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Why Are So Many More Teens

Why Are So Many More Teens “Gender Fluid” Now?

By Mir Kamin

Got tweens/teens? We’re trying a new advice column here at Alpha Mom to address your questions for the older-kid crowd. We hope you enjoy! And if you have a question to submit, hit me up at alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.

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Wondering Mom writes:

I’d love to see you address gender fluidity in a post. I do not even pretend to understand this, though my teen’s counselor tells me the number of kids describing this are skrocketing. It’s one of the things we’re dealing with and I’m not sure how to best handle it.

I was wondering how long it would take for a question like this to come up. Yes, back in “our day” (ha!) it seemed like girls were girls and boys were boys and no one was trans and if anyone was gay they stayed deep in the closet until well after graduation, and any sort of gender variance or sexual preference away from the norm didn’t exist. (I’m not saying it didn’t, just that folks rarely let on and/or we rarely saw it.) Things are different, now. Very different.

First, let’s be clear about two different concepts, here. Your gender refers to how you identify your own body/mind in terms of being male, female, agender (neither), or fluid (not adhering solely to one end of the spectrum or the other). This is not to be confused with your sexual preference, which may have nothing to do with gender at all, and refers to what you find attractive in a potential romantic partner. I know you asked about gender, but I’m mentioning sexual preference as well for two reasons: First, so that we can be absolutely clear that gender identification doesn’t necessarily relate to sexual preference (some people do find that confusing), and second, because—just as we’re seeing an increase in the number of teens claiming gender fluidity—we’re also seeing a lot more teens identifying themselves in broader terms than simply “heterosexual” or “homosexual.”

While these are two different issues, the underlying “do not classify me rigidly or put me in a box” sentiment is similar, which is why I wanted to talk about both. I’m pretty sure that teenagers have been “rebelling” and pushing against societal norms for as long as adolescence has been a thing. This is not to say that a teen claiming some shift from the norm is just trying to be different, of course, but simply that these are the years when kids look at their peers, look at themselves, take in the world around us, and wonder where and how they fit in. These are also the years when most growing humans find themselves searching for self-definition. So: 50 years ago, did there exist kids who thought to themselves, “Huh, I don’t feel super [feminine/masculine]” even though that was the expectation placed upon them? Of course! But was there a societal framework suggesting they could be… something else… and that would be okay? I don’t think so. The difference now is that gender is more widely accepted as a spectrum, with some variance being normal rather than weird.

Think about things like how women didn’t used to wear pants (first, at all, then at school/work, etc.), bright hair colors were rare and daring, or how men could pierce one ear—but that was kind of weird and which ear mattered a lot—and nowadays clothing is a lot more gender-neutral, both boys and girls dye their hair a rainbow of colors, and plenty of guys pierce both ears and no one sees any of it as revolutionary. Standards change. And language changes, too—part of the rise in gender fluidity, one could argue, is simply the acceptance of the language used to describe it. There have always been people who felt gender fluid; they may just not have had the words to call it that.

Similarly, I know at my teens’ high school, you might be surprised at how hard it’d be to find a kid who identifies themselves simply as either hetero- or homosexual. They’re all pansexual or demisexual or—this has been interesting to me—a growing segment is claiming flat-out asexuality. (Personally, I think this is largely a socially-acceptable way for those simply not ready for sexual congress to retain their “cred” and stay out of the fray, but who knows.) Now, is this all new? The language is new(ish), sure. But the sentiments are not. This has always existed on some level, it’s just something they name and talk about, now. Years ago, the assumption would’ve been that I have one son and one daughter and they are male and female and heterosexual and that’s that. Any variance would likely never come up, and if it did, I would be expected to wring my hands and worry.

