AP National Writer
CHICAGO (AP) -- From the time they are born, we put our boys in blue beanies and our girls in pink ones. It's a societal norm, an expectation even, that you just are what you are born -- a boy or a girl.
From early on, we divide toys and activities by very distinct gender lines, with superheroes and trucks and muck on one side and princesses and dolls and all things frilly on the other.
Many children land, enthusiastically, on the expected side. Others dabble in both "girl" and "boy" things. But what if your kid, even from an early age, mostly showed interest in doing opposite-gender things? More importantly, what if they wanted to BE the opposite gender -- or a less-defined mix of both? And what if they wanted to test those limits in public places, like school?
Would you let them?
It's not, of course, that pat of a process. Parents don't just decide to let their kids switch genders. But, whether parents are dragged through the process, or if they decide to work it through more openly, more kids are challenging the boundaries of traditional gender, and going public at younger ages.
And they are doing so with the guidance of a growing faction of medical experts who no longer see this as something to be fixed. Last year, the American Psychiatric Association removed "gender identity disorder" from its list of mental health ailments.
Some experts predict that views on gender will evolve in much the same way they have for sexual orientation, since homosexuality was removed as a mental illness nearly four decades ago. Today, the gender spectrum includes those who are transgender, who see themselves as the opposite gender, and those who are gender variant, or gender nonconforming, whose gender is more "fluid." For kids, it means they identify part of themselves as boy and part as girl.
"Now these kids . are beginning to have a voice . and I think that's what's been making things interesting and challenging -- and difficult, sometimes -- depending on the family, the kid, or the school," says Dr. Robert Garofalo, director of the Center for Gender, Sexuality and HIV Prevention at Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.
While the numbers are relatively small, it means that, increasingly, schools are having to figure out how to accommodate them, some more successfully than others.
The questions often start with the basics: Which bathroom do they use? Where do they change for gym class? What if teachers or students don't want to use the pronoun, "he" or "she," or a new name the student prefers?
It can be difficult, and uncomfortable. In Colorado, for instance, the parents of a 6-year-old transgender girl are suing their school district for trying to make her use a separate bathroom.
The center at Lurie opened recently, in part, to meet the demand from parents seeking guidance for children who are questioning their gender identity and to provide support to older transgender youth who sometimes struggle more in adolescence, even facing a greater suicide risk, especially if they have no backing from family and others around them.
The center also serves as a resource for schools with transgender and gender variant students.
Increasingly, those students are making the transition as early as elementary school, if not before.
Ryan, a fourth-grader in suburban Chicago, is one of those kids.
Most people, upon seeing her big blue eyes, long lashes and flowing blond hair, would never know she's anything but a girl. But underneath, she is still physically a boy.
Doctors call that gender variant, though Ryan prefers to call herself a "tomgirl."
"I feel that I'm a girl in my heart," she says, "and a boy in my brain."
Her parents allowed her to be interviewed and also agreed to speak to The Associated Press on the condition that the family's last name, the name of the town where they live and the school Ryan attends not be used in the story.
Though the decision to publicly express publicly as a girl happened at the end of kindergarten, Ryan had slowly been becoming "she" at home for a long time, even when she still had a crew cut.
Six months after her second birthday, her parents say Ryan was drawn to all things pink and sparkly. Ryan, the boy, wore pajama pants on his head, pretending it was long hair, or acted out girl roles from movies.
"I'm wishing . for the one I love . to find me!" the preschooler would enthusiastically sing into the toilet, copying Snow White, who sings into the echoing wishing well in the animated Disney movie.