Shiloh Jolie-Pitt wants to be called John: When is a child old enough to make a decision about gender identity?
By Dr. Becky Spelman
Celebrity couple Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt raised eyebrows recently when they announced that their daughter, Shiloh Jolie Pitt, preferred to dress and behave “like a boy” – and that they are totally fine with that. Apparently little Shiloh – who is lucky enough to have inherited stunning good looks from both sides of her family – is now happier dressing as a boy, and playing with “boys’ toys”, and has asked her family to call her “John.”
But at just eight years of age, is Shiloh old enough to make decisions about gender identity?
First of all, I think it’s really important to stress that what is at stake here is in no way a “moral” issue. Thankfully, transgender people are gaining greater acceptance, and fewer are being forced to live in a way that doesn’t feel right to them. Moreover, media commentators don’t know Shiloh – we don’t know what she really cares about, and whether or not she’s transgender. We can assert that a lot of what we think we know about “toys for a boy” or “toys for a girl” is driven by gender stereotyping anyway.
However, this new story does raise some interesting questions. Whatever the case with Shiloh, some kids – both girls and boys – feel from very early on that they have been born into the wrong sort of body, and that they really belong to the other sex. In a world in which gender stereotypes are still very much par for the course, this can be deeply challenging for them and the people who love them. Some of those children will express the wish to undergo medical treatment to make their bodies more consistent with their self-image. This is where things can get very complicated. On the one hand, the earlier such intervention, the easier in some ways. Medication to suppress puberty hormones in girls, for example, can prevent the development of breasts and other secondary sexual characteristics, which can be very distressing for the transgender child with a female body and a strong male identification. On the other hand, children are not allowed to make many major decisions about themselves for a very good reason; they are simply not mature enough. That’s why, among other reasons, children can’t vote or decide for themselves when to finish school – or even how many sweeties they get to eat after dinner. Any parent would be worried about making radical decisions for a child who might be just passing through a phase.
Shiloh is making the news because she’s the child of a celebrity couple, but thousands of kids around the world are in the same situation. For all of those children, the most important thing is for them to be surrounded by love and acceptance as they figure out who they are and who they want to be.
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