June is designated as Pride Month across the world. Recently, Stark County held its First Pride Festival at Centennial Plaza. In Part 1 of this blog series, information was provided to define sexual orientation/gender identification and how you can be an ally to an LGBTQ+ adolescent.
In the second part of this LGBTQ+ series, C&A is providing information to expand your knowledge and become an ally for everyone in this community! This post will answer the question “What’s the T?” in LGBTQ+ as well as exploring other gender identities and learning about gender expression.
In the previous post, C&A discussed how there is a chance you likely know someone who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community. As you read this this post, it is important to keep in mind that not every person who is LGBTQ+ uses the terminology throughout this text. Much of this information is based on the most widely understood/accepted terminology and is likely to change over time. When in doubt, ask someone how they identify themselves first and seek additional information.
What does the "T" in LGBTQ+ stand for?
In LGBTQ+, “T” stands for transgender or “trans” for short. Transgender is sometimes used as an umbrella term to define individuals who are typically assigned as either female or male at birth (based upon things such as chromosomes, reproductive glands, and genitals) and later discovers that their internal sense of self doesn’t match the assignment they were given at birth. When someone’s gender identity matches their assignment at birth, they are often referred to as cisgender.
Though the term transgender has been used since around the 1960’s or 70’s, the concept of a person being transgender has existed for much longer. The United States National Park Service provides stories of gender variant/expansive individuals throughout history. An example is Albert Cashier, a soldier assigned female at birth, who served in the Civil War.
In an article from the Cleveland Clinic, they discuss how new research shows that transgender individuals have brain structures more closely matching the gender they identify with, furthering the fact that people do not “choose” to be transgender, but rather they are hard-wired this way from birth.
You can be an ally for transgender youth by helping others learn about and normalize the existence of transgender individuals throughout history! We know that representation matters. Children and adolescents feel safer and more accepted when they see examples of transgender people online, in movies, books and television.
In fact, in a study done by Stephen Russell from the University of Texas in Austin, it was indicated that “transgender youths report having suicidal thoughts at nearly twice the rate of their peers, with about 1 out of 3 transgender youths reporting considering suicide.” He also identified using a person’s chosen name in at least one setting (home, school, etc.) lowers suicidal thinking by almost 30%.
What is "transitioning"?
When someone identifies as transgender or non-binary, they may choose to go through transitions to help them better align their external self with their internal self or they may not go through any kind of transition at all. Transgender and non-binary individuals often experience gender dysphoria: a mental health diagnosis that addresses the anxiety, stress, discomfort and/or depression that may be experienced due to a person’s gender identity not matching their assignment at birth. This is one reason why someone may choose to transition. A person may choose to socially transition (coming out to loved ones, using name/pronouns that match their identity, changing appearance to match identity) or medically transition (using hormones, surgeries). Some people may choose to socially transition in more ways than others and the same goes for medical transitions. This could be due to costs of medical care or simply a preference of the individual. What is important to remember is that regardless of whether someone decides to make any of these transitions, their identity is valid and should be respected.
Expressing one's gender identity and roles
Gender identity refers to the different variations of historically masculine and feminine traits that a person aligns with internally; however, some people may not align themselves with either. Most cultures, like that of the United States, have historically functioned using a gender binary. This means that throughout our history, gender has been divided into two categories that each person falls under: man or woman, masculine or feminine. Some cultures have long been functioning with additional gender identities, such as Two Spirit individuals in Native American culture or Sekrata in Madagascar who have variations of gender expression and gender roles. Earlier, we discussed that transgender is a gender identity because it describes an individual who was assigned at birth, though their internal since of self is different than what they were assigned.
Gender expression is the way that a person presents themselves to the outside world, often as their identified gender. This is sometimes based on traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity; however, because these traditional views are changing over time, people of all gender identities may express themselves in ways that don’t conform to traditional views of masculine and feminine. This may be done through clothing, jewelry, make-up, hairstyles, ways of speaking/walking, and/or pronouns. For example, a cisgender man (assigned male at birth and identifies as a man) may wear a dress, but this doesn’t mean that they identify as a woman, nor does it assume their sexual orientation. Some people who do not conform to traditional views of masculinity/femininity may refer to themselves as gender diverse, gender expansive, or gender variant. Remember, it is always best to ask someone how they identify.
Based on a person’s culture or society, what is considered masculine or feminine is different and these concepts continue to change throughout history. Traditional views of masculinity and femininity in the United States have influenced the gender roles and stereotypes that still exist today. Gender roles are the behaviors that are
associated with a particular gender. These roles are what create gender stereotypes, or the expectations that a society has of a person based on gender.
For example, in the Unites States, traditional gender stereotypes assume that men should be dominant, competitive, or physically strong and women should be submissive, nurturing, and sensitive. Boys should play sports, video games, and work out. Girls should play with dolls, make-up, and take care of others.
