There are many things we do without much thought, from breathing and yawning to favoring one hand over the other. We apply the words “reflex,” “instinct” or “nature” to such mechanics, meaning they’re not a choice — they just are.
Similarly, many of us do not think particularly hard about our gender. We are assigned female or male at birth based on our body’s anatomy, and if the gender identity that’s presumed to align with that assigned sex — girl or boy — feels true to us, we don’t question it much.
The trouble lies in the fact that the girl-boy gender identity binary is socially constructed, pinning myriad expectations on us because of the physical body each of us is born in. There’s no nuance in the binary, no room for discussion. But even some young children have been able to articulate that these boxes we’ve put them in don’t feel right.
Trans youth and adults are people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. They may be assigned female at birth, for example, but believe in their heart they are a boy. There are also those who feel their gender identities are nonbinary, meaning how they “present” their gender to the world doesn’t fit into either the boy or girl category. And gender expansive, gender fluid and gender-nonconforming youth may feel as if their genders aren’t fixed and that they may even vary over time, challenging others to further rethink the notions and stereotypes around gender that we’ve worn so comfortably for so long.
To better understand gender diversity, I spoke with local experts in the field, hoping to learn how trans and nonbinary youth are navigating their gender identity — and how parents and allies might best support them. The more we know, the better able we are to build more inclusive spaces and communities where all young people can be themselves.
By the numbers
Recent research shows that 1.6 million Americans ages 13 and up call themselves transgender and that 5 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 are trans or nonbinary. These are significant numbers. Even if your own child is cisgender (meaning their gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth), chances are that someone they know or are friends with is trans or nonbinary. By acknowledging gender diversity and modeling acceptance as a parent, you increase the likelihood that your child will be an inclusive and supportive peer themselves.
This is not a choice
Lisa, a local educator and mother of a trans teen who spoke with me anonymously, asks that people eradicate the idea that gender identity is a choice.
Reflecting on your own journey is often proof enough: If you were classified as a girl at birth and identifying as a girl and expressing yourself as such felt true to you, no one questioned that; no one said you were too young to know. Yet the first thing people often say to a trans kid is, “Are you sure?”
“As a parent, do not question your child,” Lisa says. “If they are coming to you with this information, guaranteed they have been thinking about it so much longer, and so carefully. By the time they tell you, it’s not a maybe; it’s that they have come to understand something they were never able to articulate before.”
For parents (and allies) of trans and nonbinary kids
Aydin Olson-Kennedy, DSW, a licensed clinical social worker who has provided psychotherapy to transgender clients and their parents for more than 10 years, says that by the time parents join a support group, it’s likely that so much has already unfolded in their family.
In an ideal world, here’s how parents would handle the situation:
Right after a child tells a parent that they are trans or nonbinary, Olson-Kennedy says that the first step may be to take no step at all. “Just stand and be with your child. Kids are, more often than not, terrified of the second that follows the disclosure. As parents, we tend to react and then think later, but reacting with, ‘Are you sure?’ is often deeply painful for the kid. And once that dynamic has shifted — the child now feels hurt, invalidated, ashamed — that is a bell you can’t unring.”
So what can you say so that your child feels heard and loved, even if you’re at a bit of a loss personally?
“I think it’s some version of, ‘I actually don’t fully understand what you’re telling me right now, but I am 100 percent here,” Olson-Kennedy suggests, adding that being transparent about not knowing is a powerful move. “That creates a lot of space and room for that youngster to not feel like they have to know everything, too. There’s a misconception that trans people and trans kids have all the answers about their experience and their trajectory, and that is never true.”
A parent might then clarify what their child needs next, including who else they may want to discuss their gender identity with.
“If that young person says, ‘I don’t want you to tell anyone,’ that’s an important piece of data for the parent to have, and parents don’t always ask because they don’t always consider that their child should be in charge of this,” Olson-Kennedy says. “What you have to respond to is only right now — literally today. Once parents get their feet back under them, which is at the heart of my work, then they can move.”
For Lisa, “moving” meant educating herself about raising trans youth through books such as Paria Hassouri’s “Found in Transition: A Mother’s Evolution During Her Child’s Gender Change” and finding support groups for herself and her child. There are local organizations that offer face-to-face meetings and many more with virtual options (see our resource chart).
Taking inventory of your child’s health care providers is another suggestion from Lisa, who watched how doctors responded to her child’s name and pronoun changes, for example, knowing that not everyone would be onboard with their family’s journey. She also sought recommendations for gender-affirming practitioners, or providers who support a trans or nonbinary child’s social, psychological, behavioral and interventional needs.
The fear of “messing things up” was palpable for Lisa, but that fear should not prevent parents from really engaging in their own “coming in” journey, which will, of course, look different than their child’s path.
“You’re going to make mistakes, but it’s not so much about the mistake as it is about how you respond to it,” she says. “Most importantly, acknowledge your mistake, make the repair and be careful not to turn it into a story about your own internal process.”
