Kids and Gender Identity Exploration

kids and gender identity exploration

Both in my office and in my real life (the one where I’m not wearing my therapist hat) I am meeting more and more kids and teens who identify as transgender, gender variant or gender queer. And I am also talking to more and more worried parents who are trying to make sense of this. They want to know, how do I support my child? Is this a real thing or just a phase? What do I do next?

First let’s talk some about the language. It’s important to know that the language around gender identity issues is changing quickly and language that one person uses may be offensive to another person. I am using the language suggested in this infographic created by the TSER (Trans Student Education Resources). Their organization defines transgender as an umbrella term that includes anyone whose gender identity is different than the gender assigned to them at birth. This would include a child designated “boy” at birth who identifies as a girl as well as a child designated “boy” at birth that does not identify as any gender (agender) or whose gender identity varies (often referred to as gender variant or gender queer).

Gender is culturally defined. What it means to be a boy or to be a girl depends on where, when and how you live. In India, straight men hold hands. Here in the states, not so much. So something that we know to be “true” about masculinity — that straight men do not hold hands with each other — is not actually true; it’s a gender performance that differs depending on one’s cultural surroundings.

Our gender performance is just that — performance. We are taught gender norms before birth (is it a girl or a boy?) and within the context of those teachings we learn how to perform gender. We learn who wears make up and who cooks dinner and who shaves their legs and who is loud or quiet and who is allowed to take up the most room on the subway.

Discussing gender performance can be challenging for people who believe that girls are naturally this way and boys are naturally that way. Many of us also have experience that tells us that boys really are louder or dirtier or rougher than their sisters. I would argue that whether or not we can prove this is unimportant. We can acknowledge the rough and tumble 5-year old boy in front of us, seeing the truth of his expression and we can also know that “boys will be boys” is a cultural norm that can be freeing (for the boy who wants to be rough and tumble) or stultifying (for the boy who does not). We can recognize both the personal experience and the cultural construct that surrounds it.

To be clear, understanding cultural norms around gender doesn’t mean that we don’t acknowledge that people we’ve identified as boys and girls may be different; it means acknowledging that how we understand, code and define these identities and these differences is complicated and dependent on social values and mores.

Children generally become aware of gender roles between two and four. When I taught preschool I had short hair and many of the kids in my care would ask me if I was a boy because of it. Children who are trans may start speaking up around now — Johnny declares he is a girl. Louisa declares she is a boy. Some of this may be about trying on gender roles, for example some kids realize that the opposite gender has access to gender performance that they want, like a boy who wants to be Cinderella or a girl who wants to be G.I. Joe. This may not indicate that they are transgender; lots of little kids figure things out by trying on different identities.

These conversations tend to come up again in the tween and teen years. As kids become more aware of the demands and expectations of gender performance — particularly as they head into their teens and adulthood — they may question them or feel critical of them. Children who are transgender and who are likely going to live out their lives under that umbrella have a “consistent, insistent, and persistent” identity with a gender that was not assigned to them at birth. This means the child identified as a boy at birth will always know she was meant to be a girl or the child identified as girl at birth will always know they are gender queer.

So what about the child who does not show consistence, insistence and persistence? What about the child identified at birth as a girl who wore tutus all through preschool, dresses all through early elementary and who now only shops at the boy department and insists that you call them Jack? Is that just a phase? Should the parents be alarmed?

Let me be clear that this blog post is meant to support all three — the transgender child, the gender variant child and the child who ultimately will align as cisgender but who is exploring. There’s something happening — I call it the Tumblrfication of this generation — where our kids are having more complicated and more nuanced discussions about gender than their parents’ generation (i.e., us) could ever hope to have.

Let’s go back to Jack, the child identified as a girl at birth who announces he is a gay boy (i.e., a boy who likes other boys). Wait a second, says the parents. Doesn’t that mean you’re a girl? Or a tomboy?

Or Jack says he is a straight boy (i.e., a boy who likes girls). Wait a second, says the parents. Doesn’t that mean you’re a lesbian?

Here’s the thing, Jack gets to decide who Jack is. And who Jack is may change. Jack may go back to be Jeannie. Jack may even go back to Jeannie and marry a man and live out life ostensibly as a straight woman some day. But what does that mean for Jack right this minute, 13-years old and standing in front of you in skinny jeans and a beanie and a buzzcut?

