A Safe And Supportive Space For Gender Expansive Children

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This summer, many parents will spend a weekend with their children at family camps that cater to parents with musical kids, or kids who play tennis, or kids who just like to spend time outdoors. But this Saturday I’ll be with about 900 parents, children, and teens at a unique weekend experience that has a truly profound potential to change their lives for the better.

This event, the Gender Spectrum annual conference, will kick-off Saturday morning with everyone in a room together at St. Mary’s College of California in the Bay Area (the weekend is preceded by a one-day symposium for professionals who learn how they can help gender expansive youth feel seen and safe in education, health care and other environments). The conference is our major yearly gathering where parents and their gender expansive children can come together and share their experiences and stories. For many of the participants, this will be the first time they have ever been in a large group and have not felt alone, out of place, threatened, or just different.

Our conference is the oldest gathering in the country exclusively for transgender, non-binary and other gender-expansive children and youth. The first conference was eleven years ago, when about 40 people met in a small hotel room, and shared their experiences, knowledge and (minimal) resources with one another while the kids played. Those were very different times: when discussions about children and gender identity were whispers, not headlines. Yet, while many things have changed, some remain the same, including the comfort and healing that can be found while being with peers  who understand your experience in a way few others can.

At times, the conference looks like any family camp, with art, music, dance and other fun activities for all ages. But the value of the conference quickly becomes clear as kids and their parents begin to realize that this is the one place all year where they can let their guard down and be themselves.  Over the weekend kids of all ages and their families have safe spaces where they are seen and supported, often for the first time. For many, it is truly a life-changing experience.

Take for example Maria, a mom who’s large, extended family did not understand or support her family’s journey with her gender expansive child. Her own mother struggled with Maria’s choices, and let other family members know that she disagreed with Maria’s parenting decisions. Maria believed that supporting her child was the right thing to do, but the stress from the family pressure was taking a toll. Maria convinced her mother to attend the conference, and it made all the difference. Maria’s mom was able to hear from professionals in the field of gender, and also hear the personal stories of other kids and their families, many of whom were facing similar struggles as her daughter and grandchild. After the conference, Grandma called members of the family to let them know that from now on, she would be supporting her grandchild’s gender journey ― and she expected the rest of them to do the same!

The conference is profound for parents and family members, and of course also for the kids and teens, who are the focus of programs developed for each age group.  I’ve had young children come up to me, thrilled to tell me that they’re “pretty sure” there are other kids “like them” in their camp, the joy and excitement of that knowledge radiating from them. And I’ve had teens tell me that the conference saved their life ― without it they wouldn’t have made it. The power of being seen as you are, in a safe and supportive place, is not only life-affirming, it can be life-saving.

Eleven years after the first conference, today’s society is much more open about discussing gender expansiveness and children. But this openness can lead to a misperception that it must be easier for parents and kids today. Our experience shows that parents and children still struggle with few places they can go for the information, resources, tools and support they need to manage the challenges they face.

Events like the Gender Spectrum conference provide opportunities for parents and kids to join together in a large community of peers who they immediately recognize as “people just like me.” Online communities (like the Gender Spectrum Lounge) provide a vital service, but cannot provide the same face-to-face interactions that make the conference special. As one third-grader told me after one conference weekend, “For the rest of the year, I feel different. For these two days, I know I’m not alone.”

Despite much progress, there are still too many places where gender expansive children face isolation, discrimination, and abuse. As in past years, I am proud to say that this weekend’s conference will provide these children and parents the space they need to feel safe, seen and supported.

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