For example, if you misgender a child by using the wrong pronoun, Lisa suggests acknowledging the error, making the appropriate correction and moving forward. Spending energy explaining why you misgendered them shifts the focus away from the child and asks them to hold space to care for you.
A rising tide
Nick Adams is a volunteer support provider for trans and nonbinary youth and their families and has been an employee of the advocacy organization GLAAD since 1998. In that time, Adams has watched the ebb and flow of the world’s reaction to the reality of the gender spectrum. Among the biggest improvements? Our ability to access information.
“Because parents have more access today, they’re more likely to say, ‘This is a fact,’ rather than, ‘They’ll grow out of it.’ They go out and look for resources to support their kid. That’s a huge change in the last 15 years or so,” Adams says.
Finding reputable resources is key in the age of the internet, but remember: The first page you land on isn’t always the best or most accurate. Finding media and texts that center trans and nonbinary narratives is another way parents, youth and allies are educating themselves.
And while some progress has been made, we still have a long way to go. Right now, nearly 500 legislative bills across the U.S. are taking aim at LGBTQ rights, including those of trans youth. Adams hopes that people really tune in to what’s happening.
“What trans people are fighting for is to live in the world as our most authentic selves. When that happens, all boats rise,” Adams says. “I think anyone who’s a feminist, or believes in gender equity, should also be in favor of trans equality. The rigid thinking of ‘Girls do this and boys do that’ doesn’t help anyone.”
Chelsee Lowe is a mom and frequent contributing writer for L.A. Parent.
Gender Glossary: A Beginning
(Adapted from “Gender Spectrum.” Remember that language and definitions are evolving in this arena and beyond.)
- Gender identity: Our deeply held, internal sense of self as a man, a woman, a blend of both, neither or something else.
- Gender expression: Our “public” gender, or how we present our gender in the world, usually described as masculine, feminine or gender non-conforming.
- Gender binary: A system that constructs gender according to two discrete and opposite categories: boy/man and girl/woman.
- Gender expansive: An umbrella term used for people, especially children and youth, who broaden their own culture’s commonly held definitions of gender, including expectations for its expression, identities, roles and/or other perceived gender norms.
- Transgender: An umbrella term to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
- Cisgender: Refers to people whose gender identity aligns with their assigned sex at birth. One can also say “non-transgender people.”
- Nonbinary: An umbrella term for gender identities that are not exclusively man or woman. Many nonbinary people also call themselves transgender, but others do not.
Resources for Kids and Families
- Gender Spectrum — genderspectrum.org — offers virtual support groups for parents, grandparents and caregivers of gender-expansive youth, as well as educational resources.
- Gender Wellness of Los Angeles — genwell.org — provides mental health care to the transgender and non-binary communities, as well as family/parent support groups.
- The Center for Transyouth Health and Development — chla.org — is located at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and provides peer-support groups, family support services, case management services (including assistance with legal name and gender-marker changes), gender-affirming medical treatment, mental health services and more.
- Colors — colorsyouth.org — is an Antioch University program that provides free LGBTQAI+ affirmative counseling and healing psychotherapeutic services to youth under 25 and their families in greater Los Angeles.
- Trans Families — transfamilies.org — is based in Washington state, but offers virtual support groups, resources and education for parents and youth nationwide.
- TransFamily Support Services — transfamilysos.org — is based in San Diego, with virtual support groups available to all.
- PFLAG — pflag.org/find-resources — has been an advocacy organization for the LGBTQ+ community since 1973. Find online resources about how to be a supportive ally, plus help finding a safe, accepting community near you.
Essential Reading + Listening
Books for parents and adult allies
“Found in Transition: A Mother’s Evolution During Her Child’s Gender Change,” by Paria Hassouri, M.D.
“The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Families and Professionals,” by Rachel Pepper and Stephanie Brill
“The Gender Creative Child: Pathways for Nurturing and Supporting Children Who Live Outside Gender Boxes,” by Diane Ehrensaft
“Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Fabulous, Gender Creative Son,” by Lori Duron
“Jacob’s New Dress,” by Sarah Hoffman
“I’m Not a Girl: A Transgender Story,” by Maddox Lyons and Jessica Verdi
“It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity,” by Theresa Thorn
“I Am Jazz,” by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
YA graphic novels
“The Prince and the Dressmaker,” by Jen Wang
“Cheer Up! Love and Pompoms,” by Crystal Frasier, Val Wise and Oscar O. Jupiter
“The Breakaways,” by Cathy G. Johnson
“Different Kinds of Fruit,” by Kyle Lukoff
Middle grade chapter books
“Melissa, by Alex Gino
“The Other Boy,” by M.G. Hennessey
“The Pants Project,” by Cat Clarke
Middle school and up
“Both Can Be True,” by Jules Machias
“Obie Is Man Enough,” by Schuyler Bailar
“Heartstopper” series, by Alice Oseman
“Between Perfect and Real,” by Ray Stoeve
Podcast: How To Be a Girl — howtobeagirlpodcast.com
Webtoon: Hyperfocus — webtoons.com