The youngest child I served, who questioned gender, was barely three years old. Astute parents brought the child to me when cultural gender norms were rejected by the child, when dressing in the ‘other’ gender was demanded by choice, and when the little one regularly referred to self as another gender. No transition was needed at the time; the parents were in tune with their child—the child-led them.
As a certified sexuality counselor, I have had the honor of spending time with many families dealing with gender issues. I have learned how fluid gender can be in life.
Often the terms sex and gender are considered interchangeable- they are not.
The word sex refers to biology – the genetic differences between males and females and the body parts referred to as genitalia. In sex ed, I honor culture and teach my primary messages: respect, consent, attraction, inclusion, communication, self-worth, gender, and healthy relationships. These topics are of vital importance when supporting an individual’s sexual and gender identities.
Gender is wholly different from sex. Gender is a social construct, meaning cultures and people create it. It can refer to people’s gender expression (how they dress and present themselves), their gender roles (how they choose to live), and their gender identity.
The concept of a binary gender (two) is western. Other cultures have embraced non-binary genders – the Bakla in the Philippines, the Hijras in India, what is known as two-spirited people in Native American culture, and the Muxe in Mexico are examples of social systems where more than two genders are recognized.
Gender is a continuum. Children may not align with their biological external sexual characteristics. These children may be called gender non-conforming, gender fluid, gender non-binary, or transgender. No matter the label, when children and teens are given the space and acceptance to find their own balance, with supportive adults, they can thrive. Depression and other mental health challenges can arise when a person’s search for identity is met with resistance, disregard, or even hate. These young people are at high risk.
Children may also be born intersex, with rudimentary male and female body parts. These children were once automatically assigned a gender, and surgery was performed early in life; wiser minds prevail, and intersex children are honored as they are, with their bodies intact.
One anecdote from decades of service to young people: I observed a gender-questioning 13-year-old morph from a happy, social, academic student to a teen who withdrew from learning and peers, became increasingly depressed, and attempted suicide at 15. When meeting with this young person’s parents post in-patient hospitalization in a psychiatric facility, one parent said, “I’d rather have a live trans kid than a dead one who conforms. Help me.” The other parent, citing deep-seated beliefs, refused to acknowledge the teen’s gender identity. The parents separated temporarily, the teen began to thrive, ultimately completing a doctorate in psychology. As a therapist, this fine individual serves teens with angst about gender. Both parents now accept their child as an accomplished adult.
My wish is for parents to honor their children’s identities from the start. Life is short. Erecting a wall between parent and child due to gender can limit potential and stifle joy. We need to communicate about each child’s needs and honor each child’s worthiness.