Gender Independent Youth
Understanding Gender Independence and Gender Non-Conformity
Definition: Gender independent children are those whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what others expect of their assigned (natal) sex. Other terms used to describe these children include gender non-conforming, gender variant, gender creative, transgender and in the case of Aboriginal children, two-spirited (Rainbow Health Ontario, 2012).
Gender Independent Children are very diverse and unique. Some gender independent children may strongly and consistently identify with a gender role that is different than their sex assigned at birth. Others may express their gender identity in a way that blends multiple genders and is fluid or changing. Some gender independent children may be comfortable with their assigned sex but behave in ways that do not conform to social norms. As a parent, guardian or care-giver you may be wondering, did I make my child gender-independent? The answer is no! A child’s gender independence does not a result from the way a child was parented nor does it result from experiencing abuse (Rainbow Health Ontario, 2012).
Can I Change My Gender Independent Child?
Gender independent children are not trying to misbehave. They are trying to express themselves in a way that is comfortable and authentic. Gender independent children need support from family members, friends and the community to do this. Some clinicians continue to advocate for clinical interventions that try to prevent children from expressing their gender independence. Most clinicians see these interventions as harmful. Studies have found that gender independent children who are strongly pressured to conform are “prone to anxiety, sadness, social withdrawal, self-deprecation and other signs of internal distress” (Carver, Yunger & Perry, 2003). The World Professional Association for Transgender Health even states “treatment aimed at trying to change a person’s gender identity and lived gender expression to become more congruent with sex assigned at birth is no longer considered ethical ” (WPATH, 2011). The OK2BME program utilizes a gender-affirming approach that recognizes that gender independence and gender non-conformity is not pathological but a normal human variation (Rainbow Health Ontario, 2012).
Supporting Gender Independence in Children
When a person first learns that their child is gender independent they may experience a variety of reactions. Some may not struggle while others may experience disbelief, shame, anger or grief over the loss of an idealized child. A child’s gender identity may contribute to conflict between parents or between a child and a parent (Rainbow Health Ontario, 2012).The OK2BME program can assist families by supporting parents and caregivers to process these difficult emotions. With support, most parents of gender independent children are able to learn to connect positively with their child. As a parent, it is important to not let your anxiety discourage your child from expressing their gender or rush decisions regarding gender transition. It is imperative that parents follow their child’s lead and do not impose their preferences onto their child’s development. Like all children, there is no way to know who a gender independent child will become as an adult. Some gender independent children come to identify as cisgender (non-trans) people, while others may continue to identify as gender fluid into adulthood. Some come to identify as transgender and seek to transition socially and/or medically to a new gender role. Others may never identify as any of the aforementioned identities (Rainbow Health Ontario, 2012).
A social transition occurs when a child begins to express their gender in a new way that is different than the role associated with their sex assigned at birth. A social transition may include a change of name, clothing and gender pronoun. For example, a child who is born male may begin to use the pronoun “she,” change her name, begin to express herself as a girl, and participate in daily life as a girl. The decision to socially transition is not simple and should be made in collaboration with you, your child and a supportive professional who understands gender independence. OK2BME therapists can support your family with social transitioning. Parents and clinicians report that children’s comfort and happiness can improve dramatically with this option. Children undergoing a social transition should be reassured that they can return to their original gender role at anytime and parents should be aware that another transition may be possible (Rainbow Health Ontario, 2012).
A child’s exploration of self is a natural and healthy part of development. If a child wishes to socially transition at school it is important that parents connect with their child’s school to develop a social transition plan with school staff. The OK2BME program offers consultations with school administration and parents to assist with this process.
Medical transition consists of steps taken to bring the physical body in line with one’s gender identity in cases where an individual feels a strong incongruence between the two. Children do not undergo hormone replacement therapy. However, adolescents who experience a considerable amount of stress as puberty approaches can be administered a puberty suppressant hormone that provides relief by delaying the development of secondary sex characteristics. The effects of puberty suppressant hormones are reversible and puberty begins if discontinued. Puberty suppressants provide a significant reduction in stress and allow a teen to continue to explore their gender identity. If after a full exploration of gender identity, complete transition is desired, cross-hormone therapy can begin at 16 with the potential for surgery approval at 18 (Rainbow Health Ontario, 2012).
Carver, P. R., Yunger, J. L., & Perry, D. G. (2003). Gender identity and adjustment in middle childhood. Sex Roles, 49, 95–109.
Pyne, Jack. Rainbow Health Ontario (2012). Supporting Gender Independent Children and their Families.
WPATH (2011). Standards of care: For the health of transsexual, transgender and gender non-conforming people. 7th edition. World Professional Association for Transgender Health.
What the OK2BME Program can offer you as a parent:
- Individual or family counselling (link) for your child (both in office or in your child’s school)
- An OK2BME Youth Group (link) for 13-18 year olds who identify as LGBTQ+
- Consultations with your child’s school to support and plan for social transitioning
- Further resources on gender identity and additional local supports
The document below, “Questions and Answers for Parents and Family Members of Gender Variant and Transgender Youth” is a great resource for parents who have questions about their child’s gender independence and how to best support their child.