Understanding “gender identity”

Department of Defense policies about transgender people serving openly in the military have changed in recent months and years, and they continue to be a topic of discussion in the news. The greater awareness of transgender people might prompt questions about what it means to be transgender (or lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer) or “gender nonconforming.”

People typically are assigned a sex—based on their genital anatomy—at birth. When individuals are assigned one of two sex categories—male or female—there are societal expectations that they’ll behave in a way that aligns culturally with their assigned sex. For example, in the United States and most other Western cultures, little girls are expected to play with dolls and wear pink, while boys are expected to play with toy cars and wear blue. The behaviors and expressions of a person’s sex make up his or her gender.

For some people, the sex identity they were assigned at birth doesn’t line up with the gender identity they believe more accurately reflects their true selves. When your internal view of yourself is different from your external, assigned sex, you might come to consider yourself as transgender, or “trans.”

Gender nonconformity

A person who is gender nonconforming has interests and behaves outside of what’s typically considered the norm for that person’s assigned biological sex. Gender nonconformity, or “gender variance,” can appear in children as young as 2 but might not appear until they’re teenagers or adults. Gender nonconformity in kids can persist into adulthood, but it also can change over the years or disappear altogether. Some people who are gender nonconforming go on to understand themselves as transgender, whereas for others it’s part of a developmental stage.

Gender identity and sexual orientation are different. Your sexual orientation refers to your emotional, sexual, and romantic attraction to others. Some people who are gender nonconforming and transgender are “straight” (attracted to those of the opposite sex), while others are lesbian, gay, asexual, bisexual, or questioning their sexual identity.

Why some people—whether children or adults—experience gender nonconformity is still largely unknown. However, family acceptance and support for people who are transgender and gender nonconforming is extremely important because they’re at increased risk of anxiety, depression, poor performance, strained peer relationships, bullying, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. And those who are rejected by family members face even more risks, such as homelessness. Ideally, the experts suggest taking a “both/and” approach where you both support your loved one’s gender exploration and help navigate social realities.

Learn more

Many books, articles, and websites are available to help you learn more about gender nonconformity and what it means to be transgender, including the Human Rights Campaign’s Explore Transgender pages, the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) National Glossary of Terms, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s LGBT Health website.

References

Bockting, W. O. (2016). Vulnerability and resilience among gender-nonconforming children and adolescents: Mental health professionals have a key role to play. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 55(6), 441–443. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2016.04.008

Goldbach, J. T., & Castro, C. A. (2016). Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) service members: Life after Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Current Psychiatry Reports, 18(6). doi:10.1007/s11920-016-0695-0

Malpas, J. (2011). Between pink and blue: A multi-dimensional family approach to gender nonconforming children and their families. Family Process, 50(4), 453–470. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.2011.01371.x

Olson, K. R., Durwood, L., DeMeules, M., & McLaughlin, K. A. (2016). Mental Health of Transgender Children Who Are Supported in Their Identities. Pediatrics, 137(3). doi:10.1542/peds.2015-3223

Vance, S. R., Ehrensaft, D., & Rosenthal, S. M. (2014). Psychological and medical care of gender nonconforming youth. Pediatrics, 134(6), 1184–1192. doi:10.1542/peds.2014-0772

Wood, W., & Eagly, A. H. (2015). Two traditions of research on gender identity. Sex Roles, 73(11–12), 461–473. doi:10.1007/s11199-015-0480-2