What is Gender Identity All About?
It is difficult for many people to grasp the idea of Gender Identity and why anyone would want to change gender. We all know from experience and the media that people who are transgender, non gendered, or express their gender in an unconventional way often face a harsh world of bullying, intimidation, ridicule and humiliation.
So why would anyone choose change their gender?
And thats the problem – it’s not a choice. I didn’t get up one morning and think “You know, life’s not tough enough, I think I’ll wear a dress!” I lived with this for 50 years before I decided that I was not prepared to live a lie anymore. This gender issue was not going to go away and it had been a problem since I was about 7 years old.
I have found that the best way to help people understand Gender Identity is by watching and discussing the issues raised in the following video about a young trans child and her family.
It is the third of five short YouTube videos that make up an hour long documentary from ABC presented by Barbara Walters called My Secret Self and you can see the rest of the documentary on the Transgender Children page. It is in my view the best documentary on the topic ever produced and I use this video on all of my workshops to introduce people to the topic and raise a number of other gender issues. You will certainly find that watching this video will help you to better understand the content on the site.
It is only about 10 minutes – and while you watch try to put yourself into the shoes of Stephanie and Neil, the parents, and consider how you would have coped in their shoes.
What struck you most about this video?
I have shown this video to thousands of people at hundreds of seminars and workshops over the past 5 years and then engaged the audience in a half hour discussion about the issues. Generally the same issues tend to surface in the discussion.
What struck you most – what issues surprised you? I have seen this video literally hundreds of times and still I see new issues I had not seen before – but here are some of the most common responses.
Riley’s Age – People find it hard to believe that someone so young would have such a clear sense of their gender identity.
This is the most frequent comment and is at the root of many of the problems in supporting gender variant children and young people. As I mentioned earlier I was just seven years old when I realised that I had a gender identity issue. I didn’t understand what it was, I could label it, I just felt I should not have been a boy, and I wished I had been born a girl.
But I also knew I couldn’t speak to anyone about this. Unlike Riley, most gender variant children grow up terrified that anyone will find out because we have all seen what happens to those who do tell. Most trans people are aware of their gender identity issue before they reach puberty. In fact most of us become aware of the problem when we start mixing with other children and find that we just don’t fit in.
Most children grow up comfortable with their gender identity – they don’t question it because it seems natural. Their body matches the way they feel about themselves and so they are not aware of the social pressure to conform to being a boy or being a girl. Most boys feel comfortable in boys clothes and exhibiting stereotypically boy behaviour because that’s what most other boys and men they encounter do. So we assume that this is natural and normal.
But what if our gender identity, our sense of being a boy or being a girl, doesn’t match our physical body? From a very early age we will start to feel increasingly uncomfortable. For some this is a mild discomfort, for others it is so traumatic they would rather die than continue to live in the wrong body.
This condition is listed as a mental health condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Society. For many years it was called Gender Identity Disorder and you will have heard Stephanie refer to this in the video. Since May 2013 however, with the release of DSM 5, it is no longer considered a disorder and is now called Gender Dysphoria.
Unfortunately many trans people have grown up believing that they had a “mental health problem” which many interpret as being mentally ill. In the not so distant past the condition would have been treated with drugs and electic shock treatment to correct the disorder – with devastating consequences. Hardly surprising that nearly 40% of trans people attempt suicide – compared to a national average of about 3%.
Many people pick up on the difficulties faced by Stephanie and Neil.
If you have children think for a moment how you would have coped if you heard the kind of comments this couple heard. If your child was insistent that “god had made a mistake”, if they wanted to wear the clothes of the other gender. What would you do if you found a little boy wearing make up or dressing in his sisters clothes, or you little girl refused to wear pretty clothes and just wanted to go out and play football with the boys?
How would you respond to negative comments from family, schools, neighbours? What would you do if your child wanted to go to school dressed as the other gender? The social pressure is often on the parents and family not the children and as a result many parents encourage or even insist that a child to conforms to gender stereotypes to avoid embarrassment, social pressure or simply through fear of violent consequences. Unfortunately this often leaves a child with with nowhere to go for help and support.
Social Pressure to conform to Gender Stereotypes
Did you hear the comment from the paediatrician, Riley’s doctor? “I don’t know what to say. I guess you need to teach him to be a boy.”
How do you teach a child to be a boy? Well it seems that you encourage the child to play with boy toys and do boy things. That is gender stereotyping and in my view it is wrong. Gender stereotyping is at the heart of all gender based discrimination and bias and we have been trying since the 60’s and before to stop that. It is this gender stereotyping that has resulted in women being shut out from opportunities to get higher paid jobs, from ending up doing all the caring and low paid jobs.
It’s one of the main reasons why women do most child care, housework, cooking and cleaning etc. Why should a girl not play foootball, or play with cars? Why should a boy not learn to cook and care for children?
Gender stereotyping has nothing to do with gender identity. Gender identity is our sense of self. It’s hard wired into the brain during foetal development and it cannot be changed. The overwhelming desire to wear clothes of the opposite gender is brought about by our need to identify with other people of the same gender.
If I feel inside that I should be female, then I will want to identify with other people who have a female gender identity – my problem was that my sex, the physical characteristics of my body does not did not match my gender identity.