Transgender and gender nonconforming (TGNC) is a term that didn’t exist just ten years ago, and is probably new to many of you. It refers to an unexpected cultural change that has emerged in the last two decades in the mainstream as well as the LGBT community. Increasingly, children and teens are coming out as transgender, gender queer, gender fluid or just simply gender nonconforming. And their parents and families are supporting their right to live in their “affirmed” gender, rather than the “assigned” gender they received at birth.
Where did this apparent explosion of TGNC youth come from? It’s the culmination of a lot of things: the natural progression of people feeling free to express the true diversity of their gender and sexuality; the crumbling of the concept of the “gender binary” (you’re either male or female, nothing in between). It is the result of a culture increasingly tolerant of difference, and the expression of the second wave of feminism in a new generation of parents accepting their gender nonconforming children as normal.
Much of mainstream culture still pathologizes these children, but that is changing as parents refuse to let their children be labeled as mentally ill. Health care providers within the LGBT community have led the movement to radicalize treatment. For example, in the past when parents sought therapy, they were told to force their children to suppress their gender nonconforming behavior, to “throw away the Barbies.” Now, thanks to trans- activists and trans- affirmative providers, that form of treatment is considered unethical.
You’ve probably seen these kids on TV or read about them in the news: Jazz, the assigned male who ‘transitioned’ at age six and now at age 12 was recently honored by GLAAD as a spokesperson for trans kids; Coy Mathis, who successfully sued her Colorado school to be able to use the girl’s restroom. And you may not know what to think about the idea of kids changing gender assignment at such early ages.
So here’s an explanation from an LGBT affirmative model, one that doesn’t pathologize these kids as disordered:
Many people are totally comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth. Let’s take those assigned as males. As male infants grow, most feel like boys and later men. They like their male bodies, they have had interests and traits similar to other males from an early age (sports, aggressiveness) and their gender presentation— the way they look to the world— is stereotypically masculine. They are happy with clothes in primary colors and their physical mannerisms increasingly have a “male” look about them. But some assigned males are very uncomfortable with some of their male roles— they may have no interest in sports, for example. Or they may dislike their body or genitals, like to play “girl” games and have female friends, or want to “look like girls” and be addressed as girls.
A lot of gay people understand this instinctively; if you are a “butch” lesbian or a gay man who loves drag, imagine this feeling of public discomfort intensified and you know how it feels to be on the more extreme ends of what is called the gender spectrum. At one end of that spectrum, of course, are kids whose gender identity— the internal sense of being male, female, or something else— is consistent with their genitals and genes, and whose appearance, mannerisms, and interests are typical of their birth gender as well.
A little way out on the spectrum are kids who are gender nonconforming— they may feel fine being considered male but have atypical interests and ways of presenting themselves to the world. Then there are kids who feel like a little bit of both genders— one child labeled herself a “Prius:” a hybrid of male and female— or that their gender is fluid or variable.
At the other endpoint are children who, for example, from the age of 2 insist they are the opposite sex or express a fervent desire to be the opposite sex, that their body is “wrong,” and who become extremely despondent if they are forced to “act like” their birth gender.
What’s important is that one’s sense of gender identity is not learned and it can’t be modified by willpower or the influence of others. In fact, many sexologists view being TGNC as neurologically hardwired from birth, much like sexual orientation. The point is, children don’t choose to be like this any more than they “choose” to be gay, and their parents and therapists neither caused it nor can change it.
Gender identity is fixed for many people at an early age, so early that it seems we were born with it. But some people are uncertain about their gender identity until much later, usually adolescence. In fact, not all children who appear to be transgender at, say, 6 or 7 will remain so. Some will turn out to be gay or gender nonconforming heterosexual adults. And other children who experienced no apparent stress about their assigned gender when they were young will become very upset at the first signs of puberty.
Puberty, when the body starts to change and take on discrete male or female physical characteristics like breasts or a deeper voice, is the pivotal time for TGNC kids. That’s when it usually becomes clear whether or not they need to “transition’ from their birth gender to the opposite sex.
What TGNC kids and teens need most is affirmation. For the sake of their mental health, their families must allow them to express and live in whatever gender presentation they wish. If their son wants to wear dresses, they need to let him, at least in the protection of his own home. If their daughter asks them to call her Max instead of Madison, they should accommodate. The degree to which parents can accommodate depends on their living situation— it’s easier to let your son go to school with pink nail polish if he goes to a private school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan than to a public school in the Bible Belt. But no matter the family’s circumstance, they can assure their child that they are perfect and normal as they are, and not weird, bad or a freak
TGNC youth also need affirmation from schools, peers and community, and that is harder, especially in places where the culture is conservative. That is where the LGBT community comes in. We need to advocate and fight for these children. LGBT kids are bullied much more than other kids, and gender nonconforming ones are bullied the most. We need to support anti- bullying efforts and all efforts to change gender stereotypes especially among school-age children. Why should a girl be ridiculed because she wants to buzz cut her hair or a boy because he wants to wear a skirt? If you think about it, our stereotypes are ridiculous and cruel. We need to help groups like GLSEN who go into schools not just to educate about LGBT issues but about gender issues as well. Supporting PFLAG is important. Many PFLAG chapters are already working with the parents of these young people.
TGNC youth need to connect with one another, and our LGBT centers can help by providing resources for gender spectrum groups like the ones the Institute for Personal Growth runs at the Pride Center in Highland Park and at Hudson Connections in Jersey City. Most of us in the queer community know how critical it is to meet others like ourselves, and the younger you are when that happens the better. Isolation is a terrible thing, and the cause of much teen depression and even suicide.
Many TGNC youth also need mental health resources. This is not because they are mentally ill but because the stress of being gender nonconforming can be so daunting. Without support, and often bullied, many of these kids suffer from severe depression and are at risk of suicide. A good therapist can help these young people understand that there is nothing wrong with them and that they are not alone, and can work to help their families adjust to and accept them. Professionals are often in a good position to advocate for them within the school system, and by arranging for proper medical care for older adolescents who may need hormones or surgery.
What we find works with TGNC children and adolescents is that with support from parents, school and community— and when they have access to the medical and mental health care they need— these young people are strong, vibrant and healthy individuals. They will live normal lives in the gender identity and expression that feels right to them. It’s up to us to make sure they receive all the support they deserve and to understand they are our children, too.
To hear the story of one trans youth, watch Nate’s Story: www.youtube.com/watch?v=nHYsdUeNW_4&feature=c4-overview&list=UUjVQKn9UNpCxs9LYECTmiQA