Transgender youth have become highly politicized in the United States. President Trump pivoted from supporting workplace protections for transgender people to banning them from the military. The Supreme Court waffled on whether or not these kids can use the bathrooms of their identified genders. Adults on both sides on the aisle have argued passionately about how these youth should be treated. Should they be affirmed? Are they confused? What bathroom should they use? Lost among this discussion are the voices of the youths themselves. With 0.6% of the US population identifying as transgender, this represents thousands of unheard voices.
Our research group recently conducted a focus group with transgender youth, asking them the top things they want adults to know. The following is adapted from an article in The Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, where their responses were featured. Their quotes are listed in bold, with elaborations from our research group below.
Gender identity refers to one’s psychological sense of self as male or female. It is all about how one thinks about oneself. Sexuality is a completely different concept. This refers to the types of people toward whom one is romantically or sexually attracted. Just as a cisgender person (i.e. a person who is not transgender) can be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or other, so can transgender people. Gender identity and sexual orientation are entirely different concepts.
A recent study of transgender adolescents showed that 77% reported having fallen in love and 50% were in romantic relationships. 65% reported that they were sexually attracted to those of their sex at birth. 10% reported that they were sexually attracted to those of the other sex. The remaining reported being attracted to both or not yet knowing.
2. “Non-binary people exist.”
In much of the United States, a rigid gender binary is pervasive. However, this is not universally true. Cultural understanding of gender and sexuality varies across the globe. In South Asian cultures, hijra refers to a third gender, neither completely male nor completely female. Two-spirit individuals, according to many Native American cultures, fall outside of the dichotomous gender binary familiar to Western cultures. In the Balkans, men-women are another such example.
We regularly hear from adolescents that they also do not identify with this rigid gender binary. Some identify with neither gender. Some identify as both. They appreciate when we resist the urge to push them into descriptive buckets that may not feel comfortable.
3. “Names, pronouns, and gender markers are important.”
Transgender and gender non-conforming youth want to be respected for the people they are. When we call them by the wrong name or pronoun, it feels like an insult. It may remind them of the people in their lives who have judged them for being transgender and refused to acknowledge them for the people they know themselves to be. Taking the effort to use the correct names and pronouns shows you care. If you aren’t sure what pronouns to use, ask. Youth in the group reported that they prefer people ask rather than assume.
4. “If I am depressed or anxious, it’s likely not because I have issues with my gender identity, but because everyone else does.”
The greatest predictor of anxiety and depression among transgender youth is non-acceptance from family and peers. Transgender youth aren’t typically depressed because they are transgender. They are depressed because discrimination and bullying can take a serious toll.
5. “Let me know that you are on my team.”
Most transgender youth live difficult lives. Our society often does not support them. They are victims of discriminatory laws, disproportionate rates of violence, and poor medical outcomes. Most have put up with bullying in their schools and communities. More than anything, they want to know that there are adults who are on their team. They want people on their side who will support them and lend a non-judgmental ear. In a world full of people against them, you can be the person on their side who makes all the difference.
Turban, J., Ferraiolo, T., Martin, A., & Olezeski, C. (2017). Ten things transgender and gender nonconforming youth want their doctors to know. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 56(4), 275-277.
Bungener, S. L., Steensma, T. D., Cohen-Kettenis, P. T., & de Vries, A. L. (2017). Sexual and romantic experiences of transgender youth before gender-affirmative treatment. Pediatrics, 139(3), e20162283.