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Resources for Gender Diverse Families 

Understanding Gender

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What is Gender?

For many people, the terms “gender” and “sex” are interchangeable. This idea has become so common, particularly in western societies, that it is rarely questioned. Yet biological sex and gender are different; gender is not inherently connected to one’s physical anatomy.

Sex is biological and includes physical attributes such as sex chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, internal reproductive structures, and external genitalia. At birth, it is used to identify individuals as male or female.  Gender on the other hand is far more complicated. Along with one’s physical traits, it is the complex interrelationship between those traits and one’s internal sense of self as male, female, both or neither as well as one’s outward presentations and behaviors related to that perception.

The Gender Spectrum

Western culture has come to view gender as a binary concept, with two rigidly fixed options: male or female.  When a child is born, a quick glance between the legs determines the gender label that the child will carry for life. But even if gender is to be restricted to basic biology, a binary concept still fails to capture the rich variation observed. Rather than just two distinct boxes, biological gender occurs across a continuum of possibilities. This spectrum of anatomical variations by itself should be enough to disregard the simplistic notion of only two genders.

But beyond anatomy, there are multiple domains defining gender. In turn, these domains can be independently characterized across a range of possibilities.  Instead of the static, binary model produced through a solely physical understanding of gender, a far more rich texture of biology, gender expression, and gender identity intersect in multidimensional array of possibilities. Quite simply, the gender spectrum represents a more nuanced, and ultimately truly authentic model of human gender.

Falling Into Line

Gender is all around us. It is actually taught to us, from the moment we are born. Gender expectations and messages bombard us constantly. Upbringing, culture, peers, community, media, and religion, are some of the many influences that shape our understanding of this core aspect of identity. How you learned and interacted with gender as a young child directly influences how you view the world today. Gendered interaction between parent and child begin as soon as the sex of the baby is known. In short, gender is a socially constructed concept.

Like other social constructs, gender is closely monitored by society. Practically everything in society is assigned a gender—toys, colors, clothes and behaviors are some of the more obvious examples. Through a combination of social conditioning and personal preference, by age three most children prefer activities and exhibit behaviors typically associated with their sex. Accepted social gender roles and expectations are so entrenched in our culture that most people cannot imagine any other way. As a result, individuals fitting neatly into these expectations rarely if ever question what gender really means. They have never had to, because the system has worked for them.

About Gender Diversity

Gender diversity is a term that recognizes that many peoples’ preferences and self-expression fall outside commonly understood gender norms. Gender diversity is a normal part of human expression, documented across cultures and recorded history. Non-binary gender diversity exists throughout the world, documented by countless historians and anthropologists. Examples of individuals living comfortably outside of typical male/female identities are found in every region of the globe. The calabai, and calalai of Indonesia, two-spirit Native Americans, and the hijra of India all represent more complex understandings of gender than the simplistic model seen in the west.

Further, what might be considered gender nonconformity in one period of history may become gender normative in another. One need only examine trends related to men wearing earrings or women sporting tattoos to quickly see the malleability of social expectations about gender. Even the seemingly intractable “pink is for girls, blue is for boys” notions are relatively new. While there is some debate about the reasons why they reversed, what is well documented is that until the 1950s, pink was seen as a more decided and stronger color, and thus more suitable for a boy, while blue, viewed more delicate and dainty, was commonly worn by girls.

Gender Terminology

Given the complexity of gender, it is not surprising that an increasing number of terms and phrases are developing to describe it. Below are some of the key terms you might encounter:

Biological/Anatomical Sex.
 The physical structure of one’s reproductive organs that is used to assign sex at birth. Biological sex is determined by chromosomes (XX for females; XY for males); hormones (estrogen/progesterone for females, testosterone for males); and internal and external genitalia (vulva, clitoris, vagina for assigned females, penis and testicles for assigned males). Given the potential variation in all of these, biological sex must be seen as a spectrum or range of possibilities rather than a binary set of two options.

Gender Identity. One’s innermost concept of self as male or female or both or neither—how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different than the sex assigned at birth. Individuals are conscious of this between the ages 18 months and 3 years. Most people develop a gender identity that matches their biological sex. For some, however, their gender identity is different from their biological or assigned sex. Some of these individuals choose to socially, hormonally and/or surgically change their sex to more fully match their gender identity.

