Few topics generate such passion, and it can be hard to speak about the experience of gender non-conforming individuals without generating strong opinions from all sides of the political and moral spectrum. Yet despite all of the strong emotions, for the person who is experiencing gender dysphoria or confusion about their gender, they just want to survive. Risk factors for experiences of anxiety, depression, suicidality, substance abuse, homelessness, and violence are exponentially higher for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. No person would choose to put themselves at such risk, yet for all of the risks, more and more individuals are experiencing gender discontent. This lends evidence that this is not a “choice” or a “lifestyle” but a true experience, worthy of understanding and support.
The number one protective factor for an individual who is anywhere on the gender spectrum is affirmation. This is of course easier for “cis” individuals, those whose gender identity matches the sex that was assigned at birth. We are inherently validating – at times overly so, assigning gender roles to an infant who has not yet decided his or her identity and experience. For transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, the need for affirmation and validation is even stronger, due to the cultural and societal norms that are inflicted on us all. Having open, judgment free conversations and allowing for healthy exploration is critical in childhood. Childhood and adolescence are the developmental period in which identity is formed, and to prevent a person from exploring their identity can have crushing effects. Safety is also critical, and this may lead to conversations with schools, friends, and co-workers.
A worry that parents and caregivers have for transgender and gender nonconforming children is that they may change their mind, or that the impact of the affirmative treatment that they experience during development may have long lasting effects on their adulthood. This is true, a person who is exploring their gender has every right to change their mind, and it is in fact the point of exploration to figure out just where on the gender spectrum they land. For children and adolescents under the age of 18, treatment often consists of “buying time,” reducing some of the distressing aspects of gender (such as menstruation, or the deepening of voices), so that the individual has the ability to figure out who he, she, or they are before delving into a longer and more irreversible treatment, and surgery. This also allows for the protection of fertility, should that be a wish that an individual has. This doesn’t make the experience or treatment a cakewalk – there are still many obstacles, steps, and open conversations that are necessary. Pressure of either kind, be it pressure to transition further than a person is identifying as, or pressure to remain in a body that contributes greatly to dysphoria, can be harmful. The bottom line is that accepting a gender non-conforming individual as being on a journey, and being willing to walk that journey with them, is invaluable.
Each person, regardless of their gender, deserves to feel safe within their own home, community, and when seeking treatment. Our society still has a ways to go in providing that security, yet in having these conversations, bridging the gaps in understanding, and knowing that fundamentally, a person is still a person deserving of respect and validation, we can hopefully create more safe spaces for that person to figure out who he, she, or they may be.