Winter was coming in rural Ontario.
It was 1987, Serafin LaRiviere was living in the backseat of his car, and couldn’t have been happier. He was finally away from his parents.
“They threw me out at 17 and I lived in the backseat for four months,” said LaRiviere, now 45, living in the Eastern Townships of Quebec and father to 4½-year-old Nicky. “For the first time in my life, I felt safe. I don’t have any bad memories about living in my car. It was very liberating.”
For as long as he could remember, his parents, especially his father, had rejected him as a boy so effeminate that he was often mistaken for a girl.
“My parents were mortified. I sang, and they kept saying ‘when your voice changes’, but all that happened was that I went from a soprano to an alto.”
LaRiviere feels he survived his harsh childhood thanks to the love of his grandmother and aunt. He still sings, now in jazz clubs, and to his amusement given his 6’3” frame, people still misidentify his gender. After a lifetime of being mislabeled, he doesn’t mind.
“They must assume I’m a really ugly woman,” he joked. “When I drop Nicky off at daycare, they think I’m his mom because they’re not reading the height.”
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While LaRiviere may feel little bitterness, a 2012 study published in the journal “Pediatrics” found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that children who don’t conform to standard notions of gender are at increased risk of abuse, harassment by peers and even post-traumatic stress disorder. The authors recommended that health professionals routinely screen those children for signs of abuse.
And gender non-conforming behavior is far from rare; an article in the same issue of "Pediatrics" quoted studies from the 1980s that found that as many as 13 percent of teenage boys and more than a quarter of teenage girls reported having engaged in cross-gender behavior as children. Dr. Johanna Olson, medical director of the Center for Transyouth Health and Development at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, says that discrepancy is easy to explain: Society simply has more tolerance for tomboys than it does for sissies.
"Cross-gender behavior is really important in childhood. It's really common for a number of reasons,” she said. "If your son wants to wear a skirt and paint his nails, you're going to have a very different reaction than if your daughter wants to wear pants and play softball. Our society doesn't have room for a boy who wants to wear a skirt and paint his nails."
The research suggests some 60 percent of gender non-conforming children will grow up to be heterosexual, with as few as one in 10,000 going on to identify as transgender.
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Raymond Trumble-Stazzone, 32, and his husband, Daniel, 30, are trying hard to leave it up to their son, 9-year-old Cody.
“He refers to himself as a girl more than not,” he said. “I think he's still figuring that out. He often refers to himself as our daughter or will mention how he's going to be someone’s girlfriend. If someone calls him handsome he will immediately correct them and say ‘you mean pretty?’ We explained to him that doctors could make him a girl when he's a little older, but he says right now he just wants to stay a boy that dresses like a girl and likes girl things."
Raymond and Daniel were living in Syracuse, New York, when Cody and his brother, Jacob, now 10, came to them through the foster system. “We immediately felt a connection with these kids and knew we would be a family,” Raymond said. "Upon our first meeting with the kids, Daniel and I were playing basketball outside with Jacob when I asked about his brother. Jacob responded: "He mostly likes girl stuff, but don't laugh. If you do I will punch you."
No one laughed. But Cody’s gender non-conformity presented his brother and fathers with a substantial learning curve.
Jacob identifies very much as a typical rough-and-tumble boy who very much likes "boy things," according to Raymond. While Jacob used to get frustrated with Cody always wanting to be the girl in their playing, he has come to understand and respect who his brother (or sister) is.
The couple recently moved their multiracial family to a farm near the small, nearly all-white town of Hastings, New York, and were surprised to find more respect and understanding for Cody there than in Syracuse, where they endured derisive comments as gay men adopting a child, and where a school staffer told Cody, “Boys don’t wear pink.”
“Just this school year was the first time Cody wore a dress to school,” Raymond said. “Our stomachs were in knots the whole day. We prepared both kids for various scenarios. Cody got home and we asked how school went. 'Great!' he said. I asked again, and this time asked if anyone said anything about his dress. 'Nope.' Really! It was not what we expected, but we are very thankful for that.”
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Living just outside Philadelphia, Barry Dougherty, 43, and husband Aaron, 47, encountered more resistance than expected when they tried to adopt a child through the foster system. Their obstacles included at least one overtly homophobic social worker, as well as a sense that they weren’t any agency’s first choice for placement.
“It took us a year to get our first foster placement, and a lot of agencies weren’t so keen on us as a same-sex couple,” said Barry.
Finally, they heard Lehigh County was expressly looking for a same-sex couple with whom to place an 8-year-old boy who wasn’t like the others.
“The little boy said he liked dolls and didn’t like Tonka trucks, and some parents went in and turned the match down,” said Dougherty. "It was very sad, but it was our fortune. When we saw the picture and paragraph, he likes SpongeBob and dolls, in a pink shirt, we said, ‘That’s something we can identify with.’”
Dougherty (who didn't want his son's photo to be included in this article) believes his now-adopted son, who goes by the nickname Baba, gravitated towards provocative clothing aimed at tweens as a way of acting out against the restrictions of previous foster homes. He was stunned that his new parents were two men.
“He loved wearing Monster High T-shirts, like a Look at me! bid for attention, but when he found out he was being placed with two men, he said, 'Wait … this is a boy… and this is a boy; You can do that?”
And gradually, in a nurturing environment, Baba began to relax.
“He was presenting with all this stuff, Barbie, Monster High, but once he saw that two boys could be together, that started to diminish. He still plays dolls with his sister, but doesn’t seem to feel the need [for exaggerated, sexualized behavior] anymore.”
A large part of Baba’s behavior seemed to be an imitation of sexualized toys, such as Monster High, or over-the-top television programs like Project Runway, which he adored. The Doughertys decided to redirect.
“Our therapist said to phase out sexualized toys like Monster High, so a friend bought him a sewing machine. He loves making outfits for dolls and talks fashion all the time. Drawing, dresses and dolls are his passion.”
While he may identify with traditionally feminine clothes and hobbies, Dougherty says it does not appear that Baba is transgender.
“The recommendation from his previous therapist was to get him into transitional therapy and start medication, but he’s never actually said that he identifies as a girl. I really think that living with two gay men has taken a lot of pressure off of him.”
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In fact, taking the pressure off is key to raising a happy, well-adjusted child. But so is knowing when to intervene.
"If you see your child in distress, you need to step in,” said Olson. “You're going to have a clear idea if your son, let's say, is interested in girls' things, and you're probably going to have that conversation earlier. Negative messaging leaves a mark. Kids around six or seven start to understand societal messages surrounding gender. Prior to that, they are who they are."
LaRiviere’s approach, as someone who has been there and is now father to a typically rowdy little boy: Let them stay that way.
“My advice to parents of a gender-fluid child would be: ‘Relax!’ If the kid can come to you about anything, they’ll talk to you about it.”