And this brings us back to your question, which is how we, as parents, handle a teen who is claiming gender fluidity (or, really, any of these gender or sexuality variances). I can speak from my own experience, I guess, which—as always—may not be right for everyone. I have one teen who claims to be asexual and one who has gone through multiple, shifting iterations of self-identification. Our response to any and all declarations has always been, “Okay. We love you.” And that’s… sort of it. All anyone wants is to be loved and accepted, right? It doesn’t matter to me what gender or sexual identification my kids claim. I love them because they’re them and my goal is to support them no matter what. I can say for sure, having watched a lot of kids and families around us, that any sort of “no you’re not” or “this is just a phase” or “don’t be silly” sort of response (not saying you did that, of course) is only going to strain the parent/child relationship. These are the years where our kids figure out who they are; the greatest gift we can give them as they do that is unconditional love. How do we manifest that in a useful way? You’re gender fluid? Okay, tell me more about that, because I want to understand you better. How do we keep communication going? Okay, so, tell me about your girlfriend/boyfriend, and what you like about them. Just talk. Just love them. Maybe it’s exploration and a phase, maybe it’s not. But it’s as normal as trying a radically different hairstyle, and part of what many teens are (consciously or not) looking for is to see how people react. When your reaction is acceptance, it gives them a safe space to figure themselves out.

I hope that helps, a little. The bottom line is that your kid is marvelous no matter what, right? Right!

Looking for resources? Online, I recommend Gender Spectrum’s Teen page and The Gender Book site. If you prefer a book in your hand, check out Gender Born, Gender Made: Raising Healthy Gender-Nonconforming Children, The Gender Quest Workbook: A Guide for Teens and Young Adults Exploring Gender Identity, and S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College.

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Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.

Photo source: Stocksy.com

Mir Kamin
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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Comments

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  • Mandy

    Thanks for posting this Mir. We have been working with our oldest child who has come out as agender this year, prefers them/their pronouns, and is in a relationship with a transgender boy. It is hard as a parent to let go of who you thought your child was and accept who they want to be. My husband and I have been working hard on showing unconditional love and acceptance and while it hasn’t made the road less bumpy, at least we are still on it together. 

  • SQ084

    Great response! The research shows that our gender non-conforming kids have way above average rates of suicide – acceptance and unconditional love are a big part of how we stop that.

    • Excellent, if sobering, point. Thanks for bringing that up.

      • Wondering Mom

        I’m well aware of this and it terrifies me. We try and reassure him all the time that no matter what we love him.

  • hokgardner

    Conversation in the car with my oldest girl.

    Her: So, I’m gay.
    Me: Oh. OK. Was it hard to tell me that?
    Her: Only because I didn’t want another speech about how you and dad love me no matter what.
    Me: Well, it’s true. All your dad and I want for you is to find someone you love and who makes you happy and who loves you back. That’s it.
    Her (interrupting): Gah. This is exactly what I was talking about. Stop!

    But the conversations have been ongoing. I’m very impressed with how she and her friends talk about this with each other so much. When I asked what kids at school thought about students who identified as gay or transexual, she shrugged and said “Everyone at my lunch table identifies as something. We’re all kind of in it together.” 

  • Anon

    Good job. I feel like you could have written this from the cafeteria of my child’s school. I confess I still find it confusing, but I appreciate the answer to my question. Interestingly we did do the, “okay, we love you”, but there is more to it. Our child also wants a name change, akin to wanting to all of a sudden be called Aphrodite. (I wish I was kidding.) It seems like a simple request, but it is throwing us, it feels like a huge step and we had to ask for time to deal with that one. Also interesting, we’ve been told the “okay, we love you” response didn’t fit the narrative that was sought so that’s not how it’s being portrayed on social media.

    I think a lot of the kids do identify now as gender fluid or transexual, I’ve been told that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are, that, for some, it’s another form of rebellion. I confess I still find it very confusing, and, much as I’m loathe to admit it, uncomfortable. I don’t understand when my child tells me there are more than 42 gender pronouns, there is so much to it that I don’t understand. What I do understand is that it is still my child and that I love them very much, and that I hope they give me some time to come to terms with all of this. I always thought that if my child were trans there would have been signs all along the way–the boy child who wants to wear dresses to preschool, the girl child who proclaims she’s really a boy. Maybe the boy who chooses a typical “girl” name to be renamed, or vice versa. That’s not the case here, one day completely out of the blue, with no sign whatsoever, we found out our child wants to be called Aphrodite and is working on the pronoun they want to be referred to as. It takes time. I also admire Mandy who says she and her husband are working hard on showing unconditional love and acceptance, for my hubby, it’s hard. He loves our child, but accepting this, let alone understanding this, is really really hard and may be beyond him. I fear that it may be a subject that ultimately leads to our undoing.

