Gender and sexual orientation

Supporting our kids as these issues arise.

‘Aloné Retro’ in downtown Jerusalem (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Aloné Retro’ in downtown Jerusalem
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With the latest Jerusalem Pride Parade behind us, it seems appropriate to bring up the issue of how we as parents deal with our kids regarding sexual orientation and gender- identity issues. As Judith Posner and I noted in our article about teen suicide, kids who consider themselves gay, gender-fluid, bisexual, asexual, third gender, genderqueer or transgender have the highest rate of suicide and suicide attempts among all teens and young adults.
My journey with kids who are dealing with these issues began quite recently.
I was walking down Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem’s city center and was asked by a couple of kids to take their picture. When I got closer, I realized that one was a girl with very short hair, and the other looked like a boy yet was wearing a very sexy-looking dress.
When I asked him his name he said in a deep voice, “My name is Alona.” My immediate thought was, how is this child handling life on the streets of Jerusalem? I simply couldn’t get Alona, or “Aloné Retro,” as she wished to be called, out of my mind.
The following Sunday, I had the privilege of counseling a very special young lady who came to me in boy-like clothing.
I asked her mom to give us some time alone, and the young lady shared that she had not felt like a girl since she was little and therefore felt “gross and disgusting” in her body. Her parents thought her gender issues had begun recently and had no idea that she had been struggling with this issue for years, which apparently was the main issue leading her to attempt suicide over and over again, thankfully without success.
With these two incidents in mind, I made an appointment to visit the Open House, Jerusalem’s gay, lesbian and transgender support center. I met with the social worker, who shared that the main focus of the center was to provide support groups for kids and adults dealing with non-conformative gender identity (also known as gender dysphoria) or sexual orientation.
As stated on the WebMD web site, “People who have gender dysphoria feel strongly that they are not the gender they physically appear to be.” Even though they have the traits of a certain sex, they feel that their actual identity is the opposite sex. This condition can cause severe distress, anxiety and depression. It can make life simply unbearable and confusing.
Gender dysphoria, formerly called gender identity disorder, is not considered a mental illness. In treating people with this condition, professionals focus on the stress, anxiety and depression that go along with it, rather than attempting to change the person’s identity.
Genderqueer (GQ) is another condition in which people feel neither exclusively masculine nor feminine. Genderqueer people can identify as one or more of the following: overlapping gender identities, having two or more genders, having no gender, moving between genders or being gender-fluid (having a fluctuating gender identity), or being third-gender or other-gendered, a category that includes those who do not give a name to their gender.
Wanting to hear firsthand the effects of these issues on kids, I invited Aloné and Ore, his female friend, to my home separately to hear about their personal stories.
Ore is 19 and only recently moved to Jerusalem. Her parents are divorced and her father is bisexual. She always felt attracted physically and emotionally to both men and women, and wanted to feel free to have a relationship with any person she felt connected to. Her dad, of course, understands this, whereas her mom is quite judgmental.
Aloné is 21 and moved to Jerusalem two years ago to study at the Sam Spiegel film school. He was born Alon and discovered at the age of 11 that he was attracted to boys. This truly scared him to the point where he became severely ill. For years he tried to convince himself that it was an illness that would pass, leaving him “healthy again.”
In ninth grade, he began dressing like an alien, telling people that he was a “Dadaist” who was attracted to chairs.
At that point, he decided to tell his parents that he liked fashion. He was very scared of their reaction.
When Aloné was in 10th grade, his mom asked him if he was gay. He felt too ashamed to answer – the thought of being attracted to other men made him feel dirty, unkind and inhuman, as if he were no longer in “the image of God.”
His family pretended to be surprised, saying they thought he was just creative, but in essence seemed apathetic and non-judgmental.
Due to Aloné’s own discomfort, he was taken to a number of psychiatrists, feeling that his genitals were an obstacle for him and that he had an emotional tumor. He found a psychiatrist who believed that sometimes it is easier to change the physical than the emotional.
Aloné agreed with the doctor that he needed to focus on feeling more comfortable with his body. He was put on a testosterone reduction medication called Spironolactone or “Spiro.”
Today, Aloné describes herself as feeling “fabulous!” She feels that with less focus on her sexual organs, she can grow more spiritually as a man or a woman.
She is totally comfortable in her body and has no qualms over the use of either male or female pronouns to address her.
Ore also feels that too much emphasis is placed on semantics. People aren’t expected to know how to address you unless you feel free to tell them.
SO HOW do we parents support our kids if such issues arise? Both Ore and Aloné emphasized the importance of acceptance. As Ore put it: “If your kid is happy and not endangering himself or others, remember that it is their life and not ours. Just as we did things that our parents did not understand, our kids will surely do the same.”
Aloné firmly believes in giving kids a stage and simply being their audience.
If they feel a need to exaggerate or pretend, let them. Don’t think you know your kids better than they know themselves.
“Respect their performance; give them their show and let them express themselves,” she says.
For those of us who believe kids choose to be gay to be “different, an openly gay comic imagined someone sitting down with a menu of sexual choices: “Hmmm, homosexuality, let’s see... ‘Comes with getting bullied in school, ostracized by traditional society, fewer legal rights. Side orders of family rejection and self-loathing.’ OK, sure, I’ll choose that!” In short, our kids are constantly exploring themselves and the world around them. If they feel unconditionally loved and accepted by us, they will feel the same about the world around them. This will allow them to grow to be true to themselves and develop the self-love and esteem that we all wish for our children.
The writer is a teen- and young-adult counselor specializing in addictions and working with youth and their parents for over 26 years.;