What the journey of transitioning from female to male means for a five-year-old in Silverton, and for those around him
By Megan A. Gex
At first glance, Oliver is a healthy, jovial seven-year-old boy.
In the schoolyard he’s known for his gelled faux-hawk, and his favorite color is blue. His favorite book is The Dangerous Book for Boys. He loves to sprint the 200-meter in track and watch Sponge Bob on the weekends with his best friend. His rambunctious attitude and boyish tendencies belie a core reality: Oliver was born a girl.
With today’s prenatal technology, gender identity is often established before birth. It’s something parents take for granted, while picking masculine names or painting the child’s room pink prior to delivery. During the first years of rearing, the parents often provide their offspring with a gender role, before the child is even aware of their sex. Between the ages of two and three, children start expressing their own gender tendencies, according to specialist B.J. Seymour. Most of the time the child identifies with their assigned sex, but other times their psyche may say something different.
Oliver, born Olivia in 2002, began showing signs of gender discomfort at one-and-a-half years. At such an early age, the signs weren’t verbal; they were present in the choices he made. Over the next year his mother Holly swept her apprehension from the front of her mind and let her child play with whatever toy, or act whatever way, he pleased. “That’s why I bought him Hot Wheels,” Oliver’s father Joel says. “I thought, ‘Cool, my daughter likes cars.’” Both of them shrugged it off as just a “tomboy phase.”
Holly, a hard-working nurse with strawberry-blonde curls, has a warm affection and deep admiration for Oliver and his struggle. Flipping through photographs of Oliver as a toddler nearly brings her to tears. “Right here he’s three,” she says, holding a photograph of a doe-eyed girl in a green t-shirt with purple hair clips. “I had such a struggle with him that day to get him to wear ponytails. That was the last picture we ever got to take of him like this, because he wasn’t old enough to throw a fit.”
She glances over baby photo after baby photo, creating a tentative timeline of Oliver’s transition: one of him with a lace headband in a velvet dress, age one; another taken the following year, in jeans and galoshes with a mid-length haircut. “It’s so strange looking at these pictures. It’s the same soul, just a different person,” Holly says.
Not “Just a Phase”
Instinctively Holly could tell something was different about her child, but Joel came to notice the seriousness much later. One evening Joel and Oliver were wrestling, an activity the two thoroughly enjoy. Joel began to tease Oliver, insisting he was going to put him in a dress. “It was like I did something that really hurt him, something was really wrong,” Joel shares. “That was when I realized that it wasn’t just a phase.”
From that moment there was a two-year transitional period of therapy, counseling and finally acknowledgment. Their first therapist instructed them to have Oliver remain gender-neutral for the first years, to test the waters. During this experimental period, his name changed to Olive. His wardrobe consisted of unassuming clothing, with unisex cartoons like Sesame Street and Teletubbies. His dark hair was kept mid-length, just grazing his shoulders.
None of this worked for Oliver. Something deep inside was unsettled. Seven months before Oliver entered Kindergarten, the physical fits began. He had bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. He lost weight and his eyes sunk in. His parents took him to multiple doctors, hoping to flesh out a cure, but nothing proved effective. Then the two met Seymour, a seasoned gender specialist based in Portland. That’s when everything changed.
A Weight Lifted
After hearing Oliver’s situation, Seymour insisted that they drop everything and refer to Oliver as his preferred gender. A month into Kindergarten, Holly and Joel let Oliver wear the clothes he wished and cut his hair as he liked. Finally, they changed his name.
“When we allowed him to make those changes, a weight was lifted,” Holly says. “Oliver told me he was finally happy to be alive.” After his makeover, Oliver blossomed. His grades improved, and he began to demand attention. “Now he’s almost overconfident,” his mother adds. “At times I think he is trying to make up for what he feels inside.”
Despite her 20 years of practicing gender therapy, Seymour describes Oliver as the most confident transgender child she has ever seen. He is also the youngest patient she has treated to date; she has only seen five patients between the ages of 13 and 14. “Children know what gender they are,” Seymour says. “With Oliver, I could tell he needed the immediate support.”
Seymour believes that when parents are accepting, the child will prosper. Forcing a child to accept their assigned gender will make the child feel alienated. She served as the driving force behind the family’s most important transition. As Seymour encouraged the family to allow Oliver to participate in the role of the gender with which he felt comfortable, Oliver thrived in his early months of Kindergarten.....