The opening keynote was Ryan Sallans, author of Second Son and consultant/educator about transgender issues. His opening keynote shared a typical narrative for a binary Transgender person aged 30+. I’m glad they opened the event with a personal story, including the pain, oppression, rejection that many transgender people face in the world, in their families.
AnnaLisa Derenthal, a colleague who works with me at Wellspring Counselor Center, and I prepared a presentation on the possible connection between neurodiversity, trauma, and gender diversity. Apparently it was one of the more highly anticipated presentations of the symposium. Approximately 100 people attended our presentation, eager to hear more about the possible connection between conditions like ADHD, Autism, PTSD, and Gender Dysphoria. We introduced the concept of Neurodiversity and discussed how the movement encourages acceptance of people’s strengths and deficits. Then we dug into the brain structures affected by conditions such as traumatic experience, ADHD, Autism, Asperger’s and then we compared those to brain dimorphism studies indicating differences in transgender people’s brains.
The most interesting part of our presentation was sharing the statistics from our survey of our local transgender community. In 101 respondents, we found that 61% have experienced trauma, 29% have been diagnosed with ADHD, and 10% have been diagnosed with an Autism spectrum disorder. The most interesting statistic we found is 25% of youth (ages 9-25) have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, and 22% of youth have been diagnosed with Aspergers in particular. These numbers appear to support the findings of a study published December 2015 where researchers found 23% of the youth presenting at their gender clinic in Boston had indicators of Aspergers.
The message contained within our presentation was perhaps instead of pathologizing people with neurologically different bodies, we could accept them and their differences. We should embrace their strengths and welcome them to contribute in meaningful ways to our society. Perhaps, our culture is pathologically damaged, rather than them.
The energy in the room nearing the end of our presentation was really awkward. There were very few questions, and people seemed either dazed and confused or sleepy. I wasn’t sure if our message came through clearly or if the presentation was coherent (I was very nervous and kept tripping over my words). My supervisor was walking through the room afterwards and happened to overhear some discussions amongst audience afterwards. He found that many of the clinicians have been working from the traditional medical model, resistant to the idea of embracing the differences in people with ADHD and Autism. They came to this event seeking treatment models, a fix for their patients with ADHD, Autism, and Gender Dysphoria. That we did not provide. We challenged some fellow clinicians biases that day, and possibly changed the way a few of them approach their work with transgender and neuro-atypical people.
Just before our presentation, Dr. Ehrensaft, Director of Mental Health and founding member of the Child and Adolescent Gender Center in San Francisco covered the affirmative model of understanding and treatment that her team uses with adolescents in their clinic. She introduced the concept of gender web as an alternative to the gender spectrum. The gender web is based on three components of gender: biological, psychological, and cultural. It also encompasses the fact that gender can shift, and be reformed over a life time. Dr. Ehrenhaft’s approach beautifully embraces gender diversity, encourages children to explore their gender to it’s fullest extent. Her approach really resonated for me and I was very pleased that her keynote presentation was scheduled immediately before ours so I could connect her acceptance approach to ours. Dr. Ehrenhaft’s gender web concept is explained in full detail in her book, Gender Born, Gender Made and The Gender Creative Child, currently available for pre-order.
Friday morning Dr. Rosenthal, Medical Director and founding member of the Child and Adolescent Gender Center in San Francisco, closed the conference with a powerful medical examination of gender in biology. He referred back multiple times to information I had highlighted in our presentation the day before, speaking to me directly in the audience. He also prepared the audience for my colleagues Tom and Melissa’s discussion about gender diversity in nature. It was very exciting and validating to be both referenced and respected by a leading physician who has been supporting transgender youth for many more years than myself.
The final breakout sessions of the conference included opportunities to process what everyone had learned over those three days. This was Tom and Melissa's opportunity to shine with their down to earth discussion of gender diversity in nature. They really drove home the idea that our cultural understanding of gender has been physically and mentally damaging to a lot of people over the past couple centuries.
The biggest lesson I brought home from GEMS is that it’s time for change. More children are discovering that their gender identity and expression doesn’t fit neatly within the binary model traditionally enforced in our culture. The experience of being perceived as “broken” just for being different than the “norm” creates crippling mental and physical pain for many children. The mental health system is woefully behind in their understanding and acceptance of gender issues. Far too many mental health clinicians, especially in-patient programs, are not prepared to provide a healthy environment for transgender and gender diverse kids to heal and thrive.
I’m proud to be a mental health provider who provides affirmative care for transgender youth, and educating other providers on the importance of acceptance and understanding.
Every session of the symposium was video taped. When the recordings are available, I’ll post links here.