It means right now, right this minute, Jack is Jack.

There’s a great podcast about asexuality that you can find here. Asexuality is just what it sounds like — it’s people whose sexual orientation is to not be sexual. (Learn more about it here or listen to the podcast.) In the podcast there’s a part where the interviewer asks (and I’m going to paraphrase here because I don’t have time to boot up the podcast and find it), so what happens to your identity if you do become sexual? What if you meet someone and realize you want to be sexual with them? And the interviewee says, basically, Who I may become does not negate who I am now.

For parents, this is an important message. Who our child is right this very minute is what matters. Helping them make sense of it and supporting them as they forge their identity is our job. We can’t look into a crystal ball and know if Jeannie will stay Jack or become Jeannie again. We might make educated guesses (again, consistence, insistence and persistence are our guides here) but how incredibly disrespectful to Jack’s journey to insist we know him better than he knows himself.

For one, we might be unaware of Jack’s consistence because we shut down his insistence. Perhaps Jack knew early on but realized the first time he said, “I’m a boy” at three that this wasn’t going to fly. Maybe Jack’s coming out now is part of a long persistent journey.

Or maybe Jack didn’t have the language to explain what they meant. Perhaps Jack didn’t know how to display their gender variance, to say they didn’t feel like a boy OR a girl or felt like both a boy AND a girl.

Or maybe Jack is playing with gender, unpacking gender. Perhaps Jack is exploring the cultural performance and will come back to her identity as Jeannie with a new understanding of who she is and who she can be. And this is just as valid an experience even if it seems “temporary” when her identity eventually aligns back with her gender assigned with birth.

I see all kinds of experiences in my office but I guarantee that the number of non-binary kids I see — and that other counselors are seeing — have increased in this generation. This is the part that I call the Tumblrfication because yes, there are kids who would never identify as trans in any way, shape, or form in another time and place who are identifying now because they’ve read about it on Tumblr or saw it on Mtv or have friends who are genderqueer. Instead of calling it a phase or being dismissive, I think we need to recognize this as the cultural change that it is. Kids today (not all but many) are willing to dialogue with and about gender in ways that are not familiar to those of us who were raised to only recognize the binary. Many of us may find this threatening. What does it mean to be male if you can be a man without having a penis? How do we know who is “really” a girl and who isn’t?

This is why I encourage parents to get support along with their kids. When our children unpack gender, we’re forced to unpack it, too, and confront the biases, assumptions and prejudices that we took for granted as “true.”

When I’m working with kids who are identifying in some way as trans or genderqueer, my goal is not to herd them towards a definitive statement of gender identity. My goal is to help them understand who they are and what they need in order to align their outward experience with their inward experience. Unless a child is going to be seeking hormonal support to support their gender identity, there’s no rush. (And if in the course of treatment it becomes clear that a child/teen is going to need hormones, then I will refer out to a therapist with expertise in transition since this is beyond my scope of practice.) I ask parents to do this, too. Instead of saying, “Who are you? What are you?” I encourage parents to say, “How can I support you as you discover who you are?”

If your child tells you that they are transgender or genderqueer, believe them. Right in this minute this is how they identify. Some of them will find a home in that identity and will need to craft a support system that celebrates and honors who they are. Some of them will move through that identity on to something else and they deserve our support and understanding, too.

All of us have to make that journey. All of us need to know who we will be in the context of our whole lives — within and beyond our families, within and beyond our cultural surroundings. We have to make sense of it. We have to forge a way to learn it since, for most of us, crafting our identity is a lifelong discovery. (I am an adult, I am a parent, I am a parent no longer raising children — who am I now? I am a partner, I am a spouse, I am alone — who am I now?)

  • Here in Columbus we have a great organization to help your child find respectful support. Kaleidoscope Youth Center has support groups and activities for kids and young adults from 12 to 20
  • We also have a support group for kids 5 to 11 hosted by therapist Erin Upchurch that meets monthly. You can learn more about that (along with support groups across the country) here.

I have written this post in honor of Transgender Awareness Week, which you can learn more about here.

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