    • Dan

      You know, I guess you have to explaining to your kid that you need some time and might not get it right, but that you’re trying etc etc? And that you’re hoping the maturity they’re showing in being able to identify like this will be shown towards you if you take a little time to get used to it. PLAG are a great resource for parents of kids who are LGBT, you might want to check them out if you haven’t already. Maybe you could agree to calling them Aphrodite but suggest that you wait a little while before beginning a legal process to change their name, because it’s easier to do that kind of thing when they’re older and can sign all the paperwork themselves (who knows if that’s true but it might be a delaying tactic that helps). Maybe get your husband some books about trans people and get him to go to a counsellor who specialises in this sort of work. Also some family counselling or a PFLAG type support group might really help. And I think it’s fair enough that it takes him time, speaking as someone with experience of this sort of thing, as long as he is supportive and tries towards to your kid.

      Interestingly, the science suggests that people are exposed to different levels of hormones in the womb and that this might shape their gender experience. There are some good books on the science around things if your husband is a know-the-facts kind of guy. Good luck!

      • Wondering Mom

        I think the hardest thing for my husband, and myself, is the suddenness of the subject. We literally had never heard anything like this before December. We have some concerns as to how much of this is him and his feelings and how much of it is peer influenced or even a form of rebellion. Questions reinforced by his counselor. I think it’s going to take time to sort out, time in which we are trying to learn our way around, to assure often that we love him, and that we’re here for him, and counseling to help him figure out a lot of things, not just this.

        • What I know of you tells me that you and your husband are approaching this as mindfully as possible, which is really half (maybe more?) of the battle, right there. Interesting to me is the tidbit about how your response “didn’t fit the desired narrative” and so was portrayed differently to peers. Obviously I’m not a professional, but that’s the sort of “I am flailing around in pain and having some difficulty distinguishing reality from what’s happening in my head” reaction we used to see here a lot during difficult times. The world loves to tell us that unconditional love is the answer to everything, but the reality is that unconditional love is great and all, but it doesn’t instantly heal everything. It’s just a starting point. And no matter what is said and done in reaction right now, over time it will be remembered.

          tl;dr: You are doing good, hard work, yourself. Keep the faith.

  • Brigitte

    A small part of it can also be the age – everything is confusing and everyone is trying to figure themselves out.  Some experimentation is normal, just to help figure oneself out.

    At least my sister, who has always identified as a gay man trapped in a woman’s body, is no longer quite as “out there” for saying so!

  • hokgardner

    Gah – I meant transgender, not transsexual, in my previous comment. 

  • Sciencerules
  • Caroline

    The confused ones, the gay ones and everyone in between were always there, they just didn’t ”pester” anybody by saying anything, many not even having the actual vocabulary to properly explain what was happening or how they felt. Organised religion has a lot to answer for, particularly in bible belt areas. Now it’s better-known and better-understood, teenagers in particular, a demographic well-known for experimenting, for getting to grips with who they are sexually, socially and so on, are far more likely to feel like this *openly* (by ”this” I refer to the whole spectrum of minority gender / sexuality-fluid designations), so it seems like there’s an explosion. There’s no explosion. It’s just no longer hidden.

  • Wendy

    It is not very often that I think “kids these days have it easier” but in this instance, I think it is true. As someone who grew up in the 80’s with a transgender sibling, social interactions were difficult for my family. I am only 13 months younger than my sibling and the backlash from classmates was harsh. He (pronoun at that time) was repeatedly bullied and abused throughout his school years and it wasn’t until he reached college, became president of her (gender switch) college’s LGBT organization, and really stood up for herself that things began to change. I specifically chose the farthest in-state college away from her so that I could get out from under her school shadow. And let us not discuss my mom’s reaction to all of this (she was raised Southern Baptist. That should put all of that neatly into a nutshell – she refuses to watch The Big Bang Theory because, and I quote here, “I didn’t come from a monkey”.)

