I don’t know what my teen means by asking me to use new language to identify them! Help!
Has your teen told you they would prefer if you used gender-neutral pronouns from now on? They’d like you to use “they/them” rather than using “she/her.” Or maybe your teen has told you they are Androgynous and you have no idea what this means. Maybe your teen is mad at you because you refuse to use their new name; to you they will forever be “Andrew,” but they now want to be called “Andrea.”
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Gender is complex in our society today. More people are recognizing that trying to constrain people to two categories does not work. Today I am writing about gender identity, which is different than assigned sex at birth, sexual orientation, gender expression, or gender roles. Gender identity refers to how an individual perceives themselves and what they call themself. This can include male, female, a blend of both, neither, and many more. It can shift over time. A variety of terms encapsulate gender such as queer, gender-neutral, non-binary, cisgender, gender fluid, bigender and transgender. What’s more confusing is that these definitions are ever-evolving and may mean something different to each person. Below I have provided definitions of terms commonly used when referring to gender identity. My hope is that these definitions will help make conversation about your teen’s gender exploration easier and more comfortable.
Queer– This is a general term for people who identify their gender and/or sexual orientation as something other than cisgender (see below) and/or heterosexual. Queer is a term used to identify oneself as outside of society’s norms, without having to state a specific identity.
Gender Neutral– This is a term that people who do not feel they have a gender (or that their gender is neutral) use. Some people may feel some connection to the concept of gender but feel they do not have one. Others cannot understand what gender is as they do not experience it within themselves. Other terms synonymous with this definition are: agender, gender free, non-gendered, genderless.
Non-Binary- An umbrella term for gender identities and expressions that are not exclusively male or female. People who are non-binary may feel that they are both male and female, neither male nor female, or something else all together.
Cisgender- This is a term used for people who’s gender identity correlates with their assigned sex at birth.
Gender Fluid/Agender-Fluid- A person who is gender fluid has a gender or genders that change. Gender fluid people move between genders and tend to experience their gender as something dynamic and changing, rather than static.
Bigender/Multi-Gender- Bigender people identify as two genders. It does not necessarily mean they identify as a man and a woman, just that there are two distinct genders with which they identify. They may identify as both at the same time, flow between genders, or feel they are a blend.
Androgyne/Androgynous- Androgynes feel themselves to be simultaneously masculine and feminine, although not necessarily in equal parts. They frequently have both female and male gender characteristics. Some feel they are a blended gender, neither masculine or feminine.
Transgender/Trans- This can be used as an umbrella term to describe an individual who’s gender identity differs from their assigned sex at birth. The term trans and transgender are sometimes used interchangeably to describe all gender identities that are not cisgender. Transgender can also be used to refer to people who experience deep feelings of incongruence with their assigned sex and associated sex characteristics, and feel alignment with what many often think of as the “opposite sex.” Being trans or transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation.
As I mentioned above, this is by no means an exhaustive list of gender terms and definitions. It is only the beginning. If your teen has come to you about gender identity issues, chances are they have done a lot of thinking and research already. Your teen likely does not expect you to know every definition by heart or be an expert on the topic. What they do need from you, however, is your willingness to support them through their journey of their gender development and exploration. They need to know they can trust you to be a safe person for them to talk to. Being a teen is hard. It’s a time where they are exploring who they are, comparing themselves to others and being compared to others. When someone identifies as anything outside of societal “norms,” being a teenager becomes even harder. Transgender and non-binary teens are often the victims of harassment, bullying, discrimination, assault, and other forms of violence. It can be a very lonely time, as they may not know anyone else who is similar to them in this way or they may be scared to reach out and talk about it. All of the above make your teen more at risk for low-self esteem, depression, self-harm, and suicide. Which is why, as a parent, it is crucial that you begin to feel comfortable dialoguing with your teen about their process… even if it makes you uncomfortable.
Your teen needs to know that you are on their side and that you are not trying to “fix” them. So, if you are confused, ask open-ended questions. Let them know you are listening and seeking understanding. Some examples of questions you might ask are: “When you imagine your future, what do you see? What gender do you feel you are? How would you describe yourself.” Or, “Do you know when you first started questioning your gender identity? When did you start to realize that your gender might be different from what I and others told you?” Additionally, be sure to ask your teen how you can be supportive and what it is that they need from you. Let them know you support them, no matter what. Honor their requests and use their desired pronouns. Educate yourself. These are all ways that you can let your teen know that you love them and that they are not alone.
If you are still confused and feel like you need additional help in supporting your teen, there are a number of good books out there about transgender and non-binary teens. Therapy is also a good option. It is a place where you can explore your thoughts and feelings without judgement. If you have questions, your therapist can help guide you and work with you to better understand your teen and what it is they are going through. It is crucial that you get the help and support you need so that you are able to be there for your teen in the best way possible.
Blog written by a therapist at Sentier Psychotherapy (www.sentiertherapy.com)
Source: The Transgender Teen: A Handbook for Parents and Professionals Supporting Transgender and Non-Binary Teens (2016) by Stephanie Brill and Lisa Kenney.