For school officials in Haverford Township, the challenge was daunting: What do you do when a 9-year-old student, with the full support of his parents, decides that he is no longer a boy and instead is a girl?
Parents of a third-grade student at Chatham Park Elementary School approached the administration on April 16 to ask for help in making a "social transition" for their child.
The Haverford School District consulted experts on transgender children, then sent letters to parents advising them that the guidance counselor would meet with the school's 100 third-grade students to explain why their classmate would now wear girls' clothes and be called by a girl's name.
Some parents objected. Eight called the principal to ask that their child not attend the session, and some posted angry messages on the Haverford Township blog.
"Why is the school introducing this subject to 8- and 9-year-olds?" wrote the parent who started the blog thread, which had been viewed more than 3,000 times as of yesterday. "Why were we not notified sooner. We received the letter today, the discussion at school is tomorrow."
Other parents thought the school should not have called attention to an already delicate situation.
"I did not think that the letter needed to go out," said Valerie Huff, whose daughter is friends with the transgender student. "The kids don't make any big deal about it at all."
Mary Beth Lauer, district director of community relations, said there were no easy answers for school officials.
"This is something that was going to come out," Lauer said. "Isn't it better to be proactive, and let people know what is happening and how we're dealing with it?"
The student has not received medical treatments to change his sex, but has told others that he considers himself a girl, according to several people who know the family.
He had begun wearing girls' clothes, Huff said, and an approaching school event would have made the child's gender identity an issue, according to Lauer, who declined to discuss the matter in greater detail.
In the April 21 letter to parents, Chatham Park principal Daniel D. Marsella wrote that a transgender child is one whose biological gender does not match his or her gender identity. Marsella assured parents that the talk with students, held two days later, would use "developmentally appropriate language" to explain "how we need to help this student make a social transition in school."
When the guidance counselor, Catherine Mallam, spoke with the children, she explained that one of their classmates looked like a boy on the outside but felt like a girl inside, according to a summary of her remarks prepared by the school for parents. She asked them to accept the student as a girl and not make unkind remarks.
The students seem to be accepting their classmate's change, Lauer said. The child is doing well but some comments on the blog have upset the child's parents, Huff said.
About one in 5,000 people is transgender, said Walter O. Bockting, a psychologist and coordinator for transgender health services at the University of Minnesota. Bockting said he sees about 10 children a year who are 9 or younger.
"It's a little early, but occasionally that happens," he said.
Not all transgender people have sex-reassignment surgery in adulthood, and such surgeries are not typically performed on children, said Sharon Garcia, president of TransYouth Family Allies, a non-profit group that helped the Chatham Park student and school officials devise a way to explain the situation to parents.
So far, 49 families have contacted TransYouth Family Allies asking for help with a transgender child, Garcia said. Most of the children are between 6 and 10.
Parents of transgender children often change school districts in order to accommodate a child's desire to switch genders, which is what Garcia said she did when her 5-year old son tried to hurt himself after professing for years that he was a girl.
"I have yet to meet a parent who did not fight this kicking and screaming," she said. "None of us want this for our children, none of us want to go there, but it gets to the point where it's not a choice anymore."
The child at Chatham Park wanted to stay at the same school because of friends, Garcia said.
Bockting said families of transgender children should consult an expert and carefully consider whether to switch roles before trying it. The child's feelings should be deep and persistent, he said.
When a young child seems set on changing his or her sexual identity, he encourages him or her to wait until puberty.
"Many transgender people have feelings that date to childhood, but puberty will give an idea how strong the feeling is," he said.
Some medical experts think parents should not let a child change gender roles at a young age.
Paul McHugh, a psychiatrist and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studied sexual reassignment surgery in the 1970s, said a school's decision to support a student's transition could have long-term psychological consequences.
"They do not have a right to stop the child, but it's different when they gather everyone around and say, 'Johnnie is Jeanie,' " he said. Society, he added, should not support the decision of an immature person.
There is no evidence that the transition ultimately helps the person, he added.
McHugh said he reached his conclusions after studying the issue for 30 years, especially in the 1970s, when Hopkins was pioneering sexual-reassignment surgery.
"People came to us saying that if we changed them, we'd solve all their problems," he said. "So we changed them, and their problems remained."
Garcia says letting her child dress and act as a girl was the right decision.
"I went from a suicidal child to a child who tries out for a lead part in the play," she said. "I knew society wasn't going to be accepting, but my choices were, do this and have a happy, alive girl or have an unhappy, dead boy. So we did what we needed."
Special Thanks to the Philadelphia Inquirer