Gender identity in children and youth explored

How can families, schools and society in general properly support people with Gender Identity Dysphoria?

This is a question that educational psychologist Dr. Wallace Wong, of Sand Story Psychology Services, has grappled with for most of his professional career. Dr. Wong will give a lecture at the Vancouver Public Library on Thursday February 1 on how parents and teachers can better support children and youth with gender dysphoria.

“I wanted to do psychology and I wanted to help people. So I went back to school to become a psychologist,” says Dr. Wong.

Professional background

Dr. Wong, a clinical psychologist, has worked with the transgender population for 22 years. He started by working in the mental health field in San Diego, California and treated children and youth with sexual health issues related to transgender and sexual minority issues.

Dr. Wallace Wong, clinical psychologist at Sand Story Psychology Services | Photo courtesy of Dr. Wallace Wong

He was attracted to this field because as someone who grew up in the 1980s he witnessed the effect that HIV/AIDS had on the LGBTQ community.

He wondered why this population, particularly the transgender sub community, was ostracized more than other groups.

“I wanted to discover more information about this group and during the process I saw things and raised questions there aren’t any available answers for,” he says.

At the time there wasn’t much research available on the transgender community, so Dr. Wong, through the course of treating transgender patients, obtained information at a clinical level.

Our society is based on a gender binary system, with males and females, says Dr.Wong, transgender people don’t always fall into one of these categories. Societal ignorance about the transgender community results in prejudice, discrimination and harassment towards this group.

“For most people the world is a place where only two genders exist,” he says.

Education is key

Through his work, Dr. Wong has sought to demystify and correct misconceptions about the transgender community. In addition to his clinical work and public lecture circuit, he has written a social story on this issue, When Kathy is Keith, originally published in 2011.

“More and more parents of my younger clients were asking me for books to read to help their other children,” he says.

The story was inspired by the experiences of one of his clients, and although he was touched by that experience he wrote the book to fill what he felt was a void of social stories aimed at helping young people understand the process of gender transition.

“At that time there were very few social stories available,” says Dr. Wong.

The parents of his younger clients welcomed this book as it helped them to explain to their other children the transition and experiences of their sibling.

School districts such as Surrey have copies of this book in their school libraries, says Dr. Wong. He believes more generally that schools play, and should play, an important and active role in helping people with gender dysphoria. In many cases students don’t “come out” to their parents but to their friends, peers, counsellors and teachers, for fear of being abandoned by their families or for fear of hurting their parents’ feelings.

“Schools still have a binary bias (gender segregation classes, bathrooms etc) and so they often have difficulty helping students with gender dysphoria,” he says.

He also believes that schools should have more training, resources, and expertise in this area in order to help this community.

More improvement needed

Dr. Wong believes that because of social media, and an increased awareness of the transgender community and transgender issues that there has been a decrease in the amount of stigma and discrimination experienced by this community.

“Science tells us that the brain structure of these individuals is different,” he says.

The public is increasingly aware of the science which places more emphasis on a biological factor that underpins an individual’s non binary identity. According to Dr. Wong, science tells us that the structure of these individuals is different. He believes that in five to 10 years we will pathologize this population less than we do today and because of this we will be more flexible in how we look at gender identity.

“I think B.C. is doing a good job at moving towards this,” he says.

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