What is Gender, Really?

Gender or Sex?

Let’s take moment to differentiate between two important constructs: sex and gender. Sex, as we understand it today, is a label assigned at birth based on your sex chromosomes and/or genetalia. Gender, on the other hand, is a construct developed by a society over time to help us understand how a person “should” behave, think, or feel.

On an individual level, this may help define a gender identity (how someone attaches to a gender) and gender expression (how they show it). For the majority of people, sex assigned at birth and gender identity are in sync, or never even questioned. These people are usually referred to as “cisgender.”

For some, though, these don’t quite line up. Perhaps someone identifies as transgender, as they feel more attuned to masculine traits or expressions despite being assigned as female at birth. Or maybe they feel that gender is not an accurate way of describing their experience at all, and may consider themself to be agender.

As more and more people speak out about their experiences, we have learned that gender is often fluid and complex.

As we grow in this understanding, we have developed terms to help us understand gender nonconforming youth, such as gender fluid or gender-expansive, that allow us to affirm children who do not meet a “traditional” expectation of gender development. 

Learning Gender 

We learn a lot from our parents. In early childhood, in fact, we learn almost everything from observing and imitating behavior. As your kids grew up, you’ve certainly noticed this process.

After just a couple of months, your child starts to watch and listen. They take in the world, and you are their world! Your child learns their first sounds and later words by imitating what they’ve heard from you. Soon they can hold objects and interact with them in the same way you do. They reproduce your common behaviors in their play. As they age, this is done with more attention and motivation.

This happens in intentional ways (teaching them how to eat with a fork, swing a baseball bat, ride a bike) and even unintentionally (maybe the little tyke gleefully tells your boss you think he’s obnoxious). Often without even knowing it, you are using these same processes to teach your child about gender.

Enter the glorious “gender reveal” party. Gather round, friends and family, and witness an explosion of blue or pink powder. Whatever you see is what the kid shall be! Or, so you think. You may have been raised in the same way many other Millennials or Gen X’ers have. Dad told you to “be a man” or “rub some dirt on it.” Mom encouraged you to play with the trucks and balls, and leave the dolls to your sister.

What you learned were gender norms, or social principles that guide the behavior of boys and girls that someone, sometime, deemed appropriate. These roles, and therefore gender as a whole, are socially determined. 

From Acceptance to Affirmation

What does all of this mean for you as a parent? One thing that we do know is that gender affirming behavior as a parent can and will greatly improve your child’s mental health and well-being.

Recent data have demonstrated that at least 1 in 3 trans teens have either contemplated or attempted suicide in the last year. Family and social support has been shown to be a major protective factor in these studies, meaning that the rate of depression and suicidality is dramatically decreased when one or both parents affirm their child’s trans identity.  

But affirmation is not the same as acceptance. Let’s use an example. 

Sam, a 14 year old kid, recently came out to their father as nonbinary. Sam’s father is a practicing Christian, and told Sam that even though he may not understand it, he will continue to pray for them at church and love them anyway. 

Sam’s father has communicated to Sam that he cares for them as his child. He made sure Sam knows that he will always love them, and that he is not going to reject Sam simply on the basis of his faith. Sam’s father has accepted them. Now, how could he affirm his child’s gender identity? 

From Affirmation to Advocacy

Sam’s father could talk to his therapist, or approach a therapist who works with trans youth and ask for resources to better understand his child’s experience. He could work with his therapist to process his child’s transition.

He could pour through the wealth of articles online about the trans experience and maybe join a local PFLAG chapter.

He could then start advocating for his son, in accordance to Sam’s requests, by reaching out to Sam’s guidance counselor and teachers to ensure they are using Sam’s preferred name and pronouns.

He could also help ensure that Sam’s grandparents use Sam’s new name (not the ‘dead name’ or the one assigned at birth) or correct them when they misgender (use the wrong pronouns) them.

Most importantly, he could take regular time with Sam to consistently discuss their experience and allow them to process their feelings while consistently reminding Sam that he loves and supports them unconditionally. 

Acceptance is only the first step. It may help prevent immediate or even some long-term negative impacts on physical and mental health. But to promote positive growth, parents need to affirm their children. There’s a major difference between allowing your child to play baseball and showing up to all of their games. It is the same with your child’s identity. You need to show up. 

What Comes Next?

A common fear amongst parents of transgender and gender non-conforming children is the transition itself. The word transgender may elicit thoughts of irreversible bodily change via surgery.

But while that may be the end goal for some folks, it is by no means the only way to transition. The transition process often happens in phases. These phases are not always linear, meaning that they do not necessarily happen in order and are not always permanent. Nor do they happen to “completion.” Many trans individuals feel comfortable stopping well before any gender affirming surgery. 

Your process of understanding your child’s identity may admittedly take some time.

I often see parents of trans youth in my clinical practice go through something akin to a grieving process. They experience their child’s coming out as a loss. You may experience grief in relation to your own hopes and dreams for your child’s future in the gender you had assumed for them. That grief is understandable, but keep in mind that you are also welcoming a more whole and authentic version of your child into the world.

You can revel in the opportunity to know who your child truly is, and join them in their hope for who they may grow up to become! 

In the end, what your child needs from you is your ongoing love and support. It may take some time before you get it exactly right, but be sure to show your child that you are making an effort to understand their experience.

Once they feel supported, your child will be better equipped to handle the often challenging but rewarding process of understanding their identity. 



Relevant Research:


About the Author

Dr. Ryan Shea is a licensed clinical psychologist associate in Maryland. He uses an integrated approach to treatment including elements of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Psychodynamic approaches to provide individualized evidence-based treatment to adolescents and adults. Dr. Shea specializes in the treatment of the LGBTQ+ population, and works with clients of all genders and sexual orientations.

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