    All of that background to say this:
    “ok, we love you.” would have been amazing for her to hear from my parents. Or even from me, likely. We all struggled with the societal backlash of having “one of those people” in our family. I am so thankful that society is changing and while intolerance is still prevalent, the tide is slowly shifting and those who identify as outside of the heterosexual lifestyle are finding they have a voice – a fierce one. I’m very proud of my sister and who she has become and I am wholeheartedly glad that the winds are shifting.

    Great article, Mir. As always.

    • Thank you for sharing your family’s story, Wendy. It sounds like you are lucky to have your sister, and vice versa!

  • Kristen

    The timing of this could not have been better for me, and I think your answer is fabulous, Mir. My 12yo daughter has always leaned strongly to the masculine side — wanting a “boy’s” haircut, wearing boy’s clothes, etc., and to this day I can’t buy her anything from the girl’s department. So I’ve always prepared myself for her to one day tell me she was transgender and took several opportunities over the past few years to let her know I had no issues with that. Just a week ago she chose to tell me she’s gay and definitely not transgender. Since she had been talking just 3 or 4 months ago about boys she had crushes on, I was a bit surprised. But I told her it was fine with me and didn’t change at all how much I loved her. Now, I’m certainly not discounting what she told me, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if she won’t feel differently in 1 or 2 years. What you said about “rebelling” and exploring are good points. I’ll just continue talking to her and letting her know I will always be a safe place for her. Thanks for the community here! 

  • RACHEL

    As a grey asexual adult, I would like you to reconsider you comment about asexuality. While it is more about sex drive rather than sex orientation, in many cases, the way you phrased it makes feel like an unlegitimate identity – something that is both wrong and dangerous. While I don’t think you meant it in that way, it still did it.

    Sex drive is not very studied but deserves mentioning as an identity. I am 31, married (to a trans guy), have a kid, but I spent most of my 20s celibate and my later teens engaged in risky sexual behavior to feel like I was “normal.” Having language around asexuality, being given a label and a way to find others who felt like I did, went a long way and is what allowed me to be able to navigate that and romantic/sexual relationships. When identities are invisibilized or delegitimized, it makes it hard for folks to find that community.

    Further, not only are things a spectrum, by drive can change with hormones and psychological factors. In fact, many identities aren’t fixed and fluctuate over time (for example, many trans men were members of the lesbian community before transition, complete with relationships with women – and many of those same men find themselves attracted to other men post-transition). An identity *changing* for whatever reason doesn’t mean that it wasn’t real or legitimate at any point, however.

    • Hi Rachel,

      Yes, of course—everything you’re saying is spot-on, and I’m glad you see that it wasn’t my intention to de-legitimize those identities, and I’m sorry if my language around it was/is clumsy. Shifting identities are still valid identities! Thank you for clarifying what I meant to say and apparently didn’t.

    • Ella Gardner

      I was going to say something about that Rachel, but I’m glad you did instead. I’m not asexual so I’m not the one to speak on it, but my best friend is, and her mom said the same as the writer about it when she tried to come out (That she isn’t old enough to feel these things yet, etc)

  • Ella Gardner

    (From the oldest daughter – I wasn’t stalking you, I swear. I searched up your instagram and noticed this as the fifth result)
    This story is pretty accurate, but I have to say that you missed the punchline of my coming out story. All of this happened in the car. Afterwards there were a couple minutes of silence until we entered the neighborhood, at which point my mother said something along the lines of, “We’re going to have to talk about sleepovers you know.”
    To which I responded, “Okay, but like, at least I’m not going to get pregnant???”

    Following this comment I recieved a short talk about teen sex and stuff, which I quickly relayed to my friends to make fun of (sorry mom).

    Really though, talking to my friends I am constantly reminded of how thankful I am that I was able to come out like this. Most of them when (if) they come out to their family are going to have so much more of a tough time with their family. I can’t express how greatful I am that I am able to have the “We love you no matter what” speeches, even if I act annoyed sometimes.

    My mother has been nothing but supportive with my and my friends’ situations, and I can’t thank her enough (although I literally never do that irl, because even with the support, I still worry about bringing it up sometimes)