Far more U.S. teens than previously thought are transgender or identify themselves using other nontraditional gender terms, with many rejecting the idea that girl and boy are the only options, new research suggests.

LGBT experts say most U.S. family courts are poorly equipped to handle the issue of custody disputes of transgender kids.

The divorced parents had joint custody of their three children and equal parenting time.

But soon after the mother began allowing their male child — identified in legal documents as “L.” — to wear a skirt to school, the father took his ex-wife to court.

Arguing that the mother, “through various acts, was pushing a female gender identification on L.,” the father asked for sole legal custody to make decisions about the child’s health care and schooling, according to court records. He also requested L. live with him full-time.

A family-court judge responded with sweeping injunctions forbidding the mother to discuss gender-related issues at home; dress L. in female clothing; let the child have any “female-oriented” toys; or refer to L. as “her,” “she” or a “girl.”

Though the injunctions were described as “temporary,” they remained in place for more than two years while the case was under review. When they were partially lifted in early 2016, they accompanied a ruling “that all three children’s best interests” would be served by granting the father sole legal custody.

 A recent Arizona Appeals Court review of the case highlights the challenges of mediating custody battles between parents who differ on how to handle kids who may be transgender — a matter LGBT experts say most U.S. family courts are poorly equipped to handle.

Clashes over how to support children exploring their gender identities have revived custody fights in at least 10 states.

“What seems to happen is that the supportive or affirming parent is accused of pushing the child toward a transgender identity,” said Katherine Kuvalanka, an associate professor of family science at Miami University who is pioneering research on such custody disputes.

“If a boy is interested in wearing a skirt or playing with dolls, or a girl is saying they want their hair cut short, those things are not going to ‘turn a child trans,'” Kuvalanka said. “But if courts lack experience in this area, they tend to fall back on stereotypical notions and are sometimes fearful of this idea that a parent could push their kid.

“Lack of education is a major problem,” she said.

Too young to know?

L. was about 6 years old in 2013 when wearing a skirt to school triggered the custody dispute. According to court records, the child’s mother indicated L. had “long demonstrated a preference for stereotypically ‘female’ items” at that point and “would wear female clothing at home.”

That timeline didn’t surprise Kuvalanka: She said psychologists and researchers have found children’s concept of gender develops between the ages of 3 and 6. The American Psychiatric Association says “cross-gender behaviors” often start between ages 2 and 4.

Gender exploration is considered a natural part of child development, and not every child who flouts gender norms will later identify as transgender. But most trans adults indicate they started feeling like they were in the “wrong” body very early.

“What I always find interesting is when a child asserts a gender that we’re expecting based on their sex assigned at birth, no one says, ‘Well, you’re too young to know your gender,'” Kuvalanka said. “But when a child is asserting a gender that people aren’t expecting, that’s when people say the child maybe doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and maybe they’re too young.”

In L.’s case, a psychologist, physician and psychotherapist each diagnosed the child with gender dysphoria in 2014, the year after the skirt incident. Gender dysphoria refers to lasting distress caused by a conflict between the gender a person is assigned based on anatomy and the gender that person feels.

When children with gender dysphoria are rejected by their families or feel they have no place to be their authentic selves, they face an increased risk of depression, anxiety and suicide.

In early 2015, more than a year after the court began policing L.’s gender expression at home, court records show the child “made statements about dying” and “threatened or engaged in self-harm.”

‘Potentially unprotected’

According to the Appeals Court decision, released April 3, the family court judge in L.’s case recognized the possibility that the father’s “view of L.’s situation may lead him to make less-than-ideal choices regarding L.’s care” and granted him legal custody anyway.

The judge tried to minimize potential harm by mandating treatment with a specific counselor and gender expert and prohibiting the parents from discussing gender-identity issues with the child.

The Appeals Court overturned those orders in its decision, calling the limitations a “severe micromanagement of Mother and Father’s parenting.” Under Arizona law, it said, family courts can only restrict parenting time if they identify something that “would endanger seriously the child’s physical, mental, moral or emotional health.”

Gender-identity experts applauded the lifting of the “gag order” on gender discussions with the child. But they told The Republic they were confused by the rest of the Appeals Court ruling, given L.’s history of suicidal behavior.

“In a lot of these cases, children are stating, ‘I don’t want to live,’ or they’re getting admitted to Phoenix Children’s because they’re slamming their heads against floors,” said Cammy Bellis, founder of Mothers in Transition. The non-profit group connects moms of gender non-conforming children with legal resources.

“Parents feel that it’s their right to be able to make legal and medical decisions about their child,” she said. “But when your child’s making death statements and having suicidal ideations, when do the courts plan to step in?”

Shannon Minter, legal director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said he was “puzzled that the court did not give the trial court an opportunity to revisit which parent should have legal decision-making power.”

The center helped represent L.’s mother on appeal.

“Our concern and the mother’s concern is entirely with the welfare of the child,” Minter said. “We do worry that…the child is left potentially unprotected here.”

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Victor van der Meer

Founder & Director of My Rainbow Net Pty. Ltd.

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