Why Are So Many More Teens “Gender Fluid” Now?
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.
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.
Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.
Photo source: Stocksy.comPublished April 8, 2016. Last updated December 9, 2016.