A few years ago, while I was at university, we were tasked with writing an assignment on the barriers to mental health services for a specific group of people, so I chose to base my assignment on gender diverse young people. At the same time, I had just begun mentoring for Raise Foundation, and my mentee was struggling with their gender identity. Now, if you had any doubt about what the universe was trying to tell me, my daughter’s long-term partner began their transition from male to female, which is the process of changing one’s gender presentation permanently to align with one’s internal sense of one’s gender, and does not always include surgery or hormone therapy. I got to see first-hand the challenges for both themselves and those around them. These experiences have started me on a fascinating journey into understanding gender diversity and its impact on young people.
Defining gender diversity
Let’s define what gender diversity is – the American Psychological Association (2006) defines gender identity as one’s sense of oneself as male, female, or something else. When one’s gender identity and biological sex are not congruent, the individual may identify as gender diverse. Gender diversity is about acknowledging and respecting that there are many ways to identify outside of the binary of male and female.
Some people may be asking why suddenly it seems there are so many young people identifying as gender diverse and wondering if it is perhaps a “phase” or something they are doing for “attention” or to “fit in”. For those people, I ask you to cast your mind back to 20 years ago. How many openly gay people did you personally know or know of? I bet the number was fairly small. Think how many gay people there are now, and we have legalised same-sex marriage in Australia. This doesn’t mean that there are more gay people than before, but it does mean that gay people feel more socially accepted and are more comfortable being open about their sexual orientation. The same can be said for gender diverse people – the more representation in our society they see and the more socially acceptable it is, the more comfortable they will feel in living their lives as their authentic selves.
The importance of recognition and support
We need to understand why it is so important to recognise and support gender diverse young people. Rosenstreich (2013, LGBTI People Mental Health and Suicide) found that 20% of gender diverse people had suicidal ideation in Australia, and 50% had attempted suicide, meaning that they have the highest rate of suicidality in Australia than any other sector. High rates of discrimination, threats of physical violence, homelessness, substance abuse and eating disorders are prevalent among gender diverse young people, so families and support services can play a large role in their wellbeing.
“All I want is to know no matter what gender I am, you’ll still love me like you did before.” – Anonymous Young Person
What can you do?
- Educate yourself using reliable sources, e.g. GenderQueer Australia.
- Don’t assume that your gender diverse young person knows everything about all gender issues – help them seek information and learn along with them.
- Ask your gender diverse person how they want to be addressed and if it is okay to ask questions. Questions based on learning, not morbid curiosity, are mostly welcome.
- Help others who are having trouble with another person’s gender diversity – that means standing up to others who may be uneducated about gender diversity issues. Be your gender diverse young person’s cheerleader.
- Every gender diverse person’s experience of growing up in Australia is different, and there is no correct way to be gender diverse, so don’t stereotype gender diverse young people.
- Gender pronouns are words that a gender diverse person would like others to use when talking to or about them – knowing and using someone’s gender pronouns is a positive way to show your support.
- Displaying your own gender pronouns (She/her/hers and he/him/his) can be a positive and affirming way to show your support because if only gender diverse people have their pronouns on show we may be forcing them to unintentionally “out” themselves, and we also make them feel different. Don’t be scared to have your pronouns listed in your email signature, your social media bios or even wear a badge proclaiming them.
Making inclusion more visible
As a Program Area Manager for Raise Foundation, I am privileged to visit many sessions over the program year. This year, I have been wearing a rainbow lanyard with my name and WWCC. It also contains a bunch of badges, including my pronouns badge. It has helped start conversations with young people, especially the reticent ones, about gender and sexual orientation. I have had young people ask me if I am a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, to which I always reply, “no, but I am an ally”. Recently, some young people were challenging themselves to do something outside of their comfort zone and one student chose to “have a conversation with someone without judgement”. When I questioned him on what he meant, he told me that there was a gender diverse student in his school who he avoided because he did not understand gender diversity. This opened up a conversation with these young people about what it is, how he could support this person and developed into how as a parent I accepted my daughter as a LGBTQIA+ person and what it was like for me to be able to do that. For young people to be open to having these important conversations without fear of judgement is an amazing gift we as parents, mentors and educators can give them.
For me, it is about inclusion made visible. We need to respect those who are gender diverse and the choices they make about their life by using the correct names and pronouns. Inclusivity not only benefits gender diverse people – it helps everyone!