Gender Expression. Refers to the ways in which people externally communicate their gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, haircut, voice, and other forms of presentation. Gender expression also works the other way as people assign gender to others based on their appearance, mannerisms, and other gendered characteristics. Sometimes, transgender people seek to match their physical expression with their gender identity, rather than their birth-assigned sex. Gender expression should not be viewed as an indication of sexual orientation.

Gender Role. This is the set of roles, activities, expectations and behaviors assigned to females and males by society. Our culture recognizes two basic gender roles: Masculine (having the qualities attributed to males) and feminine (having the qualities attributed to females). People who step out of their socially assigned gender roles are sometimes referred to as transgender. Other cultures have three or more gender roles.

Transgender. 
Sometimes used as an umbrella to describe anyone whose identity or behavior falls outside of stereotypical gender norms. More narrowly defined, it refers to an individual whose gender identity does not match their assigned birth gender. Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation (attraction to people of a specific gender.) Therefore, transgender people may additionally identify as straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

Sexual Orientation. 
Term that refers to being romantically or sexually attracted to people of a specific gender. Our sexual orientation and our gender identity are separate, distinct parts of our overall identity. Although a child may not yet be aware of their sexual orientation, they usually have a strong sense of their gender identity.

Gender Normative/Cisgender. Refers to people whose sex assignment at birth corresponds to their gender identity and expression.

Gender Fluidity. Gender fluidity conveys a wider, more flexible range of gender expression, with interests and behaviors that may even change from day to day. Gender fluid children do not feel confined by restrictive boundaries of stereotypical expectations of girls or boys. In other words, a child may feel they are a girl some days and a boy on others, or possibly feel that neither term describes them accurately.

Parenting Considerations

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Supportive Parenting

Our children’s gender identity is out of our hands, but their well-being is not. Being supportive rather than assigning blame has a profound impact on how our children feel about themselves. Research from the Family Acceptance Project shows that parental acceptance is critical to our children’s positive future outlook on life. Our level of acceptance directly impacts their self-esteem. These studies conclude that the most crucial thing we as parents can do is to allow our children to be exactly who they are. Additionally, if our other children see evidence of our acceptance, they will more easily adjust to their gender nonconforming sibling.

Examples of Supportive Parenting Practices

  • Supportive Family Environment
  • Require Respect w/in the Family
  • Express Love and Support for Child’s Gender Expression
  • Zero Tolerance for Disrespect, Negative Comments or Pressure
  • Open and Honest Communication

Damaging Parenting

Research from the Family Acceptance Project shows that behaviors which children experience as rejecting significantly increase their risk for negative health and metal health problems. These rejecting behaviors undermine a child’s self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. It should not be surprising that many of the children who end up in the foster care system, run away, or become homeless are gender nonconforming and transgender.

Examples of Damaging Parenting Practices

  • Physical/verbal abuse
  • Exclusion from family activities
  • Blocking access to gender nonconforming or gay or lesbian friends, activities or supports
  • Blaming child for discrimination faced
  • Denigration and ridicule
  • Religious-based condemnation
  • Distress, denial, and shame
  • Silence and secrecy
  • Pressure to enforce gender conformity

Supporting Your Gender Diverse Child

Living In the Undefined

A child with a gender-fluid expression can be very challenging and frustrating for parents. Even parents who wish to be supportive can find themselves thinking, “just decide already, one way or another!” A lack of consistency in their child’s gender expression can leave parents wondering just who their child ‘really’ is. Some parents feel desperate to find a solid answer—male or female. This “back and forth” expression can leave them feeling there is no foundation from which to move forward. It also becomes more difficult to respond to others simple questions about your child, leaving the parents feeling angry about being put into such an uncomfortable position.

Finding language that works for your child and yourself can be a big step in creating a supportive space for your gender nonconforming child. With older children, this can mean discussing together how they would like for you to refer to them, both directly as well as when you are speaking with others. Some families take the approach of working around pronouns—try it for a day and you will see just how gendered our language really is! Developing stock responses can also be helpful: “My child has taught me that gender is so much more complex than I ever knew. I wish I could be half as self-reflective my kid is!”

