PHILADELPHIA — When “Ben Carson” was 3 years old, his favorite color was pink and his best friend at nursery school was a girl. He drew flowers and he loved Snow White.
His parents noticed differences between him and other boys and they started to recall with concern the little things he had done since he was a toddler — such as wandering around the house wearing a towel robe like a dress.
“Then one evening when he was 4 years old, I was putting him into bed and he said, ‘I really don’t want to grow up,” recalled his father, a government worker in Philadelphia who requested anonymity to protect his son. “And he said, ‘I really wish I was a girl.’ Something clicked. I just knew something was really wrong with my son. He was depressed and just not happy with who he was.”
If young Ben lived in Massachusetts, he could be a candidate for “gender reassignment” treatment at a children’s hospital there that recently opened a controversial clinic that allows young children to select their own gender and treats them with hormones. Hearings that began June 26 at the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee show just how accepted gender reassignment has become. Democrats on the committee want to make it illegal for employers to discriminate against adults who change their gender.
But Ben’s parents have opted for a different approach, one that conforms to Church teachings about the nature of human sexuality, by applying psychological and spiritual techniques to help their son fulfill his masculine identity as he matures.
Sometimes little boys playing with their sister’s Barbies or little girls refusing to wear dresses are just a passing phase. Sometimes, it’s more serious: Mental health professionals call it Gender Identity Disorder or gender dysphoria syndrome when the condition of viewing oneself as having an opposite-sex identity is, among other things, consistent and lasts more than two years.
So-called “transgender” children are increasingly likely to be channeled into programs that treat them with hormones and on the road to full “sexual reassignment” — including amputating surgeries to give them pseudo-genitalia of the opposite sex.
But the Carson family’s story illustrates that a Catholic response to gender confusion may offer the most genuine hope for full healing.
The Catholic response is rooted in the Church’s theology of the body, which holds that each person is a unity of body and soul made in the image and likeness of God. Because of this, the Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World) states that “man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day.”
As well, in Catholic theology there is no such thing as being “trapped in the wrong body.” Human beings are created male and female and although humanity’s fallen nature can result in psychological disunity and confusion regarding an individual’s sexual identity, every person’s body reveals his or her God-given gender.
Consequently, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that, “except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reason, directly intended amputations, mutilations and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law” (No. 2297).
“We lost dominion over creation with original sin,” explained Christopher West, faculty member and research fellow of the Pennsylvania-based Theology of the Body Institute. But, he added, “Christ can heal us, he can restore our true sexual identity even when we are deeply cut off from it.”
But increasingly, this is not the mainstream medical response to children with symptoms of Gender Identity Disorder. This year, the Children’s Hospital Boston made headlines when it opened the doors to its Gender Management Service Clinic, the first of its kind in the United States dealing exclusively with biological and psychiatric sexual disorders.
Pre-adolescents are given hormone injections to delay puberty, and children as young as seven are encouraged to decide whether they want to be male or female.
The clinic’s director, endocrinologist Norman Spack, testified before a Massachusetts State Committee on the Judiciary this March that his office receives one or two calls a week from parents of children with Gender Identity Disorder.
Spack was supporting state Bill 1722, an act to add “gender identity” to existing anti-discrimination laws. Similar legislation has been introduced in a dozen states recently. The bill was endorsed by the ACLU and by homosexual and “transgender” activists.
Other activists have been lobbying schools.
A group called TransActive Education and Advocacy has introduced a “Transgender Children’s Bill of Rights” declaring: “I have the right to be on the outside who I truly am on the inside … even if I’m really young. … I have the right to be in a classroom where other students have been taught about the gender spectrum.”
Some schools have exceeded activists’ expectations already.
Third-graders at Chatham Park elementary school in Philadelphia in May had a guidance counselor explain to them that one of their classmates who “looks like a boy on the outside, feels like a girl on the inside.”
Another Colorado elementary school announced this May it would henceforth be treating a Grade 2 boy as a girl.
The underlying message is that children with Gender Identity Disorder are born that way — perhaps as a result of imbalanced hormones in utero — and they are therefore unchangeable and should be encouraged to embrace this “transgendered’ sexual identity.
Critics of this approach argue that Gender Identity Disorder is a psychological disorder, citing the lack of evidence supporting the hormone theory.
What’s more, as Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, has said “I have witnessed a great deal of damage from sex-reassignment.”
Wrote McHugh in First Things in 2004:
“The children transformed from their male constitution into female roles suffered prolonged distress and misery as they sensed their natural attitudes. Their parents usually lived with guilt over their decisions — second-guessing themselves and somewhat ashamed of the fabrication, both surgical and social, they had imposed on their sons. As for the adults who came to us claiming to have discovered their ‘true’ sexual identity and to have heard about sex-change operations, we psychiatrists have been distracted from studying the causes and natures of their mental misdirections by preparing them for surgery and for a life in the other sex. We have wasted scientific and technical resources and damaged our professional credibility by collaborating with madness rather than trying to study, cure, and ultimately prevent it.”
Catholic mental-health professionals opt for another approach, one they say has a proven record of helping kids overcome confusion about their gender identity.
“Effective therapy brings to an end the suffering of these children; hormones and surgery do not,” said Richard Fitzgibbons, a Catholic psychiatrist in Conshohocken, Pa., who has counseled many individuals with Gender Identity Disorder to appreciate the bodies they were born in.
The Carsons contacted Fitzgibbons to help their son Ben two years ago when he was 5. They began acting on his advice, shoring up their son’s masculinity in “a thousand ways” at home.
The Catholic parents added an affirmation to their son’s daily prayers, “Thank you, God, for making me a special boy.”
And Carson started spending more time with his son, focusing on traditional masculine activities like sports.
“It has been really hard going sometimes,” says Ben’s father, and he foresees more effort ahead, especially when Ben hits his teens. But he also sees enormous progress in his son.
“He’s so much happier,” Ben’s father said. “If you saw my son today, you would think he is a well-adjusted happy boy.”
Last year, the television show “20/20” aired a Barbara Walters segment on “transgender” children featuring a 7-year-old boy named Jazz whose parents let him “come out” at his fifth birthday party in a girl’s bathing suit. He wore his hair long and had a pink, frilly bedroom but sang with a boy’s voice.
Ben’s father said when he watched the show he saw how his own son, in different circumstances, might have gone that path.
“I just know from the bottom of my heart that we are on the right track,” he said. “And every time I think about it, I thank God that we are Catholic.”
Celeste McGovern is based in