See Dick Be Jane

It's a spring break morning, and by 11 a.m. at the Anderson home, chaos is erupting. School is out for the week, and the twin boys are throwing a ball inside the spacious, two-story house. Upstairs, the preteen daughter pretends not to hear her mother calling. Lauren Anderson, a tanned and well-dressed stay-at-home mom who seems incapable of sitting still, cajoles her offspring to behave as she waits for a babysitter to arrive.

Her youngest, Nicole, 5, is frowning. Nicole's face is framed with delicate brown braids, and her fingernails are painted a rainbow of colors. She plans to go swimming with a friend at the community pool, but at the moment, she doesn't like the way her dress feels. She yanks the hot-pink halter-top over her head, telling her mother, "This is poking me. I want to change my dress."

Minutes later, she scampers back, now as naked as a jaybird except for her underwear. Without the dress, you can clearly see her penis, tucked carefully into her pink patterned panties.

Born a biological male whom the family named Nicholas, Nicole today dresses, acts, and lives like a girl. She's been insisting she's female since she could talk, say the Andersons, who asked that their real names not be used for this article. "He has always been attracted to the flowers, the bright colors, his Barbie dolls, and his beloved mermaids," Lauren says, using the male pronoun for her child. In fact, talking with Lauren, who fully supports Nicole's desire to live as a girl, it's clear that the family is still working out the grammar of how to refer to its youngest.

"As a young toddler, he wouldn't let me snap her onesies together because she wanted to wear a 'dwess' like his sister," Lauren says, mixing pronouns like he and her interchangeably.

Lauren admits that the family is feeling its way down a path very few families find themselves navigating. Although it's common for young boys to play with dolls or paint their nails — what parents classically refer to as "a phase" — it's much rarer for a child to so completely identify as the opposite sex. And what to do about it has been the subject of fierce debate for decades.

Nine years ago, a Belgian film, Ma Vie en Rose, explored the most common reaction to a young boy's decision to live as a girl. In other words, the parents panicked. So did the rest of the neighborhood, who shunned and ridiculed the boy's family until they felt compelled to move away. In real life, meanwhile, another famous case in 2000 ended even worse. When Zachary Lipscomb's parents attempted to enroll him as a girl named Aurora in an Ohio school at age 6, a state child protection agency took the child away.

Some therapists insist that such children should be discouraged from living as the opposite sex because, they have found, the large majority of such children grow out of it. Studies show that many end up as gay adults. But a growing coalition of therapists, scientists, and activists disagree and refer to such children — even those as young as 3 years old — as transgendered, insisting that the child's new identification shouldn't be discouraged.

The Andersons are in the latter camp, encouraging Nicholas to be Nicole. Experts consulted by New Times say the Andersons are the only family in the United States supporting a 5-year-old's choice to live as the opposite sex. This fall, the Andersons plan to enroll Nicole in a Broward County kindergarten class as a female. They are convinced that's the only way she'll be happy.

That decision has rallied much support for the family's side. There's attorney Karen Doering of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, for example, who represented Michael Kantaras, a female-to-male transsexual, in a widely publicized 2004 victorious custody battle in the Florida Supreme Court. Kantaras, who won joint custody of his two children when the court ruled that his parental rights were not nullified by his sex change, was the first transsexual parent to win such a high-profile victory. Doering is advising the Andersons as they wait to hear from school officials, who so far have given no indication of how they plan to prepare for Nicole's enrollment.

And that's where Nicole's story veers even further from the ordinary. Because trying to pressure school officials to address the Andersons' concerns is a person who could be either a big help or a big distraction.

Mark Angelo Cummings, a man who once was a woman, has become something of a Spanish-language television talk-show phenomenon. Cummings' outspoken appearances, which have wowed Latino TV hosts with stories of his transformation, are leading to a new openness about transsexuality in the Latino community. And Cummings plans to use his celebrity, such as it is, to promote Nicole's cause.

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Julia Reischel