EDMONTON - When 11-year-old Wren Kauffman goes back to school this week, he won't be hiding the fact that he's actually a girl.
Teachers, friends and other students at his Edmonton school know the truth — that he's a girl on the outside but feels like a boy on the inside. And that's why, even at such a young age, he has chosen to live in the world as the opposite sex, and not keep it a secret.
"If you're not yourself, then it kind of gets sad and depressing," says the freckle-faced kid with short-cropped hair.
"I'm glad that I told everybody."
More students these days are not just coming out in school as gay but also as transgender or transsexual, and they're doing it at younger ages, says Kris Wells, a researcher with the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta.
Some studies shows six out of 1,000 students experience transgenderism. About one out of 170 teachers are transgender.
Wells says his office gets calls and emails from parents and schools across the country at least once a day asking for advice. A few years ago, he helped a child swap sex roles while in Grade 2 at a Catholic school in rural Alberta.
Some students and their families choose a more secretive approach, switching schools or even moving to other provinces, so they can start fresh, he says. Others transition over the summer and return to school in the fall identifying with their new sex.
Brave students, like Wren, proudly announce who they used to be — and who they are now.
Wren, born Wrenna, says he doesn't remember a time when he didn't feel like a boy.
Growing up, he hated wearing dresses. He liked Spiderman and dressed up as comic book hero The Thing one Halloween. When he was five, he had his mom take him to a hairdresser to cut off his long, brown locks. He wanted to look like Zac Efron from the movie "High School Musical."
Wendy Kauffman says she and her husband, Greg, knew their daughter was different. She would often ask: "When do I get to be a boy?" And she pleaded to be born again in order to come out right.
They thought it was a phase. Then they thought their child might be gay.
But as Wren got bigger, so did the sadness and frustration.
Kauffman says it finally hit home when Wren was about nine and Kauffman was tucking her six-year-old child, Avy, into bed one night. "She said to me, 'You know, Mom, Wren is a boy and he told me to tell you.'"
Kauffman says she got a bit defensive. "'I said, 'Well, I know Wren wants to be a boy.'
"Avy said, 'No, Mom, he REALLY wants to be a boy.'"
Kauffman, tears welling up in her eyes, says it was a pivotal moment. Her youngest child had seen it all so clearly and, now, she did too.
Kauffman later told Wren: "I love you whether you're a boy or a girl and I understand now. And we'll figure out how we can help you. And we'll do it together."
Wren and his family say they have gone public and been in the media this year so that others going through the same situation know they're not alone. Kauffman hopes other parents realize how important it is to really listen to their children. Wren wants other kids to know it's OK to be who they are.
Kauffman says she and her husband initially consulted with Wells about Wren's transition and he first started living life at home as a boy. After about a year, they were ready to tell his school.
Wren was in Grade 5 at Belgravia School, where students occasionally gathered in sharing circles to talk about life events such as the separation of parents or a family death. He took his turn to tell his classmates that he was now living his life as a boy.
Some kids had questions, but they were all supportive, Kauffman says.
The following year, Wren transferred to Victoria School of the Arts. At first, he was private about his actual sex, but after a few months he told friends and shared his story with his class.
There are a couple of older transgender students at the school, but Wren is by far the youngest.
He says it hasn't been a big deal. He uses the boys' washroom "which, by the way, is much grosser than the girls' bathroom." He also changes in a stall in the boys' gym locker room.
Wren has started monthly drug injections to pause female puberty. When he's about 16, he'll decide whether he wants to start injecting male hormones. At 18, he'll be legally old enough to have sex reassignment surgery.
Wren says he's not sure yet if he wants to take that final step. He's just excited to start Grade 7.
His school is part of the Edmonton Public School Board which, in 2011, became the first in the province to develop a policy to protect gay, lesbian and transgender students and staff from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Wren says he hasn't been subjected to any harassment. Just some teasing when he first came out — one student winked and called him "Mr. Kauffman." A couple of others asked for proof that he was actually a girl, but Wren laughed it off and told them he wasn't prepared to pull down his pants.
Wren says he knows it won't always be this easy and he's prepared for the possibility that he may be bullied later in life.
"People tease me right now and I can handle it. The way that I like to look at it is that they're just practice for the real jerks in life.
"And, besides, if they say something to me, then they don't have to be part of my life ... I don't think I need people who don't like me."
Also on HuffPost:
1. Defining Transgenderism
The root of the word "transgender" comes from the Latin word "trans," meaning "across." A trans-Atlantic flight goes across the Atlantic Ocean; a transnational issue affects people all across the country; and so on. "Transgender" literally means "across gender." "Transgender" is defined today as an umbrella term with many different identities existing under it. <em>Image via ccharmon on <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/9439733@N02/4922468556/" target="_hplink">Flickr.com</a></em>
2. A Few Words Of Advice
When trans people reveal their trans identity to someone, it is a highly personal moment. It takes trust and courage to talk about gender identity or gender transition. The best-case scenario is probably to: 1) ask what questions, if any, are appropriate; and 2) give the trans person an out if he or she feels like you are overstepping your bounds (even though your questions may be born of an innocent curiosity). This makes it easier for a trans person to maintain privacy and integrity.
