Bruce Jenner’s very public recent transition to Caitlin Jenner has highlighted a shift in how and when we talk about gender identity. Historically conversations regarding having a gender identity that differed from ones biological sex were had in hushed tones behind closed doors. Many people struggled with their gender identity for years, never feeling able to be themselves. In today’s society that is slowly changing which means your daughter might one day share that she identifies as a gender other than female. This article looks at what gender identity is, the struggles your child may face and what you can do as a parent to help and support them.
A person’s biological sex and their gender identity are two different things. Sex is assigned to you at birth and reflects the sex organs, chromosomes and hormones you are born with. Your parents leave the hospital with a bouncing baby boy or girl, and receive an influx of blue or pink cards and balloons. Often your name, how people treat you and what society believes you should be interested in, aspire to and excel at are all based on this assigned sex.
Gender identity however, is an individual’s sense and experience of their own gender. It is how an individual perceives themselves. For most of us our gender identity aligns with our assigned sex, for example, I was born anatomically female and I have always indentified as female. This form of gender identity is referred to as being cisgendered or gender normative. There are many other genders that a person can identify as. Some people find their gender identity is one that is widely recognised such as transgender, gender fluid or gender queer, and others may prefer not to label their experience of their own gender. There is no right or wrong when it comes to gender identity and it does simply boil down to how an individual feels. One thing that can be said, however, is that gender identity and sexual orientation are two separate things. A person’s gender identity does not dictate who they have a sexual attraction towards, nor does their sexual orientation dictate their gender identity.
By this point if you’re still hanging on you’re possibly pretty confused. I’ve thrown a lot of potentially new words and ideas out there and some of them take some time to understand. If there is only one thing you can take away from this article let it be that whatever your daughter is experiencing in regards to her gender identity is legitimate and it belongs only to her. Nobody, including yourself as a father, should feel you have the right to tell her how she feels about who she really is, and if she’s coming to you, sharing something like this, she obviously wants you to be an active part of her life. She’s opening a door, don’t slam it in her face because plenty of other people out their will.
The struggles that a young person who isn’t cisgendered come up against vary from person to person. However, there are a few things that can sadly be expected. Sharing with the world that you identify as something other than cisgendered leaves you open to public ridicule, humiliation and sometimes depression that can lead to self harm and suicidality. We only have to look at the response to Caitlyn Jenner to see what it is your child would experience. Other celebrities making jokes that then have to be censored by TV executives; tabloid rumours and countless internet memes making fun of Caitlyn and her transition highlight a real issue within society to accept things that challenge our perceptions of ‘normal’. Your daughter may not be an Olympian turned reality TV star but she has peers, some of whom aren’t going to accept her. It’s hard truth, and one that’s unfair and unjust, but letting everybody know that you don’t fit inside their understandings makings you a target.
In the United States statistics suggest that 50% of transgender youth will attempt suicide at least once before their twentieth birthday. In New Zealand organisations that focus on supporting rainbow youth, who are young people with a sexual orientation other than straight or young people who indentify as a gender other than cisgendered, continue to try and raise public awareness of the increased risk of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, self harm and suicide for their clients. One study, which focused on transgendered Australians and New Zealanders uncovered that one in four transgendered people had experienced suicidal thoughts in the last two weeks.
Rainbow youth in New Zealand are also at risk of physical violence and bullying, discrimination in the work place and at school, insults, threats and verbal abuse and sexual assault. They may have to spend their lives correcting people, and fighting to be seen as they believe they should be, because once we look at a person and indentify their assigned sex we assume their gender identity.
As a parent there are things you can do to help support your children. Firstly, find support from outside the family unit. Talk to professionals; find groups for your child and for yourself. You aren’t a bad parent if you struggle and letting yourself share how you feel will mean you can be more of a support to your daughter. Second, take her lead. If she tells you that she’d like to be called he now, call her he, it doesn’t hurt you to change your phrasing, but it hurts her if you don’t. Third, do some research, if your daughter tells you she’s transgender find out what that means, talk to her, look online, talk to other transgendered people. Educate yourself. Last, make sure she knows that you love and her accept her, she probably needs to hear it right now.
Support networks in New Zealand:
Rainbow Youth – here
OUTlineNZ – here
AgenderNZ – here