are aware of,and parents across the country have joined the group's listserv,which allows them to e-mail each other. Some of those parents have met to exchange advice and organize play dates,he added.
This group is essential to parents with gender-variant children because many of them have no other place to turn,Menvielle said.
While most parents can share notes about more common parenting issues,such as toilet training,few can provide helpful feedback to people with gender-variant kids. Some have strong feelings about the issue and react irrationally,Menvielle said.
“With this issue,it is not that easy,” he added.
As more people are recognizing the contributions gay people have made to society,Tuerk said,“I can't help but think that being gay is much more normalized.” That has helped to increase the acceptance of gender-variant children.
After battling his sexual identity for years,including years in a Catholic seminary and one suicide attempt,De Jesus agrees that society is becoming more accepting. But greater public knowledge can also draw hurtful reactions for parents raising gender-variant children.
“Awareness is growing but coming at a price,” he said.
De Jesus said coming out was a “long and hard journey,” but despite previously rough relations with his family,they are,for the most part,comfortable with him and his partner.
“We are living a beautiful American dream,” De Jesus said of his life with his son and partner.
For more information about the outreach program,visit http://www.dcchildrens.com/dcchildrens/about/subclinical/subneuroscience/gender.aspx