3. The Gender Binary
The gender binary exists for easy categorization and labeling purposes. For most people, it is something that is taken for granted. Females who identify as women use the women's restroom. Males who identify as men dress in suits and ties or tuxedos for formal events. It is the way it is, and that fits well for many people. But for trans people living in a culture where the gender binary rules all, it is a daily battle. <em>Image via kimberlykv on <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/kimberlykv/2681705695/sizes/z/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr.com</a></em>
4. Gender Expression
Out of the three terms -- "sex," "gender identity," and "gender expression" -- which do you think we notice most about people on a daily basis? If it were a person's sex, then we would have to see under that person's clothes or test his or her chromosomes (and even then we could get a conflicting report). If it were a person's gender identity, we would have to either ask that person how he or she identifies or somehow get inside the brain and find the answer for ourselves. By process of elimination, you guessed it: it's gender expression. <em>Image via MuLaN™ on <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mulan5/1586972480/sizes/z/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr.com</a></em>
5. Orientation And Gender
If we look at society as a diverse group of individuals where heterosexuality might be the most common sexual orientation but not necessarily normal, then we can more easily see that human sexual orientation varies: some people happen to be straight, some gay, some bisexual, and so on. This does not necessarily have anything to do with a person's gender identity or expression.
6. Coming Out To Oneself
Realization that one is trans can take anywhere from a few moments to several decades. Usually, trans people have an inkling early on in their lives that their assigned gender feels out of sync with their bodies. The self-realization process is extremely complicated. The human mind does its best to help us survive, which can translate into triggering intense denial. Because of societal constraints, it is common for a person to try to ignore signs pointing toward transgenderism, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Health insurance covers transgender surgeries in very few cases. Some people have fewer surgeries than they would like because of the high prices. Still other trans people elect not to have surgery at all because they simply do not want to. For a long time, and still in many places today, people refer to some transgender surgery as "sex-change" surgery. Later on came the less-harsh sounding "sex-reassignment surgery." Today, more and more people are realizing that surgery for trans people is not a gender "reassignment" but rather an affirmation of the gender that a person has always been. Gender-affirming surgery seems to be the most accurate reflection of this.
8. Hormonal Transition
For trans women, taking hormones is a two-step process. To help feminize a genetic male, it is very important to suppress production of testosterone. The other step that transgender women frequently take is the administration of estrogen, which is the chief hormone at work in biological females. Unlike their male-to-female counterparts, trans men do not have to take any estrogen-suppressing substances as part of their hormone treatments. Testosterone (called simply "T" in the female-to-male community) is a powerful hormone. The raising of testosterone levels in a trans man overpowers existing estrogen levels.
9. Transgender Children
There can't really be transgender children, can there? Kids can't know for sure how they feel when they're really young, right? Wrong. Gender identity is thought to be solidified by age 6. This does not mean that children absolutely, positively know how they identify by that age. It simply means that their gender identity is there. If it doesn't match up with the sex they were assigned at birth, then that will start to manifest itself in different ways. <em>Image via libertygrace0 on <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/35168673@N03/3595145967/sizes/z/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr.com</a></em>
10. Sex, Gender And Nature
Many plants and animals can be both male and female, biologically speaking, at the same time or at different points in their lives. In a comparison of 34 postmortem human brains, scientists found that the part of the brain comprising a small group of nerve cells thought to pertain to gender and sexuality were similar in trans women and non-trans women. Although the study only had one trans man's brain, it found that group of nerve cells to be similar to that of a non-trans man. Perhaps Dr. Milton Diamond put it best when he said, "Biology loves variation. Biology loves differences. Society hates it."
11. Transgenderism As A Mental Health Issue
Gender identity disorder (GID) appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), which is the American Psychiatric Association's official diagnostic book. GID, soon to be changed to gender dysphoria in the DSM 5, is classified as a mental health condition in which a person desires to be the "opposite" sex of that assigned to him or her at birth. Due to its criteria, many trans people fall under this diagnosis. It is still classified as a mental disorder by virtue of its existence in the DSM.
12. The Bathroom Debacle
Imagine resigning yourself to not ever using the bathroom in a public place. For trans people, this is often a reality. Those who are in transition or do not pass on the outside as "clearly male" or "clearly female" are thrown out of both men's and women's restrooms on a daily basis. Some places provide "unisex" or "family" restrooms, but the majority do not. If a transperson wants to go out and enjoy a concert, sporting event, or simply a day outside the home, he or she must make concessions that most people never have to think about.
13. Lesser-Known Types Of Transgenderism: Genderqueerism
People often find the notion of genderqueerism difficult to understand. They may hear that a genderqueer person is in between male and female, or is neither, but they may continue to ask, "OK, so what sex or gender does that make them, really?" This is where it is perhaps most difficult to live as a genderqueer person. The constant explanations that sometimes get nowhere can be frustrating and disheartening for genderqueer people.
14. Transgender By The Numbers
Unfortunately there is no major consensus on the number of transgender people in the United States or the world today. Hard-and-fast statistics are lacking for a couple of reasons. One is that many trans people are not out and are either living as trans behind closed doors or living stealthily, meaning that people do not know that they were born differently than they appear now. Another reason for the lack of statistics is that so many different varieties of transgenderism fall under the umbrella term that it is hard to discern which subcategories should actually be statistically counted as transgender and which should not.
15. Parting Words
In America we have seen that teenage suicide because of bullying has reached epidemic proportions. Many of these kids are LGBT, and most of them are taunted due to some component of their gender expression. I hope that you will talk to others about what you have learned about transgenderism. No one should have to suffer because of who he or she is, but we know that reality tells us differently. People have been bullied and persecuted for who they are since the dawn of time. But we are not defenseless. The more education that is out there about what is means to be different, the better.