Intro to the gender spectrum

A free online course explains the basics of transgender children's needs

In 2011, Stanford Medicine lecturer Maya Adam, MD, had just finished teaching her undergraduate course on critical issues in child health when a student approached her with some feedback. “I loved your class, but you are missing one issue,” the student said. “You need a lecture on transgender children’s health.”

Adam’s response was “You’re right … but I know so little about that.” Her own medical training had never mentioned transgender children; she was unsure what challenges they faced. Adam soon realized this knowledge gap was common, not just among physicians but also among teachers and other professionals who work with kids.

In March, Stanford launched a free online course that Adam created to fill the gap. Anyone can participate in the course, which is called “Health Across the Gender Spectrum.” In 18 short videos, Adam interviews Stanford experts and gives basic explanations of concepts relevant to gender identity. In addition, several videos showcase interviews with transgender children and their families. Among the conversations: A young child tells his mom that it took four tries for him to muster the courage to tell her he was really a boy, a girl describes how she feels about looking out for her transgender little sister, a dad shares his concerns that his beloved transgender child won’t be accepted by society and a mom talks about how she feels blessed to raise a transgender teenager.

“There is something magical that happens when you meet a real family and see similarities between that parent and you, between that child and yours,” Adam says. Viewers hear parents’ and kids’ voices under cartoon animation; the families’ anonymity is preserved, but their emotions come through.

“There are themes of hope and incredible love in these stories,” Adam says. “Every parent we interviewed has gone above and beyond to create an environment that will allow their child to thrive.”

The course also includes interviews with two Stanford researchers who are transgender: Asian studies expert Alice Lyman Miller, PhD, a fellow at the Hoover Institution; and neuroscientist Ben Barres, MD, PhD, a professor of neurobiology, of developmental biology and of neurology and neurological sciences at the School of Medicine. They speak about their academic work and their experiences of being transgender. “We need mainstream, highly accomplished transgender role models to be more visible,” Adam says.

Ultimately, she hopes the course will show that placing less emphasis on gender leaves all young people — anywhere on the gender spectrum — freer to express themselves, grow and thrive.

“We can do all our kids a service by backing off from the tyranny of the pink and blue,” she says. “If you’re playing a part that doesn’t feel like who you really are, how can you possibly be your best self?”

Erin Digitale is the pediatrics science writer for the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. Email her at digitale@stanford.edu.

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