June is PRIDE month. It might be redundant, but I feel the need to reiterate that every group should be celebrated, respected and supported each and every day. We know from statistics and research that there is no more vulnerable group than LGBTQ+ youth. Yet, even the most informed and conscientious adult allies of LGBTQ+ kids can be confused about the ever-evolving labels and are unsure about the most affirming ways to support queer and gender questioning young people.
In my work with children, adolescents, and their parents, I am often in the position of explaining to parents the ways in which their children are exploring their gender and sexual identities. The way in which we identify ourselves is always in flux. Childhood is inherently a time of self exploration and creative self identification. When elementary and middle school children express that they are curious about their gender or sexuality or they disclose ways in which they would like to be addressed or clothes they would like to wear, parents often respond by asking, “How do you know? Are you sure?”. Sometimes parents continue with something like, “If you aren’t sure about your gender or sexuality, do you have to tell people or post it on social media? Can you wait?”.
I feel for parents in this position and their sleepless nights worrying about their children’s pronouns and identity. As adults, we become fixated on specific points in time for our kids. If I could give parents one tip it would be to handle the micro moments of your child’s life with compassion (towards yourself and your children) while also looking at the big picture. It is understandable to wonder about your children’s proclamations being indicative of a fleeting phase. But when we question the impermanence of our children’s important disclosures they feel misunderstood and devalued. Big picture, how would you like your child to remember you when they tell you something really important? In the future, do you want them to continue to see you as someone they can share personal information with? So, rather than dismissing this information as “kids being kids”, listen without interjecting your opinions. You want them to see you as someone who can hear them without judgment.
Your child’s gender and sexuality is so deeply personal and vital to their sense of self. Be curious. Ask open ended questions and put yourself in your kids shoes. Chances are this has been on your child’s mind for a while and you would not want them to go back into their shell or live with a sense of shame. Wonder with them about how it feels to say what they told you outloud. Ask them if this is something they have been feeling for a long time. Ask them if they want you to look for resources that might give support and lend clarity for both of you. Do not give them the impression that it is their job to educate you. Seek out credible LGBTQ+ resources if you need information. Remember that gender and sexuality are different things. There seems to be so much that we, as adults, don’t understand. Don’t let your discomfort prevent you from seeking out help and clarity.
Below is some very basic information that might help you be as open minded as possible when your children want to have a discussion about gender and sexual identity. It is taken from a guide created by the Trevor Project which is an amazing resource for parents and young people in the LGBTQ+ community (https//www.thetrevorproject.org). The Trevor Project’s mission is to make sure that LGBTQ+ young people who need support know they are not alone. They have a great online resource center that will help educate you and they offer 24/7 crisis support for teens in danger of harming themselves living throughout the United States (Text ‘START” to 678-678 or call 1-866-488-7386). If you are a parent in the Westchester, NY area, a wonderful local resource is Center Lane for LGBTQ+ Youth run by WJCS (https://www.wjcs.com). Center Lane provides affirming programming, facilitated by supportive adult experts in welcoming space where youth can feel safe sharing difficult experiences.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GENDER AND SEXUALITY
Sex is the classification of a person as male, female, or intersex. When we are born, doctors usually decide whether female or male will be listed on our birth certificate. This sex assignment at birth is typically based solely on one’s genitals, however sex characteristics also include chromosomes, gonads, and sex hormones. Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe variations in physical sex traits or reproductive anatomy that are present at birth or emerge spontaneously later in life, and differ from normative expectations of “male” and “female.”
Someone’s sex characteristics is private information. When someone shares their gender identity with you, it is invasive and inappropriate to assume or try to deduce that person’s sex assigned at birth. Believe others when they say who they are, and support them.
Gender describes the internal experience of being a man, a woman, a nonbinary person, or otherwise. Every person experiences gender differently — and you cannot know someone’s gender by simply looking at them.
- Cisgender: people whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth.
- >Transgender: people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Some folks might choose to receive certain gender affirming care but this is not necessary and each person should be allowed to choose what works best for themselves.
- Nonbinary: an umbrella term to describe people who experience their gender identity and/or expression outside of the male/female/ man/woman binary, including folks who are genderfluid, genderqueer, polygender, bigender, demigender, agender, and many others.
GENDER EXPRESSION VS GENDER PERCEPTION
Gender expression describes the way in which people present or express their gender, including physical appearance, clothing, hairstyles, and behavior. People can exert a certain degree of control over their gender expression depending on their resources and environment.
A “perceived gender” is based on how people evaluate each other’s gender and bodies, which unlike gender expression, we cannot control. People perceive gender based on a variety of visual and social cues, including but not limited to a person’s gender expression, physical characteristics, and the social role they play.
Being an ally to trans and nonbinary people in your life means refraining from making assumptions about people’s gender in general. You can’t tell someone’s gender by looking at them. Be aware of the expectations you project onto others based on how you perceive gender, and choose to validate people’s experiences.
WAYS TO ADDRESS LGBTQ+ persons that Show Respect
Some trans and nonbinary people choose a new name that aligns with their gender. It can be something entirely new or a variation on their old name. The process of legally changing your name can be expensive and complicated, and may not be possible for someone right away. Be supportive of trans and nonbinary folks by honoring and using the names they choose regardless of whether their name has been legally changed.
A pronoun is a word that is used instead of a noun to refer to someone. Some examples of pronouns that people commonly use include:
- She, her, her, hers, and herself
- He, him, his, his, and himself
- They, them, their, theirs, and themself
- Ze/zie, hir, hir, hirs, and hirself
- Xe, xem, xyr, xyrs, and xemself
- Ve, ver, vis, vis, and verself
To misgender someone means to use the wrong name, pronouns, or form of address for a person’s gender. Whether misgendering happens as an innocent mistake or a malicious attempt to invalidate a person, it is deeply hurtful and can even put a person’s safety at risk if they are outed as transgender in an environment that is not tolerant.
Purposefully misgendering is not OK, and you can be a good ally by standing up for others if you witness someone being harassed for their gender. If you misgender someone by accident, apologize swiftly without making an excessive show out of the mistake or your guilt, which can create even more discomfort for the person who has been misgendered. Show that you care by doing better moving forward.
Microaggressions are everyday comments and questions that can be hurtful or stigmatizing to marginalized people and groups. Microaggressions are subtle, and the person committing the microaggression may have no idea that their comments are harmful.
For example, a common comment that transgender people may hear is, “You don’t look trans!” or “You don’t look gay” This is often phrased as a compliment, however it implies that being transgender is a negative thing, or that all people want to be perceived as cisgender. Since microaggressions are subtle, do your best and listen to any feedback you may receive. If someone’s feelings are hurt by something you’ve said or done, take the time to understand and to learn from the experience.
What To Do If You’ve Offended Someone
While we rarely intend to hurt others, common mistakes such as forgetting a person’s pronouns, using their birth name instead of their chosen name, or misgendering a person can hurt feelings or even put another person’s safety at risk. In these moments, it’s good to have a roadmap for how to make things right.
Commit To Do Better
Treat it as a learning experience. The most authentic apology is meaningless if there is no change or if the behavior is repeated consistently in the future.
Show you care by doing better next time.