Thursday, April 21, 2016

Gender Identity and Implications for Practice: An Interview with a Child Development Specialist, Part 2

By Sam Piha
Sam Piha
We have produced a briefing/background paper on gender identity. We invite you to download this paper by clicking here.

Below, we continue our interview with Dr. Diane Ehrensaft to shed more light on this topic, and ask her about the implications for youth program leaders. You can find part 1 of this interview by clicking here

Dr. Ehrensaft specializes in research, clinical work, and consultation related to gender-nonconforming children. She is an associate professor of Pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco and a developmental and clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area.  

Q: Can gender identity be chosen―or even changed?
Dr. Diane Ehrensaft

A: We do not choose our gender identities—we discover them. No one can take that away from us, they can just demand that we bury it underground. And yes, our gender identities can change over time. Gender is a lifelong process. But truth be told, gender identity is typically a pretty stable part of ourselves, once we clarify what it is, albeit not necessarily immutable.  

When it comes to our gender expressions, yes, they can be both chosen and changed, either over time or depending on the circumstances. For example, when I was growing up I was both a ballerina and an avid student of math. When a ballerina, I was the essence of femininity. But when in my accelerated math class, I expressed myself in a competitive, driven manner more associated with male gender expressions at the time I was growing up. 

The terrible affront we do to transgender people is the same one that has been laid on gay, lesbian, and queer people—the accusation that they choose to be the way they are and they could stop it if they wanted (often with the help of harmful, reparative therapies). The reality is: that is who they are, they didn’t “choose” it, and it is the task of all around them to acknowledge, honor, and support that person for who they let us know they are.  

Q: Does gender have to be one or the other? 

A: Not only does gender not have to be one or the other—it isn’t. The only problem is that many people get nervous when we take that idea of only two genders away from them. The concept of binary gender—male/female--has been bedrock for many people; and now we’re taking that bedrock away and replacing it with gender as moving boulders. But that binary concept has never really held true in reality. When we look at the animal world, when we look at cultures across the globe and throughout history, and when we look at the phenomenal sea change that is occurring right now in our own culture’s redefinitions of gender, particularly among youth, we discover that gender, rather than binary, is actually infinite in its potential variations.  

On our own land, Native Americans have taught us about third and fourth genders. And these variations should be considered a healthy part of human existence, rather than something that has to be fixed or exterminated (as did the white settlers with the Native American third and fourth gender people). 

Turning back to youth, we now have children and teens who identify as agender, pangender, gender queer, gender fluid. Indeed Facebook has provided over 58 categories of gender to choose from, in addition to “other.”  And more will come. We now think of gender as a spectrum, a rainbow, a web, no more boxes.  

Q: What would you advise for youth workers regarding their work with gender fluid youth? 

A: More important than anything else, listen to the youth. It is not for us to say, but for them to tell us who they are and how they want to “do” their gender. Know that by the time they come to you they may have suffered years of teasing, harassment, or rejection because of their gender fluidity. Gender fluidity doesn’t always play well in a world that is genderist or transphobic. Alternatively, know that by the time they come to you they may have discovered support, acceptance, and pride in themselves, and that is to be celebrated. 

But going back to the negative, know that the risk factors for gender fluid youth are many. If not supported, gender fluid youth are at risk for anxiety, depression, self-harm, even suicide. And know that they depend on you to watch their back, to mirror back to them a positive sense of who they are, to use the names and pronouns they ask you to use for them, to step in rather than step aside as a passive bystander if others are giving them grief about their gender.

Q: What would you advise for youth workers as they look to create a safe and unbiased (gender) environment for all youth? 

A: First, look inside yourselves and check yourselves for your own biases and discomfort with gender-nonconforming and transgender youth. How do you really feel about a boy wearing a dress? A boy-girl? A girl who binds her breasts? All of us have “gender ghosts”—negative feelings about people who live outside gender boxes, a normative way of being that was instilled in us in our own socialization in a world that was not accepting of such gender differences.  
Photo Credit: Brian Peterson

If we are to work with youth and afford all youth an opportunity to maximize their gender health—which means having the opportunity to live in the gender that feels most authentic to them - free of aspersion and rejection and filled with gender acceptance and support, it is necessary to expel our gender ghosts and replace them with gender angels—positive feelings and actions toward youth of all genders.

Anyone who works with a gender-nonconforming youth holds two responsibilities: 
  • To make sure you function as an accurate mirror for the youth: No one wants to feel invisible, so make sure you reflect back to the youth the gender self they are, not the one you want them or expect them to be.
  • To ensure that no insults or impingements/microaggressions come the youth’s way: The youth are counting on you to run interference for them and either not allow or be responsible for the minor or major insults that might come their way. So just make sure you step up to the plate.
Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco and a developmental and clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area, with a private practice in Oakland, California.  She is Director of Mental Health of the Child and Adolescent Gender Center and chief psychologist at the Child and Adolescent Gender Center Clinic at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. She specializes in research, clinical work, and consultation related to gender-nonconforming children, lecturing, publishing, and serving as an expert witness on both topics nationally and internationally.

Dr. Ehrensaft is author of Gender Born, Gender MadeMommies, Daddies, Donors, SurrogatesBuilding a Home Within (co-edited with Toni Heineman); Spoiling Childhood; Parenting Together; and the new release, The Gender Creative Child.  Dr. Ehrensaft serves on the Board of Directors of Gender Spectrum, a national organization addressing the needs of gender-expansive children and their families. 
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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