Inside the families embracing the new world of gender variance
|Olie Pullen, surrounded by her favourite dolls|
By Cathy Gulli
January 13, 2014
Since the summer of 2012, Olie Pullen has kept in her bedroom closet a Wonder Woman costume, which she loves, but has struggled to actually wear. The plan had been to don it on Halloween two years ago, but when that day came, Olie, now 11, chose to be a vampire instead. Dressing up in the red and blue costume would have exposed her at school and around her Montreal neighbourhood in a way that didn’t feel right yet: Olie was, after all, born a boy. Oliver.
When he was a toddler, at his own insistence and to the surprise of his parents, Oliver began playing with princess dresses and dolls. He wore skirts, first at home and then out, along with glittery shirts and skinny jeans, and eventually grew his blond hair long. Recently, Oliver started wearing a padded bra and taking hormone blockers to suppress male puberty. He had his name legally changed to Olie, and only responds to female pronouns. Oliver the boy is now Olie the girl. And for the first time ever, she’s comfortable. “The best part is that I feel I’m in the right body,” says Olie. “I feel like, well, I feel good.”
Olie and her parents are part of a small but growing number of families, researchers, educators and health care professionals embracing the concept of “gender variance,” which is also called gender creativity, independence, non-conformity or fluidity. In doing so, they are helping children gradually transition from their gender at birth based on anatomy to something else—male to female, female to male, or to a more ambiguous identity. This response marks a striking shift away from “reparative” treatments used in the past, which saw gender variance as a psychiatric problem that should be caught early and fixed permanently. It also stands in contrast to the view that children are too immature to really know who they are today, or who they’ll want to be in the future.
Unbeknownst to most people, over the last few years many organizations have transformed the rules, policies and practices pertaining to gender variance—in effect, mandating and legislating acceptance and accommodation. The Public Health Agency of Canada published comprehensive recommendations in 2010 for schools to support gender-variant students. Among them: “Ask them what name they would prefer to be called, who they would like help disclosing to” and “organize guest speakers who are gender variant.” The agency also encouraged “training sessions on gender identity issues for all staff” and “single-occupancy bathrooms and designated gender-neutral facilities including the creation of private showers in locker rooms with curtains or doors.” Many schools have obliged.
Olie has a message for other kids:
Follow who you want to be. Not in the sense of a job, like a millionaire or a firefighter. In the sense of if you want to be a girl, or known as queer or a lesbian, follow your heart. Don’t deny your identity.” She already has a future career in mind: “I want to be an astrophysicist,” she says. Her mother says Olie learned the planets in the solar system before the alphabet. “I like stars and the universe—because you can’t really expect what’s out there.”