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On a recent spring Saturday afternoon at the American Museum of Natural History, the carpeted atrium beneath the giant blue whale in the Milstein Hall Ocean of Life teems with children. Preschoolers and kindergartners lounge on the carpeted floor and race from diorama to diorama while their beleaguered parents try to catch their breath. I'm here to meet the family of a three-and-a-half-year-old boy who's not like other boys. His father, whom I'll call Arnold, has watched for the past six months as his son clung to dolls and tried on dresses. Arnold joined a national Listserv that connects parents of children who express this kind of gender-atypical behavior. Today, his son, the unusual Joseph, is somewhere in the throng below me.
If you think a boy who's acting girly would stick out in a crowd, you haven't been around five-year-olds lately. At the museum, boys who seemed feminine were everywhere I looked. Was Joseph the little blond one clinging fearfully to a stair rail? The boy in purple with the Farrah Fawcett hair? It turned out Joseph wasn't any of them. He turned up wearing boyish jeans and a T-shirt, and sneakers with tiny red lights blinking in the soles. Up close, his curly brown hair is shaggy and long, tufting delicately out over his ears, but he's hardly shy or clingy. Instead, he's bold and gregarious: He immediately jumps out of his stroller to meet me. Nothing about Joseph seems notably feminine, until he holds up a doll dressed in a bright pink dress. "See my Barbie?" he says, proudly.
Maybe you're tempted to see Joseph as transgender, someone whose gender identity doesn't match the body he was born in. Over the past decade, transgender has shed its Jerry Springer stigma and come into its own as an identity. Long enshrined alongside sexual orientation as the T in LGBT, today transgender is almost trendy. Oprah's done several shows on the topic; trans people are coming out at work at the Los Angles Times and Fortune 500 companies across the country; and the rising number of transmen at women's colleges in the Northeast is forcing schools like Smith and Mt. Holyoke to rethink the use of pronouns entirely. Newspapers and magazines have seized on trans as the new gaythe latest, freshest deviant identity to be dissected and exhaustively profiled. At the top of the hot-story list is the tale of the trans child. This particular wave is partly my fault. In April 2006, I wrote an article that appeared on the Voice website about "the country's youngest transgender child," a five-year-old biological boy whose claims that he was a girl were so urgent and persistent that his family was raising him as one. They let him use a female name, let him wear dresses and grow out his hair, and convinced his school to treat him as a girl.
Since then, "Jazz" has gone on to become a poster child for transgender children. Last August, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article about "gender variant" children in the Bay Area that mentioned Jazz. In December, The New York Times ran a story on transgender children. This April, along with two other transgender children, Jazz appeared on 20/20 with Barbara Walters. A few weeks later, Newsweek ran a cover story called "The Mystery of Gender: The New Visibility of Transgender America Is Shedding Light on the Ancient Riddle of Identity."
That new visibility may not be helping Joseph all that much. Arnold doesn't think transgender makes sense for his son, who is clearly comfortable in his boy body. Though he never puts his Barbie down, Joseph begins playing with another little boy in a classic rough-and-tumble way, racing around a park with rocks and sticks. His father says the kid doesn't reject boyhoodinstead, he embraces girlishness on top of it. "To me, he identifies as both," says Arnold. "He says: 'I'm a boy and a girl.'"
Instead of trans, Arnold has wondered whether Joseph might simply be gay. "I sometimes try to pick up clues as to who he's attracted to," he says, "and I have no idea." He's approached PFLAG, but isn't sure whether that's the right place for his son. PFLAG, he says, never called back.
The media blitz about transgender kids coincides with another big queer story, that of younger and younger people declaring their minority orientation. In February, USA Today reported that "gay teenagers are 'coming out' earlier than ever, and many feel better about themselves than earlier generations of gays." "Youth are coming out earlier, that we've definitely seen," says Jennifer Chrisler, the executive director of Family Pride, a Washington, D.C., group that supports LGBT families. "They have a lot more images around them in the media and the mainstream press that give them something to sort of latch onto, to identify with, and they clearly see that being lesbian, gay, or bisexual doesn't need to limit them." Those images are everywhere. Teens and kids as young as 12 can turn to magazines like the new glossy Young Gay America. There are gay-straight alliances in high schools across the country, and more popping up in middle schools. On prime-time TV, Justin Suarez, the dapper and immaculate 12-year-old character on Ugly Betty, is widely assumed to be gay, though the show's producers are coyly silent on the topic.