One way to advocate and be an ally for LGBTQ+ individuals is to challenge these gender stereotypes. This doesn’t mean forcing anyone to play with toys they don’t want to or putting them in activities that they don’t like. In fact, it’s the opposite. By encouraging children and adolescents to explore their own interests, we are giving them the space to learn and develop their identity. Though it may seem confusing, being supportive and asking questions can increase comfort in them sharing their thoughts/feelings about their gender identity more openly.
Do's and Don'ts language for trusted adults
When someone does not identify with the traditional roles and expectations of their assignment at birth, they might identify as non-binary or genderqueer. Some non-binary folks may even identify as transgender because their assignment as birth does not match their internal sense of self. As always, it is important to ask how someone identifies as a sign of respect.
Everyone has pronouns! Essentially, pronouns are the words that we use to take the place of a person’s name. Common sets of pronouns are “she/her” “he/him” and “they/them.” One way to find out what a person’s pronouns are is to introduce yourself by the name and pronouns that you use. If you make a mistake and use the wrong pronouns for someone, it is best to apologize and correct yourself. Of course, there are more than just these sets of pronouns that a person may use, which makes it even more important to ask rather than to assume. Did you know that using the proper pronouns for someone can save lives? Referring to someone by the name and pronouns that they use is shown to significantly reduce depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.
Here are some examples of words or phrases to avoid:
- “What genitals/parts do you have?” – It is never appropriate to ask someone about their genitals and sends the message that a person’s genitals are what defines them as a person, though there is much more to a person’s identity than their body. It is as equally inappropriate to ask someone if they have had surgeries as some trans/non-binary folks may not be interested in undergoing any medical transitions. If this is a topic that they bring up in conversation, be sure to listen and show that you understand.
- “What is your REAL name?” or “I support you, but I am not calling you that.” – As previously mentioned, choosing a different name can sometimes be a first step in socially transitioning. Sometimes a person may try out various names until they find the one that suits them best. You may hear people in the trans/non-binary community refer to the name they were given at birth as their “dead name” and prefer that it not be used. Though this may be confusing/difficult for others, it’s important to use the name that someone has chosen. Using the name (and pronouns) that someone shares with you can increase their self-esteem, reduce their risk of suicide or self-harm, and may increase their trust in sharing more about themselves with you.
- “Tranny” – This is a term that has been used offensively to demean the trans community. Some people in the trans community have re-claimed this word and may utilize in certain settings; however, many prefer that this word not be used by anyone.
Remember that words hurt and can be mentally and emotionally damaging. They can break a person down and the effects can be long-lasting. This may lead to a decrease in self-esteem and self-worth and may increase symptoms of depression and anxiety or could lead to thoughts of self-harm and suicide. Aside from the words/phrases listed above, the words that we use to describe others can sometimes be harmful and encourages others that it’s okay to use these words. Always try your best to lead with kindness, even when you may not fully understand a person’s identity.
What are appropriate responses trusted adults should give/use if a parent suspects their child is struggling with their identity, what are the signs parents may/should be looking for?
You are already on your way to being more supportive of children struggling with gender identity by gathering new information. You can be supportive of a person’s gender identity in/out of school by using gender neutral terms. For example, when greeting a classroom of students, it can be more inclusive to address them as students/kids/children rather than to use gendered language, such as “boys and girls.” This rule can also apply when addressing a person’s occupation. For example, instead of saying “waiter or waitress” we can say “server.” Instead of “policeman” we can say “police officer.” If you want to learn more about gender neutral terms, here is a list of some to incorporate into your everyday language.
One of the most important things that a parent or other adult can do if they suspect that their child may be struggling with their gender identity is to make it known that they are a safe person to talk to about problems/concerns they may be having. You can also show support by talking positively about LGBTQ+ individuals in your personal life or in the media, and/or by displaying signs/symbols in your home that show your support for the LGBTQ+ community.
Some signs that a child may be struggling with their gender identity could be:
- Withdrawing/Secluding themselves from family or friends
- Difficulty in school or at home
- Requesting to go by a different name/pronouns
*Note: If a child is requesting this, it’s important to show support by using the name and pronouns that they have expressed; This will help build trust and let a child know that you are a safe person to talk to
- Experimenting with different types of clothing/hairstyles
- Making statements about not fitting in
- Statements about suicide
- Changes in mood/behavior
If you are noticing any of these signs/symptoms for your child, seek support from community resources, such as mental health specialists at Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health and gender-affirming support groups like Margie’s Hope. Margie’s Hope provides support groups for transgender individuals and their families and is in the Akron area.
What are some appropriate resources families can use to educate themselves if they are struggling with what the child has shared?
For a list of some local resources around Stark County:
For resources around the greater Cleveland area:
Akron Children’s Center for Gender Affirming Medicine
For national resources:
There are of course many more resources available which are included in the Summa Health handout as well as through this resource from Planned Parenthood!
This is the first of a two-part series on how to learn and support the LGBTQ+ community. The author of this blog is C&A’s Joseph Fisher, LPC, who has been a school-based therapist for the past four years. C&A’s expert Trauma Specialist Mary Kreitz, LPC, CDCA, who has 20 years of clinical experience in the field, and C&A doctoral intern Sushmitha Mohan contributed to this post.