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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

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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[…] parenting. Me trying to help a reader grappling with sensitive teenage identity issues: Hopefully better parenting, but I guess only time will tell. And I feel like balancing some compassion and understanding with […]

Mandy
Guest
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
Guest
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.

hokgardner
Guest
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… Read more »

Anon
Guest
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… Read more »

Dan
Guest
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… Read more »

Wondering Mom
Guest
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… Read more »

Brigitte
Guest
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
Guest
hokgardner

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

Sciencerules
Guest
Sciencerules
Caroline
Guest
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),… Read more »

Wendy
Guest
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… Read more »

Kristen
Guest
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… Read more »

RACHEL
Guest
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… Read more »

lava_roc
Guest
lava_roc

First of all, I am older than dirt! When I was just 7 years old I had an identity issue. Most days I was a male and some days I’d wake up and I was a female. When I was a teen I had girlfriends and I was afraid of boys. I’d hang with them but when I got up in the morning, if I was a female, I was afraid and avoided them. I went into the Army, got married and spent 22 years. I had a constant internal fight to keep myself male. I am still married and… Read more »

Ryan
Guest
Ryan

I know for me personally that it didn’t take until I was a teen to realize I was different from a young age I noticed I wanted to do things that weren’t considered normal for a boy to want like to paint my nails dye my hair wear make up and so on. I would constantly ask why it wasn’t okay for me to do these things. Always thought why does it matter if it isn’t hurting anyone but as I got a little older I realized there was some days when I would be super masculine and other days… Read more »

Jennifer DeHart
Guest
Jennifer DeHart

I grew up just thinking I was a “Tomboy” really wasn’t into girly things and I didn’t see it as a problem since I embraced the tomboy label and went on my way. Honestly I agree with the strategy of just loving your kids when they tell you things that would have been considered weird in our day. From my daughter insisting she is bisexual, to saying she’ll never have kids and wants her tubes tied, to my son’s friend’s sister who used to be his brother, just accept them don’t belittle their decisions or push them away because it’s… Read more »

Noelle St. Germain-Sehr
Guest
Noelle St. Germain-Sehr

Thank you for addressing this issue. Many parents struggle with limited knowledge and experience being raised in a binary system of gender and sexuality and we need to provide acceptance, support, and love for whoever our kids are. Regarding the term “sexual preference,” the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th Edition) states, “The term sexual orientation should be used rather than sexual preference. For a person having a bisexual orientation, the orientation is not chosen even though the sex of the partner may be a choice” (p. 74). Sexual preference connotes choice and refers to preferred sexual behavior.… Read more »