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The author with her child at 18, having just come out as transgender

The author with her child at 18, having just come out as transgender

If you are a parent, teacher, coach, or other caregiver working with youth, you have probably provided care, even if you didn’t know it at the time, for at least one young person who identifies as transgender or gender diverse. ‘Gender diverse’ is an umbrella term for the broad spectrum of words communicating that a person’s identification, presentation, or perception of gender differs from the sex assigned to them at birth and from surrounding gender norms.

I am the parent of a young adult who first identified openly as transgender at 18 years old. However, my child self-identified as transgender a few years before sharing this with close friends and family. This means that, for a few years, I had a loving, engaged, and deeply connected experience parenting a person I did not know identified as transgender.

I am also the Kidpower California Program Director and have been teaching social safety skills for people of all ages, abilities, and life situations with Kidpower since 1994 – longer than I’ve been a parent.

Learning more about my own child’s experience of gender led me to look more closely at the vulnerability of transgender and gender diverse (TGD) people overall to bullying, harassment, and abuse. Unfortunately, transgender youth and adults experience bullying, cyberbullying, sexual abuse, physical violence, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts at significantly higher rates than people who are cisgender – that is, people whose gender identity is more aligned with the gender commonly associated with their biological sex. Ever-growing research shows that people who are gender diverse – even if they don’t identify as transgender – experience higher rates of these harms, too.

My years with Kidpower meant I looked at the vulnerability of TGD people to harm through a Kidpower lens. From that perspective, I’m sharing a few lessons from my personal journey. It’s a never-ending learning experience that continues to introduce me to people, information, and concepts that help to uncover my own biases and misconceptions and improve my effectiveness as a safety instructor for people of all ages and identities. It’s also helped me feel more prepared to support emotional and physical safety in many ways in my personal and professional lives.

My individual experience is just my own – everyone’s experience is different, including the experiences of other Kidpower community members with TGD loved ones. I am sharing my own here simply because, if it inspires others to learn more about gender diversity and apply their learning in their own personal and professional lives – especially with youth – then countless TGD people could be safer from bullying, harassment, identity-based attack, abuse, and other violence.

Learning about Differences in the Experience of Gender

Although we all have a lot more to learn, public awareness about gender diversity has increased enough that many mainstream youth organizations including 4-H, Campfire, and the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts as well as sports organizations such as USA Gymnastics and USA Swimming now include protections for their transgender members as part of their stated inclusiveness values and anti-bullying practices.

Gender identity – such as identifying as male or female – is separate from biological sex. You probably have a strong sense of your own gender. For most people, including me, our gender ‘matches’ what others see as our biological sex – a cisgender experience. And, people probably assume we are the gender we actually experience ourselves to be just by looking at us.

For so many of us who have this matching, cisgender experience, life has not given us a reason to consider whether our gender identity and physical characteristics are actually two separate things. For our TGD loved ones, neighbors, colleagues, and peers, gender identity and biology do not ‘match’ in the same way.

Life gives them reason to think about this daily, and the experience can be difficult.

Just like cisgender people, each TGD person has a profound sense of their own gender. When others make an assumption about their gender based on observation of something – such as appearance, or voice, or movement –the assumption is more likely to be inaccurate.

In the eyes of others, a TGD person’s gender identity and their physical characteristics often don’t ‘match’. Some TGD people may choose to make some changes in how they present themselves to communicate or reflect their identity. Decisions about whether and how to make such changes are deeply personal, involving countless factors ranging from access to health care to personal finances to job and housing security to physical and emotional safety to a sense of belonging and personal integrity – and far beyond.

Draw on Your Empathy to Deepen Your Understanding

“I can’t imagine what that feels like!” many dear friends said to me when they learned that my child is transgender.

This feeling is common, and even from a place of love and a commitment to acceptance, it’s often voiced with some mix of discomfort, confusion, and a caring desire to understand. To be honest, I had this thought myself – even while totally loving and accepting my child and being grateful for the courage and commitment to authenticity I saw in my child’s process of coming out as transgender.

An empathy exercise helped me realize that actually, with not much effort, I can imagine what it might feel like to be transgender, even if it is an experience I do not know.

Imagine that everyone you ever meet, starting now, will assume you are a gender that you do not feel unless you tell them otherwise. Then, when you tell them, they express confusion, discomfort, disbelief, or say that you are wrong – rather than simply saying, “Thank you for telling me!”

This reality will confront you in every interaction. With each new person, you’ll need to decide whether to say anything about gender. You’ll weigh your safety, potential risks, and the nature of your relationship.

If you choose to speak up about your gender identity, you’ll learn to be prepared for deeply personal questions. You’ll need to assess whether to answer, to set boundaries, or to deflect. You’ll need to be ready to be told you are wrong. Or weird. Or worse.

If you choose to express your gender identity with visible markers, such as clothing, that reflect a difference between the physical sex you appear to be and the gender that others expect you to have based on that perceived physical sex, then you run the risk of being a target of harassment, discrimination, or violence.

Navigating these interactions with family, colleagues, strangers, and peers requires a significant investment of mental and emotional resources that many TGD people invest in everyday interactions to feel safe; to feel seen; and to find a balance between the two in order to protect themselves physically and emotionally.

Think about how this constant work might affect you, as an adult. Think about how it might affect kids and the intellectual resources they bring to learning academics, social skills, leadership, sports – anything.

Imagining these experiences might extend your insight into why TGD people can end up feeling distressed, depressed, or anxious. Anyone in that situation might, especially if they are regularly experiencing judgment, threat, or rejection rather than kindness, respect, and acceptance. This deeper insight might help you identify adjustments you can make in your leadership that can promote safety, respect, and inclusion.

Learn About Standards of Health Care for Transgender People

People have diverse opinions, perspectives, and boundaries. At the same time, when adults in positions of power make decisions affecting others that are rooted in assumptions or misinformation, we can create significant safety problems for others. By taking time to learn more, you can reduce this risk in places where you, personally, have the power to make decisions affecting the well-being of others.

For decades, health and education experts have been working in partnership with transgender people to deepen and share knowledge, experiences, resources, and best practices among professionals and others in order to improve the health and well-being of transgender people. These efforts continue, but excellent resources based on these years of work are already easily accessible to all of us through reliable resources such as the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH).

WPATH publishes a Standards of Care book available in 14 different languages free as a download and for purchase in paper form. Created primarily for service providers, Standards of Care is an outstanding resource for anyone – including parents, educators, and caregivers – committed to fairness and inclusive support of the health, well-being, physical and emotional safety, and dignity of each person in their class, school, agency, family, team, or group.

Remember: Kids Are Not Responsible for Teaching Us

Many who spend time with kids have the profound experience of learning from them. This is a natural part of healthy human interaction. This is not the same as expecting young people to teach us something that we should be responsible for learning ourselves.

Young people whose gender, race, ethnicity, religion, ability, sexual orientation, or other identity are different from our own are not responsible for teaching us or anyone else about those experiences, though others may end up learning from what they choose to share on their own terms.

Expecting young people to educate us about their experience of identity is inappropriate. To promote a culture of safety and respect, think first before asking any person, ever, about personal topics such as medication; hormones; surgery; sexual behavior; mental illness; or body parts, including their private parts.

‘Thinking first’ includes considering the nature of your relationship and assessing whether a topic must be discussed in order to address a health and safety issue that is your responsibility. For example, a transgender person who is a minor may need to address private topics about their physical health with a trusted parent or guardian responsible for authorizing health care decisions. However, questions from others at family gatherings, sports practice, and school are commonly asked out of curiosity, even interest or caring – not for reasons of responsibility for health and safety. These questions are almost always experienced as intrusive.

While this may seem obvious to you, TGD people commonly hear these intrusive questions – and more. Good intentions do not justify questioning behavior that most of us would consider disrespectful and a violation of our personal boundaries. To get answers to your questions, turn to reliable resources such as WPATH and others listed at the end of this article.

Make Safety Plans

As adults in charge within a home, team, or class, we can set boundaries about the behavior of people of all ages within our place. When we are not in charge, such as at a neighborhood gathering or a family reunion, we can make safety plans together with our TGD friends and family about how to deal with possible problems.

A safety plan will be different everywhere you go, from a party to a restaurant to a family reunion. The plans will also change as young people grow and build social safety skills including awareness, boundary setting, advocacy, emotional regulation, effective help-seeking, and physical self-defense.

Safety plans can include agreements about many things such as how we will and will not talk about each other; what information, including identity information, we choose to keep private in this context; how and where we can get help; what counts as discomfort that we plan to manage confidently and respectfully versus what counts as risk, danger, or a significant enough violation of boundaries that we will choose to leave together in a way that is safe.

In addition, we can each commit to taking responsibility for being kind and respectful with each person, no matter what we believe their identity to be, to support safety for everyone, everywhere we go.

Teach and Lead by Example

As an adult in charge, your behavior affects the climate in your family or group. It tells others what is and is not okay with you. Consider how you can use this power to foster a positive, inclusive climate in places where you are responsible for safety.

For example, while leading a group discussion, you can avoid putting someone on the spot to speak in a personal way about their identity as the whole class or group is listening unless you are absolutely certain you have advance permission to do so. Being put on the spot in this way can create social safety risks and is commonly experienced as stressful and offensive, not supportive. It’s likely to increase anxiety not just for the one you put on the spot but also for others who might worry about getting put on the spot next time. This can affect young people’s feeling of trust and connection with you, the adult in charge.

However, if someone in your group chooses on their own to share openly with the group in a personal way about their identity, express clear, honest appreciation for their sharing. Recognize the courage and the willingness to be vulnerable that are required in order to share in this way. Others will learn from your example.

Model using positive communication techniques that value diversity of opinion while upholding boundaries about kindness and respect. Having these skills can support safety for all while also strengthening skills for academic success and civic participation. Taking this approach can reduce the risk of participants feeling shamed, ridiculed, attacked, or aggressively challenged to justify or defend their personal experiences – and also protect someone who feels uncomfortable, startled, or confused from being attacked or shamed about having had a different life experience.

Set and uphold boundaries around how discussion happens in your own class, home, team, or group to communicate value for each person affected by your leadership. As the leader, any action on your part that communicates, encourages, or validates shaming, labeling, or judging can make participation in your group feel less safe, supportive, and inclusive for each person within it.

When you are in a leadership role and so are responsible for the safety of others, if you overhear others asking questions or making comments that are intrusive and violate the boundaries of respect that you expect people to honor while under your supervision, take charge of safety right away by stepping in, speaking up, and redirecting.

If young people are asking questions that are outside your boundaries but that grow from what you believe is a true desire to learn, then in addition to addressing the behavior, figure out how you can support their learning in a way that is empowering, respectful, and consistent with boundaries. Gender Spectrum offers excellent resources for educators. By taking charge calmly and with respectful kindness extended to everyone involved, you can foster an inclusive climate of safety and respect for everyone.

Set and Uphold Clear Boundaries

When a teacher, parent, or another adult in a leadership role uses or allows language that labels, objectifies, devalues, teases, or shames another, that person can lose some status within the group, such as in the class or on the team, making them more vulnerable to bullying or ostracism.

We can support safety by thinking first before we speak and by setting and upholding boundaries so that words used in places where we are in charge are consistently kind and respectful, no matter what people’s personal opinions might be.

In addition to upholding clear boundaries about how we speak to and about each other, we can consider other boundaries that create an environment that helps each person affected by our leadership feel welcomed, included, seen, and respected.

As you take time to learn more about differences in gender experience, your new knowledge combined with your previous experience and with your own commitment to safety will lead to new ideas for ways you can make your space safer and more welcoming for everyone you serve.

You might spot problematic behaviors related to identity-based bullying that you had missed previously. Bullying behavior, which many kids face and which TGD youth face at a higher rate, is unsafe for all people in your care. Establishing clear boundaries about teasing, exclusion, name-calling, physical aggression, and relational aggression between young people will provide greater safety and security for all youth. Kidpower’s Bullying Solutions resources can help you reduce bullying of all kinds and promote positive peer interactions.

Establishing boundaries around use of names and pronouns can go a long way toward creating an inclusive environment. For example, you might state a boundary that we are going to use the names and pronouns people ask us to use in referring to them and to be respectful in doing so – and then uphold the boundary you have set.

Again, though we all have different opinions and perspectives that may lead to different boundaries in different places, the truth is that most people of any gender identity – including people who have never given thought to their gender – would likely say that being referred to with pronouns that match their identity help them feel seen, valued, and respected. Consider this carefully – and the social benefits to each member and to the group as a whole when people feel seen, valued, and respected – as you set and uphold boundaries.

Teachers – as well as coaches and other care providers – often find themselves in a difficult spot when a student asks for specific pronouns and the student’s parents or guardians tell the teacher to use different pronouns for the child. Being in this ‘in-between’ position can be difficult and isolating for the teacher and can put unnecessary stress on the teacher/student/family relationships that are so central to kids’ academic success and overall well-being.

By taking proactive steps to consider this problem thoroughly and respectfully and putting guidelines and rules in place at a school level, rather than ignoring the problem and leaving teachers to deal with it alone, administrators and other leaders can promote safety, respect, and clear boundaries while reducing this unintended impact on teacher/student/family relationships.

Remember that Mistakes Are Part of Learning

If you decide to make changes based on what you learn, remember that mistakes are part of learning. Plan and model respectful ways to deal with those mistakes. For example, if someone asks you to use different pronouns when referring to them, you can say, “Thank you for speaking up!”

During one Kidpower classroom program, students giggled and one piped up to our instructor, “You said she, and that’s a he,” which the student himself quickly verified. Rather than justifying, over-explaining, ignoring, or acting embarrassed or uncomfortable, our instructor simply said, calmly and confidently, “Thank you for telling me. I sometimes make gender mistakes! I apologize,” and immediately went on with the lesson – making sure to use masculine pronouns relating to that child.

Get Help to Acknowledge and Manage Your Own and Other’s Discomfort

At Kidpower, we teach people that holding back our feelings ends up holding back our power. That doesn’t mean it’s safe or appropriate to share our feelings with everyone, especially with kids. It does mean that we are less effective when we try to convince ourselves that we are feeling something other than we truly feel.

If the idea of any aspect of gender diversity or transgender identity makes you feel uncomfortable, this is normal and does not mean you are bad, mean, or uncaring. Many people say they feel uncomfortable when they are first learning about gender differences. Personally, I have had to address my own areas of discomfort. Talking with thoughtful friends, learning more by reading from trustworthy sources, listening to and deepening relationships with TGD people of many ages and backgrounds, and joining a local PFLAG group have all been extremely helpful for me.

Most leaders of young people take pride in their commitment to protect kids from harm and to show them kindness and respect consistently, even when they find kids difficult to understand or even to like. Differences in gender identity may be new to you – but differences between kids are probably not. If you are already invested in a culture of safety and respect in your space, it’s likely that making a few changes to support inclusion for people of all identities, including transgender identities, may be a lot easier than you ever imagined.

Here are some resources that can help:
Gender Spectrum
Gender Diversity
PFLAG National
Stand with Trans
The Gender Book (e-book version available at ‘pay what you can’ rates)
World Profession Association for Transgender Health (WPATH). Standards of Care document available as a PDF downloadable in 19 languages.

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Published: November 15, 2016   |   Last Updated: July 27, 2020

Erika Leonard manages our California center, trains and mentors instructors, and is a Kidpower Senior Program Leader.