(This post was originally published on the Huffington Post on December 24, 2017.)
Transgender. Non-Binary. Gender Fluid. Bi-Gender. A-Gender. Pan Gender. Gender Expansive. These are just some of the words people use today to describe their gender identity. In fact, Facebook now has 54 gender markers one can choose from.
Increasing numbers of youth today question their gender, and there is a corresponding increase in the number of ways people choose to describe and name their gender. A recent UCLA study found that over a quarter of California kids aged 12 to 17 say they are viewed by others at school as gender nonconforming. Alarmingly, the study also found that youth who are gender nonconforming and/or androgynous report higher levels of psychological distress than their gender-conforming peers. What’s going on here?
Some people may wonder if this is a cultural fad that will eventually fade. Experts in the field say otherwise, and in fact our culture today is making great leaps and bounds regarding our understanding of gender identity. The latest research shows that gender is not a binary “black or white” paradigm constructed along rigid male or female lines; rather, gender includes a spectrum of identities ranging from male to female along several strata, and even extending outside the spectrum itself. One’s identity can exist anywhere on this spectrum—or even outside the spectrum. A key to understanding gender identity as a concept is that gender identity is one’s innermost sense of who they are with regards to gender. As with everything else about individuals, there are infinite variations to gender.
Cristin Brew, a marriage and family counselor who specializes in working with youth and gender identity, says:
“The unfolding of authentic gender identity and expression can be trusted. For some it may seem counter-intuitive to implicitly trust children and adolescents to plot their own gender course. Indeed, this population does need support and adult advocacy to successfully interface with society. However, my work with gender expansive and transgender youth has taught me that, with adequate time and safe spaces to unfold, kids and teens come to find identities and expression that fit for them.”
As visibility of transgender people (broadly speaking, this refers to people whose inner understanding of their gender identity is the opposite of the sex they were assigned at birth) has increased in our society, we see that many people have become familiar with what it means to be transgender. Understanding and acceptance is on an upward trend (particularly in some regions), even in the face of the current political climate in our country. However, transgender people who transition and present clearly as either male or female have a higher likelihood, when compared to gender fluid and other non-binary identities, of being accepted by their family and community. Gender-questioning or gender-expansive people do not fit into the binary male/female paradigm, and these people typically have a much more difficult time being understood, supported, and accepted.
Does it even matter if it is fad or fact? The 2012 survey of transgender youth, conducted by Ontario Canada’s Trans Pulse, revealed that the number one factor trans youth feel leads to their happiness and self-acceptance is parental support. Sadly, to the contrary, trans and gender-expansive youth without family support have been shown to be in the highest risk pools for depression, anxiety, and suicide. These are sobering statistics. Children who do not express gender in stereotypical ways need parents who are knowledgeable, flexible, and patient.
It is often surprising or shocking to parents when they discover their child is not behaving in accordance with typical gender norms. Parents may feel anxiety or loss when they learn their child is transgender. Those feelings may be compounded for parents whose child defines not merely as transgender, but as gender expansive, or gender fluid, or non-binary, or agender, or anything else that does not fall cleanly into “male” or “female” buckets. There are people who describe themselves as “gender fluid”; they may feel they are male at certain times or in certain situations, and then later (in a minute, an hour, a day), or in a different environment, they feel as though a switch has flipped and they are female. Some people describe themselves as both male and female. In any case, the way one expresses oneself on the outside may not even match the way one feels or identifies on the inside. The variety is seemingly endless, and parents are rarely well equipped to understand it all.
It is often said that the T in “LGBT” is about 30 years behind LGB in terms of acceptance. As recently as three decades ago, parents were likely to be distraught if their child came out as gay. Currently there is a much wider level of acceptance in the United States for gay or lesbian people vis-à-vis transgender people. Research by the Pew Research Center (2013) shows that acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people increases with specific familiarity—for instance, the more gay men a person knows, the more likely that person will be accepting of gay men in their community. As acceptance of gays and lesbians has outpaced acceptance of gender-variant people over the past few decades, parents who have learned they have a transgender child have occasionally reported saying to their children, “Transgender? If only you were gay, it would be so much easier to understand and accept.” This disparity is in big part due to the fact that 90 percent of the US population as of 2016 reports knowing someone who is gay, while only 10 percent report knowing someone who is transgender.* By nature, we are creatures who fear the unknown. So naturally, now that people in the United States are becoming more familiar with, and increasingly more accepting of, transgender people who “cross over” from one gender to another (in popular culture, for instance, we have Jazz Jennings, Caitlyn Jenner, and Laverne Cox), we find parents saying, “Non-binary? If only you would choose a side. If you’re trans fine, then just be a boy or a girl, but this in-between is just too much!”
Patience and acceptance grows out of understanding. Again, Cristin Brew:
“Slowly but surely, we seem to be recognizing that the gender binary system is antiquated and does not work for many of us. Generally speaking, youth have less difficulty accepting and understanding transgender and gender-expansive identities than older generations. Having said that, it still sucks to feel different. Young people need supportive environments in which to discover their authentic gender while still feeling like they belong. Maintaining a connection to peers and family members substantially increases their feeling of well-being.”
Indeed, it can be very stressful, painful, and isolating to live a life other than that which is authentic and true to one’s inner sense of self, and doing so can have devastating consequences. We know that transgender youth and non-binary youth are at great risk of depression, anxiety, suicide, and self-harm, as these issues are reported at disproportionally high levels among transgender and gender non-conforming people. Transgender people who report the highest rates of success and happiness in their lives are those who say they were able to transition and live as their authentic selves with the support of their families and communities.
It’s time to shift our way of thinking. Best practices evolve: youth of today are finding new ways to describe their inner sense of gender and they are also exploring ways of expressing that inner sense to the outer world. Is this just a fad? Or, are the youth pushing us toward the future, a future in which all forms of gender identity and expression will be seen as valid and true?