Most young people identify with a gender, such as being a boy or girl, and for most of these young people, that gender is consistent with how other people see them and with what their parents announced to others when they were born. Their parents may have sent others a blue card for a boy or a pink card for a girl, or they may have even had a ‘gender reveal’ party. Some young people, however, do not identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth. For some young people this may mean that they identify as the opposite gender, but it could also mean that they feel like they are a mix of genders, that they do not have a gender, that the gender they feel comfortable with varies from day to day, or that they identify with a different gender in its entirety.
These different experiences of gender are now commonly referred to with the term ‘gender diversity’, and they fall under the umbrella term ‘transgender’. The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne has estimated that approximately 1.2% of Australian schoolchildren identify as being transgender (https://www.rch.org.au/kidsinfo/fact_sheets/Gender_dysphoria/). This means that there are about 45,000 Australian schoolchildren who experience differences in their gender. Some estimates go up to 2.3 or 2.5% and include young people who are gender diverse or are questioning their gender, but who are not experiencing gender dysphoria (i.e., distress related to their gender).
Gender diversity is a normal part of human diversity, no different from diversity in language,
culture, or sexual orientation. Some young people who feel different from the gender they were assigned at birth may want to express this by using a different pronoun (e.g., he, she, or they), by dressing in clothing that is congruent with their own gender experience, by getting a haircut, or by asking others to call them by a different name. Some young people will know who they are and what gender they identify with early in life (e.g., announcing “I’m a girl!” as a toddler), while other young people may spend years exploring and questioning their gender. While experiences vary, it is always beneficial to young people when the adults around them affirm and validate their experience.
There are many different ways of experiencing gender diversity, and not one experience is exactly the same. You may have heard of the term ‘non-binary’ to describe gender diverse people who do not fully identify with the gender they were assigned at birth but simultaneously do not fully identify with the opposite gender. Non-binary is an umbrella term that is used by and for people who do not identify with the gender binary. This can mean that they do not identify as either male or female, that they identify as a mix of both, that they do not experience gender (agender), that they identify as a third gender, or that they may feel like a different gender depending on the day (gender fluid).
If your child or someone you know is experiencing gender diversity, the most important thing you can do is listen to them, acknowledge their experience, and ask what you can do to help affirm how they are feeling. You can do this by asking about their preferred pronouns or names and by trying your best to use these, even if it takes some getting used to and you might initially slip up from time to time. For some young people, being gender diverse does not cause them any distress, and they are comfortable exploring their gender identity (how they identify) and gender expression (how they show their gender to the world) without need for extra support.
For other young people, however, not being seen as the gender they identify with causes distress, and they may need support from you, their school, and from professionals to help them find what it is they need to feel at ease with themselves and their body. For some young people this may mean getting help to better understand their gender identity and to explore their gender expression. This exploration can lead to social transition (i.e., changing their name and how they dress and sometimes speak to present as the opposite gender). If needed, it may also lead to a medical transition if they are old enough to pursue this (e.g., puberty blockers, hormone treatment or surgeries). Not all gender diverse (young) people will feel the need to explore these options, and some may transition socially but never medically, or they may not transition in any way at all but find different ways to become more comfortable in themselves and their identity. With the right supports to explore themselves safely, gender diverse young people can thrive and be happy.
Seeing a psychologist can be a helpful way for a young person to safely explore their gender identity and gender expression. There are also many specialist services available that provide support to families (who may experience grief when a child’s identity and future is incongruent with what they had imagined and hoped) and to young people considering transitioning. In Victoria, young people up to the age of 17 can be referred to the Royal Children’s Hospital’s Gender Service, while people aged 17 and older can be referred to the Monash Health Gender Clinic. The below websites provide further information on gender diversity, as well as further avenues for support.
- AusPATH Public Statement on Gender Affirming Healthcare: https://auspath.org/gender-affirming-healthcare/
- Royal Children’s Hospital Gender Service: https://www.rch.org.au/adolescent-medicine/gender-service/
- Monash Health Gender Clinic (17+): https://monashhealth.org/services/gender-clinic/
- Raising Children, article about gender identity in young people: https://raisingchildren.net.au/pre-teens/development/pre-teens-gender-diversity-and-gender-dysphoria/gender-identity
- Parents of Gender Diverse Children (PGDC): https://www.pgdc.org.au/about
- Supports available in Victoria, as listed on the PGDC website: https://www.pgdc.org.au/victoria
© Nindy Brouwers, Raise the Bar Psychology, 1 July 2021