Gender Identity: Why It's More Important Than Ever to Educate Yourself and Your Family

Advice on how to discuss awareness and understanding of the world's wide range of gender variations

Small child in the grass wearing rainbow sleeves

If the election of Donald Trump has taught us anything, it’s that we need better education. That’s not just in the classroom but at home, too. When it comes to issues like LGBTQ rights and expanding preconceived notions of gender identity, I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know as much as I should. That’s why I spoke with Seattle resident Aidan Key. Aidan’s life’s work is to discuss gender identity. He often works with people who believe gender is fixed based solely on the body they were born with. 

As founder of Gender Diversity Education and Support Services and the annual conference Gender Odyssey Family, Key works with parents, teachers, schools and other organizations to reduce discrimination based on gender identity. He aims to educate the community on issues relevant to the transgender community and improve the well-being for people of all gender identities and expressions. 

Key and I talked by phone about what parents needs to know when they discuss gender identity with their children.

The other day my family was driving and my husband and I wondered aloud if a pedestrian we saw was a boy or a girl, but I thought later: Is this an OK way to discuss gender with my kids?

Just the fact that you were aware enough to wonder this and say it is fantastic. Asking yourself ‘Why do I really need to know what gender someone is?’ is a great way to question your assumptions. My work is really talking with the 99.9 percent who do believe gender is fixed based solely on biological sex. That included myself as I was growing up.

We all have fears about letting go of a truth we have previously believed in. It feels destabilizing to let go of gender norms. But people are often are willing to let go of their biases when they think about young transgender kids because we recognize the honesty and innocence they come to with this subject.

With our kids, how do we discuss that gender isn’t rigid or fixed? I think in some ways it’s like making sure my tween’s classmates know she has dyslexia: that her needing extra help isn’t a reason to tease her or think she’s not smart.

Frankly, those ways you have addressed your daughter’s issues in school are parallel to what’s needed for transgender kids. It starts by simply saying, ‘You know what? At our school, we don’t make fun of kids.’ Conversations about gender identity start with talking about ways we are all the same and ways we are all different, and then we look at how can we know who someone is simply by looking at them. Often we don’t know things about someone until they tell us. All kids like to have these conversations because nobody likes to be teased and nobody feels good about it. 

I’m the first person to admit I don’t know the first thing about gender fluidity. What do I need to know?

There are four different components that come to mind when we think of the word gender, and I teach these components to kids, parents, teachers and educators when I do trainings. The first one is about our biological sex: Do we have a vagina or penis? How do you really know anyone’s gender? Some people say all you have to do is to look between our legs. That’s actually our collective societal agreement as to how to determine a person’s gender.

But there’s a lot of variation when it comes to biological sex. Chromosome-wise, we have xx and xy, but we also have several other major categories that indicate an intersex condition. These intersex conditions make gender less clear cut. Some intersex conditions are not visible immediately and some people don’t know they have them until they hit puberty or try to conceive and some people never know about them. There are at least 30 different intersex differences, and that means approximately 1 in 300 people have an intersex condition. [Editor's note: The statistics vary on this developing science but additional details are available from the Intersex Society of North America, among other organizations.]

What’s the second component?

The second idea is about our immediate assumptions, what we’re doing with our eyes and our ears when we meet somebody. We make an almost instant decision. How long is their hair? What kind of clothing are they wearing? Body shape? Jewelry? If they are gender ambiguous, we look closer. How does their voice sound? Is there a bra strap? We have a really immediate need to get that determination: Is that a boy or a girl? That shapes our perception of them and it shapes our engagement with them. That is referred to as gender expression

We can’t really rely on gender expression either. If you met me in person, you’re not going to know I was born female. [Key identifies as a transgender man.] But if you hear my voice on the phone, 50 percent of the time people think I’m female. The way that children make distinctions about gender has to do with what they perceive. When children as asked if someone is a boy or a girl, they are going to gender expression and they are saying they have long hair or the type of clothes they are wearing or the activities they participate it. 

Which leads us to the third component…

Gender identity, very simply defined, is a person’s innate sense of their own gender. Gender identity is a term that has been around for a long time yet the majority of us have never pondered this. Most people would say I’m a man or I’m a woman and, for the vast majority, that will correspond with their biological sex. The key to understanding transgender people is to recognize that their internal sense of their own gender does not fully align with their bodies. Who they are is not in congruence with their physical characteristics. 

I tell the people I teach that we can’t really know someone’s gender until they tell us. I absolutely believe everyone can grasp this. How many other ways have we made wrong assumptions about someone because of our very first instantaneous assessment? We can avoid these inaccurate generalizations by simply stepping away from our assumptions and allowing space and time to get to know who someone really is. There are many things that are absolutely integral to a person’s identity that simply aren’t visible by looking at them.

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What’s the fourth component?

Sexual orientation. In my trainings, I often say, ‘Please pick up this concept [of sexual orientation] and throw it out the window.’ We need to examine gender, and our assumptions with respect to those first three components, to be able to wrap our minds around what being transgender truly means. 

Any person is navigating gender in daily life long before sexuality comes into the equation. We incorrectly assume gender identity is about sexuality, but it’s not about being gay or straight. A transgender first grader is not revealing a sexual orientation [but] simply trying to state who he or she really is. Gender identity seems complex but, in my experience, children can understand gender differences and take them at face value. 

Some transgender teens say, ‘I’m dispensing with just male or just female.’ They feel it is too simplistic. They’re creating new language. They are readily embracing gender fluidity. Adults are less able to do this because we get stuck in the mis-categorization of gender being equated with sexuality.  When we examine this through the lens of children, we get to remember what gender was all about when we were young. It’s about toys, colors, games, clothes, hair and who are friends are. When we remember what we once knew ourselves as children, then it becomes significantly less scary and distressing. 

What does a parent do if they think their child is struggling with gender identity?

People often say we’ll ‘just wait and see’ and not bring up the idea of gender identity with a kid who seems to be struggling with gender. What should actually be done is the opposite of what you feel your gut is telling. Your gut feeling is fear. Parents may certainly be afraid that their child is transgender. They want a happy, healthy child and a gender identity difference may feel like a path that will eliminate happiness and only provide hardship. The reality is that not supporting a child in his or her gender exploration can be significantly more harmful.

I encourage parents to step into the exploration even more. You explore the idea of gender identity aloud with your child. You share a story of a transgender kid on YouTube. You come to one of our play groups [at Gender Diversity] and show them more possibility, not less. Support for exploration is not a one-way path. If a child’s gender exploration is a phase, then that will become evident. In the meantime, your child has simply had support, love and acceptance at every stage of their journey.

One thing that is needed more than anything is support for parents. Parents are always the ones tasked with making the world safe for their children. That is a harder task for the parents of a transgender or gender diverse child. How do they create safe, supportive environments at home, school, the playground? Parents can deeply benefit from support and guidance from others navigating similar paths. I think we can all agree, we don’t want society to crush the spirit of any child.

Sometimes people will say, ‘Aidan, are you just trying to say we need a genderless society?’ No, I just want society to recognize that gender identity is a much fuller spectrum that we originally thought.

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