Hello, my name is Alice. My pronouns are She/Her. I identity as a woman, and my gender expression is considered feminine. Because of this, I could be described as ‘Cisgender’ as my gender identity aligns with my birth sex (Female). When I meet people for the first time, I often simply introduce myself as ‘Alice’. During the past twenty four years that I have been on this planet, I have never once had to clarify or highlight my gender identity or the pronouns that I wish to use.
This privilege is sometimes referred to as ‘cisgender privilege’ and refers to never having one’s natural sex identity questioned by society. As you may have gathered from this introduction, this week’s blog post is all about Gender identity. Gender Identity is a topic of discussion that for many raises lots of questions and often is misunderstood. This post hopes to provide clarity in understanding and guidance on how to support a young person who may be struggling with their gender identity.
What is Gender Identity? