Maya Adam, M.D. is a lecturer at Stanford University School of Medicine and instructor of a new course, Health Across the Gender Spectrum, on Coursera. Through a series of illustrated personal stories, Health Across the Gender Spectrum explores a wide variety of health issues faced by transgender children. She recently published Five Things That Can Help Us Better Understand Transgender Childhood on the Huffington Post. The Coursera team had the chance — just days before Maya leaves for the next year to start a health education platform in South Africa — to ask her some questions about her inspiration, process, and key takeaways from making the course.
COURSERA: Why did you decide to create this course?
MAYA ADAM: I’ve been teaching an undergraduate course at Stanford since 2009 called “Critical Issues in Child Health.” In 2011, a student came up to me after class and said she loved the course, but it was missing one critical issue of child health — transgender children’s health.
I knew she was right. I also realized that the topic of transgender children had never been mentioned in my own medical education. While I think of myself as an educated, open-minded person, I didn’t know much about the challenges that face this group of children. The next year I invited some physicians who practice in this field to teach a guest lecture, and that was when I began to learn about the struggles faced by transgender children and their families.
C: You spoke with several families in the creation of “Health Across the Gender Spectrum.” Is there one particularly memorable conversation that you had?
MA: I remember one story in particular, told by the father of a first grade transgender girl. These parents had done everything right – advocating for their daughter at school, in their community and making sure she had access to excellent health and social support networks. But there was a moment during the conversation when the father said, “Right now, everything seems pretty safe, but I still wonder…” He kind of choked up, and then said, “I still worry: who’s going to love my child?” This father’s fear is such a universal one . I think every parent on Earth worries about who will love and care for their children when they’re gone.
That conversation made me realize that the time is now. We have ten years before that child goes off to college – ten years to make this world into a place that is ready to celebrate and love each of our children. I felt this time pressure when I spoke with many families who took part in the making of the course. I also realized that the power of the human story to open minds – to make people really listen to other perspectives – is really unparalleled.
C: What are some best practices you would like to share with parents and healthcare providers for interacting with transgender children?
MA: First off, just ask. It’s okay to ask someone what name or pronouns they would like you to use. That’s so much better than imposing your judgement on another person. And then secondly, I think it’s important to know it’s okay to make a mistake. It’s okay for a healthcare provider to accidentally use the wrong name or pronoun as long as they say, “Hey, I’m really sorry that I made that mistake.” That kind of clears the air. It’s better than just steamrolling forward because of your own embarrassment or discomfort with the topic area.
C: What do you think the government can or should do to help transgender children?
MA: Well, equality is a principle we have to respect and protect. Each and every one of our children deserves the right to be treated in a way that honors them, respects them, and protects their safety, regardless of their racial background, gender identity and, later in life, their sexual orientation. Our children are our most valuable assets. If we live in a world where some of our children are considered second-class citizens because their gender identity doesn’t match their sex assigned at birth, for me, that’s unacceptable. We have to protect our children’s freedom and their space to be who they are.
C: Who do you think should be taking this course but isn’t?
MA: In an ideal world, I’d have this course be required for everyone who interacts with children. Every teacher, every parent, every caregiver of any kind, whether they are a healthcare provider or daycare provider. Being aware of the issues and challenges that transgender children face, understanding the language and knowing how to make the environment accepting and friendly to all children doesn’t just benefit our transgender children, but it also opens up the possibilities for all of our children to be their authentic selves and not fall prey to the tyranny of the pink and the blue.6