A unique playgroup and family counselling center for children who question their gender is preparing a significant expansion to cope with a surge in demand, amid high rates of bullying and suicide.
The Gender and Family Project in New York has become involved with 50 families since launching just two years ago with little publicity, and now struggles to meet what it describes as “a huge need” from parents who find their children depressed and at risk because of gender identiy issues.
The group plans to more than double its services in the coming year, including adding a second parents' counselling group and creating therapy support groups for young teenagers and the siblings of transgender children.
“Family acceptance dramatically decreases mental health problems, school drop-out and suicide among gender non-conforming kids and we are seeing a huge demand from children and parents for guidance here,” said Gender and Family Project director and psychiatrist Jean Malpas.
Up to 80% of school children who display minority sexual orientation or gender expression face verbal, physical or cyber harassment, according to research from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. The most recent National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that as many as 41% of transgender people attempt suicide at some point, compared with 1.6% of the general population.
While numbers are understood to be relatively steady – and research is scant – Malpas believes the project is inundated because of pent-up demand for ground-breaking, affirmative support services.
He argues that children questioning their gender are best helped by a positive attitude from parents and professionals from as young an age as possible – and are no more likely to end up transitioning to the opposite sex than those forced to conform to gender norms.
The Gender and Family Project counsels children as young as four who tell their parents they believe they do not match their biological gender. The project is unique in its focus on play groups and family counselling for such young children. Malpas has been involved with 50 families in the New York area since he launched services two years ago and now plans a major expansion with more facilities for teenagers and siblings.
“It could be a boy who really likes to do 'girl things' or a girl who is fine being a girl but is attracted to other girls, or a kid who is fundamentally sure of their transgender identity – it's a spectrum,” he said.
The project encourages the children to play freely in an environment that's subtly structured, but where they think they are “just hanging out” with like-minded peers. Parents meet other parents and share fears and advice, and family units receive therapy.
Daniel, a teacher from Manhattan who became a stay-at-home father to help his troubled eight-year-old son (and preferred not to reveal further details of his family's identity) said his child spoke out when he was two.
“He was only just forming sentences at that age. But he gravitated towards conventional girls toys and clothes when we were shopping and finally my wife and I said, 'Are you a girl or a boy?' And he said 'I'm a girl,' and seemed amazed that we didn't realise that,” said Daniel.
The boy, unwilling to play with other boys and unwelcome among girls, became isolated at school, experienced bullying and became miserable. Increasingly he was subject to long, violent tantrums over nothing, his father said. “He started talking about wanting to die, asking God to decide if he should bring him up to heaven,” said Daniel.
Daniel and his wife sought out the Gender and Family Project and began taking the boy to play groups there and attending themselves. The project operates within the Ackerman Institute in New York, the pioneering family therapy and psychotherapy training centre. “Things are much improved, he's free to be himself there and the fits and funks at home are much diminished,” said Daniel. The boy has changed schools and is making friends.
Malpas threw an inaugural benefit concert for the project on Monday night at Joe's Pub in downtown Manhattan, hosted by the Oscar-winning actor Olympia Dukakis.
“These issues are so frightening and confounding for parents, and what children go through when parents are not informed. They all need more support, not indoctrination about gender norms,” said Dukakis, known for her role as transgender San Francisco landlady Anna Madrigal in the TV series of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City novels.
Malpas said that only a small minority of the children he sees at the project actually ever transition fully. Several of the project's children are living in their perceived gender identity, which does not match their biological gender, some are simply exploring different gender expressions, Malpas said.
“You can't make a child transgender, or gay for that matter, that's not what the project or an affirmative attitude does. But offering a child with gender dysphoria or non-conformity issues our services extremely early, and involving their parents, keeps families together. Ultimately it can help avoid mental health problems and even suicide,” he said.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk