Defining gender has been a newsworthy – and polarizing – topic lately.
Transgender children are battling to use the school bathroom that matches their identity. A documentary called Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric was shown on the National Geographic Channel in February. The National Geographic cover article in January discussed gender with 9-year-olds around the world. A generation of youth laying claim to their sense of gender identity has been central in the debate.
The cover photo for the article shows Avery Jackson, 9, a Kansas City resident who was identified as a boy for the first four years of her life. She has been living since 2012 as an openly transgender girl.
Avery testified in February before the Missouri Senate against a bill that would require students in public schools to use bathrooms, locker rooms and shower facilities that align with their biologically assigned sex. Afterward, she told the Kansas City Star: “I’m just a kid. I’m an Avery, but there’s many Averys.”
Gavin Grimm, 17, a high school senior in Virginia, is preparing to go before the Supreme Court on March 28 in his legal battle to be allowed to use the boys’ restroom at school. A Washington Post article says: “Grimm, once painfully shy, has become the unlikely standard-bearer for transgender student rights. ‘At this point, that’s the role I occupy and I want to make sure I’m using that platform for positive,’ Grimm said.”
The ACLU, which filed the lawsuit on his behalf, posted a video on its website in which Grimm said, “I realize now this is a lot bigger than myself. And the greater goal now is to try to make things better for the people that come after me.”
Recently, a young man who is embracing his male identity after years of struggling as a girl gave me an up-close and personal view of this difficult journey of transformation. He told me that he had felt different since he was about 6 years old and had always felt like an outcast, saying “something was off at the end of the day.”
He explained that he dealt with his body by mostly ignoring it and hiding it with baggy clothing. He bought his first binder at age 15. He describes himself as depressed and isolated. He identified as gay but knew that was not quite the whole story. After a breakup with a girlfriend, he began thinking of himself as transgender.
By the spring of his junior year in high school, he was feeling suicidal. He did not want to be here. He did not want to feel the pain, to hurt, to possibly fail at what seemed like a change that would be too hard.
He was referred to counseling and, with the support of his parents, therapist and new girlfriend, he has come out as a transgender male. He is in the process of legally changing his name and has registered for college using his chosen male name.
He said that he is in the process of letting go of his female identity and happily embracing his male identity. His parents, particularly his mother, struggled with losing a daughter. The young man has always wanted to please his parents, but knows he must choose his true self. As he transitions, he feels like he is accepting himself more of the time.
In five years, he said, he would like to be on his own, finished with school and started in a career. He hopes to have a girlfriend and to be taking hormones and having top surgery. He says, “I am happy I’m doing it.”
Transgender pioneers from previous generations have laid a foundation for these young people to acknowledge their sense of self sooner in life and, hopefully, with more support. In the Gender Revolution documentary, a 4-year-old told his parents, “I am a girl in my heart and in my brain.” Pre-teens are taking hormone blockers with the guidance of medical professionals and the support of their parents.
Science is acknowledging that differences in the brain, genes and hormones play a significant role in our experience of gender identity. Genitals are only one part, and often not the defining one, in determining our true gender identity.
Even with these advances, though, statistics for members of the transgender community tell a difficult story: Forty percent of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt in a 2016 study cited by the Trevor Project, which works to prevent LGBT suicides. (Its hotline is at 866-488-7386.) Ninety-two percent of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before age 25.
We have a long way to go to provide a supportive environment for transgender children, youth and adults. Legal rights are imperative. Support from community members, family members and friends are essential. It is important for each of us to inform ourselves and to be active socially, politically and personally. We need to support the courageous youth who are leading the way.
Jude LaClaire, Ph.D., LCPC, is a counselor, author and educator working with diverse people of all ages at the Kansas City Holistic Centre (www.kcholistic.com) in Mission, Kansas. She enjoys working with individuals, couples and families. She is a contributing member of the LGBT Affirming Therapists Guild-KC.