In addition to the words, finding your voice is an important component of existing in this in-between space. The more you learn to speak with confidence and pride about your child, the easier it will be for others to accept your child and your parenting. People look to you for their lead on how to respond or react to your child. You have nothing to apologize or be ashamed about!

Another element of your voice is to resist taking care of the needs others. A desire to help other people feel comfortable is natural. Yet if you find yourself doing so at the expense of denying or dismissing your child’s authentic self, it can be quite hurtful. When with other parents who ask about your dress wearing boy, rather than saying things like, “oh yes, that is my son. He is pretending to be a princess today,” consider simply saying, “yes, that’s my son.” You do not need to make the other person feel ok; you are responsible for your own child’s sense of well-being.

Disclosure Issues

When you are raising a gender diverse child or teenager, the issue of disclosure is a major one. Parents need to decide whom to talk to about their children, when to share or not share, the differences between secrecy and privacy, who decides who gets to know and who doesn’t, and how to respond to negative reactions. Your child (and their siblings) also needs to be prepared for many of these decisions. Know that there are no right or wrong answers here. Each situation and each family is different. Many times you will need to respond on the fly, only to think about a better answer later. That is all too often how one learns. But as you navigate this road, you will become increasingly confident in the answers that work best for you and your family.

Transitioning

When a person changes outwardly from one gender to another and lives in accordance with their gender identity, it is called going through transition, or transitioning. There is no rule of thumb for when a cross gender child should be allowed to transition. There usually comes a time when your child’s discomfort or suffering is so obvious that despite your concerns, it is critical for them to live in the world as they choose. But how do you know when that is? How long after they tell you about their desire should you wait to allow them this form of expression?

In making this decision, two concerns typically rise to the surface: “Will my child be safe if I let them do this?” and “Wouldn’t it be better just to make them wait?” The most useful way to answer these questions is to first evaluate whether your child currently feels safe and satisfied, or if instead they are suffering. If your child is suffering it is important to weigh the potential dangers that await them living according to their wishes, consistent with their gender identity compared to the dangers associated with their current depression. What is clear is that children who receive the support of their families have the best outcomes in terms of their future health and well-being.

Transition can occur in two ways: social transition through non-permanent changes in clothing, hairstyle, name and/or pronouns, and medical transition through the use of medicines such as hormone “blockers” or cross hormones to promote gender-based body changes and/or through the addition or removal of gender-related physical traits surgically.

Resources for LGBTIQ Families

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Roughly two million children are being raised by LGBTIQ parents in the U.S., however, despite the overall prevalence of LGBTIQ families and the growing acceptance of LGBTIQ individuals and their respective families, these families continue to have to fight for equality and acceptance at an institutional level. Among issues that LGBTIQ families face are that children continue to be denied permanent homes, LGBTIQ families often face unwelcoming healthcare environments, and LGBTIQ families often face social stigma and discrimination because of their LGBTIQ identity.

The Human Rights Campaign Family Project is currently working toward ending discrimnation toward LGBTIQ families and their current work includes three main initiatives which working to improve the lives of LGBTIQ families every day.

All Children – All Families works to ensure no child is denied a permanent home by helping adoption and foster care agencies recognize LGBTIQ individuals and couples are prospective parents for the over 115,000 children and youth in foster care. The Healthcare Equality Index rates healthcare facilities on their policies and practices toward LGBT patients and families, assisting hospitals across the U.S. in adopting policies and training so that all families are treated with respect while accessing healthcare. And Welcoming Schools provides resources to elementary schools so they can embrace all children, including those with LGBT parents, end bias-based bullying and avoid gender stereotyping.

Below are several HRC links which may be of great use to LGBTIQ families throughout Montana.

http://www.hrc.org/resources/category/parenting

http://www.hrc.org/resources/category/marriage

 

Below are links to various documents that Western Montana Community Center has made available for the LGBTIQ community of Montana.

The ACLU also provides information and resources on power of attorney and living wills as well as last will and testaments as a part of their Get Busy. Get Equal. campaign.