Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Understanding Gender Identity in Young People

Sam Piha
By Sam Piha

There is a growing awareness in our society that gender is more than the sex that is assigned at birth. In the popular media, we have been introduced to Caitlin Jenner and followed the challenges as portrayed in the Netflix TV series, Transparent

The issues of gender identity and children have been well chronicled on the Public Broadcasting NewsHour and its cousin, Frontline. These can be accessed by clicking on the images below.

Increasingly, schools are struggling in the courts to fully address the rights of transgender youth: how to address the needs to access restrooms and locker rooms that are based on gender and engage in activities in alignment with a youth’s affirmed gender. 

As gender identity is now being better understood, leaders of youth program leaders are urged to make themselves aware of this new knowledge. This new knowledge is especially important to ensure that youth program leaders provide a safe place for all youth. It is important to note that many of the solutions involve efforts to reduce gender bias and stereotyping – something that is good for all youth and their program leaders. 

Photo credit:
As explained by Gender Spectrum, gender is not a binary concept with two rigidly fixed options. Instead, gender is a “multidimensional array of possibilities” comprised of one’s biology, gender expression, and gender identity. Then again, this concept is not new. Documented by countless historians and anthropologists, non- binary gender diversity exists all over the world.

However, society often views gender as binary. Our understanding of gender is influenced by upbringing, culture, peers, schools, community, media and religion and starts the minute we are born. Even toys, colors, and clothes are assigned a gender. As stated by Gender Spectrum, “through a combination of social conditioning and personal preference, by age three most children prefer activities and exhibit behaviors typically associated with their sex.”
We will expand on gender identity with several posts. We will begin with some important terminology. 

Gender Spectrum offers the following terminology:
  • Biological/Anatomical Sex: The physical structure of one’s reproductive organs that is used to assign sex at birth. 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, both, neither, or any and all—how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. Individuals are conscious of this between the ages 18 months and 3 years. For some, 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.
Photo Credit: http://www.theguardian.com/
  • Transgender: 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 with a variety of other sexual identities as well.
  • 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.
Tolerance.org, expands gender terminology to include: 
  • Genderqueer: A broad descriptor many people use to indicate a person that does not identify as either male or female.
  • Preferred Personal Pronouns: In addition to the traditional pronouns (he/him, she/her, they), some people prefer to use gender-neutral pronouns, such as ne, ve, ze/zie and xe. If you don’t know a youth’s preferred personal pronoun, it’s always best to ask. [Increasingly, youth are requesting that “they” be used as their personal, singular gender-neutral pronoun.]

You can read other blogs by the LIAS project by going to: 
  • Expanded Learning 360°/365 Project website
  • LIAS Blog Written for the California Afterschool Network

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