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There are a lot of sup­port groups around for adults, but what hap­pens when the child you are try­ing to help is much younger? Tony Fer­raiolo pro­vides the an­swers.

Tony is heav­ily in­volved in the trans­gen­der sup­port net­works in the state of Con­necti­cut and he has cre­ated many sup­port groups, in­clud­ing the one at the New Haven Pride Cen­ter. A num­ber of years ago, when I had al­ready been deal­ing with my own gen­der iden­tity, I had the op­por­tu­nity to hear him speak at a trans­gen­der youth rally on the steps of the State Supreme Court in Hart­ford. See­ing him speak in per­son, es­pe­cially af­ter hear­ing so many in the com­mu­nity speak so highly of him, was in­cred­i­bly af­firm­ing.

The topic was “Artis­tic Ex­pres­sion of Trans­gen­der Youth.” He talked about his work with younger chil­dren and their feel­ings on gen­der and chil­dren’s aware­ness of gen­der roles in our so­ci­ety from a very young age. It came as no sur­prise that kids de­velop feel­ings about the ex­pec­ta­tions of gen­der roles that are re­flected onto them. In the case of chil­dren who are not com­pletely cis­gen­der ( iden­ti­fy­ing as the gen­der they were as­signed at birth), this can be un­com­fort­able, up­set­ting, and, in some cases, trau­matic.

When there is a child who has given their par­ents some indi­ca­tion that they might be strug­gling with gen­der iden­tity, how do you go about get­ting that child to talk about it? If you are Tony Fer­raiolo, you use art.

Tony has kids draw what they are feel­ing af­ter giv­ing them a high- level prompt, such as, “What makes you sad?” Then, they write the terms for the as­so­ci­ated feel­ings on the back of the art, pre­vent­ing any­one from see­ing it, and the oth­ers can in­ter­pret their own opin­ions of the piece.

These small kids present the most strik­ing art and it quickly be­comes ap­par­ent how much pain they have hid­den away. With mes­sages such as “hid­ing my­self . . . it sucks the life out of me,” it’s clear that chil­dren can strug­gle with gen­der iden­tity and ex­press­ing them­selves at a very young age and it can be de­bil­i­tat­ing.

It makes me feel good to know there are peo­ple like Tony in the world; it in­spires me to help peo­ple, too. When I first started for­mally deal­ing with my gen­der is­sues, I was a con­fused mess with more than a lit­tle self doubt and a bit of fear. Fast for­ward to more than four years later, know­ing that I am in a much dif­fer­ent place, know­ing my­self bet­ter now than I ever have at any point in my life, and I even like my­self. How­ever, I can re­mem­ber what it was like to take that first step. If I have the op­por­tu­nity to take away some of that pain and con­fu­sion in some­one else’s com­ing out ex­pe­ri­ence, I am re­minded of peo­ple like Tony, and know that I have to at least try to help.

If you want to see more of Tony’s ex­pe­ri­ences in both his tran­si­tion and his work with kids, the doc­u­men­tary, “A Self- Made Man,” is avail­able on Ama­zon Prime. The first two books in his “Artis­tic Ex­pres­sion of Trans­gen­der Youth” se­ries are avail­able on Ama­zon, with a third vol­ume in the works. See more at tony­fer­raiolo. com

Lind­sey Pem­brooke

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