Gender identity explained for parents.
Your teenager is changing. You’re not sure what’s happening. You’re concerned.
Maybe your daughter ditched dresses for battered jeans and a leather jacket. Maybe your son started growing his hair long and wearing touches of make-up. You wonder, “Is it a fad? A phase? A sign of mental problems?”
Welcome to the biggest shift in gender norms in history.
A New Way to View Gender
Before we examine gender identity, let’s establish a common understanding. Gender identity is not based on biological sex or sexual orientation. It is one’s unique sense of identity that does not necessarily adhere to socially enforced gender roles or stereotypes of masculinity or femininity. In other words, the belief that that boys should be one way (masculine) and girls should be another (feminine).
The traditional gender binary approach, limiting socially acceptable behavior to one’s biological sex, does not allow for fluidity or the interweaving gender roles. In this way, the gender identity movement redefines gender barriers and introduces a customized concept of gender that celebrates a person’s unique individuality.
This revolution in gender may seem sudden to many parents, but for decades traditional gender roles have been becoming more flexible and integrated into mainstream culture in many ways. The stay-at-home dad movement embraced the traditional female roles of raising children and tending to home life. While the feminist movement opened the way for women to step into roles traditionally held by men, such as law enforcement or CEO’s of corporations.
A Word of Caution for Parents
It’s common for parents to fantasize about their kid’s future or to have expectations for who they will be. However, when parents enforce their expectations on their children, rather than honor their kid’s developing sense of identity, parents may react critically or punishing.
Parental rejection is one of the most difficult hurts to heal. It undermines relationships and breeds resentment. When kids feel personally rejected by their parents, they experience much shame. They may blame themselves for failing their parents or blame their parents for failing them. Frequently, to fend off their parents rejection, kids most often develop one of three symptomatic reactions: angry defiance, withdraw into depression, or bouts of intense anxiety. Sometimes, depending on the circumstances, teens develop traits of all three.
Even worse, parental rejection sets the stage for self-hatred that can take a lifetime to reverse.
The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center
I sat down with Olin Winn-Ritzenberg, LMSW, the Youth Education Services Coordinator at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City to discuss gender identity.
1. Do you feel parents have an understanding of gender identity?
It is not surprising that many parents have a limited understanding of gender identity because most people are socialized and educated in this same way. However, parents respond in many different ways to having a gender-expansive child.
Some parents believe that there is something wrong with being trans/gender non-conforming. As a result, I’ve met many young people who have experienced abusive households. Trans and gender-nonconforming youth are overrepresented in the youth homeless population for this reason.
For other parents, understanding their child takes a lot of time and it might be necessary for them to seek out therapeutic support. Some parents, however, are able to get on board quickly, become outspoken advocates within their communities, and help their child navigate complicated systems like schools, courts, and healthcare in order to help them live safely and authentically.
2. What are the common struggles of teenagers in your program?
The teens and young adults in my program experience all the typical challenges and successes of youth; being LGBTQ+ compounds these experiences. The teenage and young adult years are spent developing one’s identities and self-esteem. For LGBTQ+ youth, positive identity development can be all the more challenging due to growing up in environments that promote transphobia and homophobia. Many schools have faculty that try very hard to create positive environments but we are still seeing students face harassment, violence, and push-out.
Even where there is no explicit transphobia or homophobia, the absence of affirming messages about LGBTQ+ people and the exclusion of LGBTQ+ heroes and history from curriculum negatively impact the identity development of students.
Most of the youth in my program are doing an amazing job navigating these challenges while also navigating the challenges of being a youth of color, or having a disability, or living in poverty, or being undocumented, etc. The list goes on, it is impossible to isolate one piece of a person’s identity.
4. What do your groups offer teens?
The Center Youth Program exists to provide LGBTQ+ young people and allies, ages 13-22 with community support to foster healthy development in a safe, affirming, sex-positive environment. At Center Youth, we are guided by our goal of creating a Community of Inclusion for everyone.
We offer a number of drop-in groups every week which include Gaymers, Karaoke, Community Discussion, Karaoke, Gender X, a safer sex group, a healthy relationship group, a writing group, art groups, a dance/vogue group, a movie group, and more. Many of our groups are run by youth and staff together. We also offer internships, events, and a summer camp.
3 Guidelines for Discussing Gender with your Child
Children explore their identity from an early age through role playing and fantasy games. By adolescence, the craving for a more stable identity starts to emerge and become a driving force. This search for identity, when combined with the emotional chaos of adolescence, however, makes teenagers particularly vulnerable to criticism, particularly from their parents.
For this reason, parents need to approach gender issues with extra care. Here is a guide for those discussions.
1. Keep An Open Mind
Yes, you’re worried. Yes, you have concerns about safety. But be mindful not to transfer your anxiety to your kid. Teens already face daunting emotional challenges, massive bouts of insecurity and ongoing fears about their future. Don’t add to your kid’s burdens with fears and judgements. Home should be the last place a teenager doesn’t feel understood. Practice radical acceptance. Remember, teenagers most benefit from support, not lectures.
2. Educate Yourself About Gender Issues
There is plenty of information about gender issues available to parents. Websites, support groups, and youth centers all offer guidance and comfort. For information, contact the The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center or visit their website. (CLICK HERE)
3. Respect Your Kids Process
Remember, your kid is still your kid. Adolescence is a time of great psychological instability, an emotional roller coaster ride of highs and lows. Avoid pathologizing and honor your child’s unique journey. Establish a culture of mutual respect in your family. Remember, labels will never be more powerful than love.
A Final Word from Sigmund Freud for Parents
In 1935, an American mother wrote to Sigmund Freud and requested advice about her son’s homosexuality. Could he be cured?
Here are excerpts of Freud’s written response to her. Though penned 82 years ago, Freud’s words remain solid advice to parents concerned about orientation:
…Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function…
Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.).
It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime, and cruelty too.
Sincerely yours with kind wishes,
*June is LGBTQ NATIONAL PRIDE MONTH. Check your local listings for events.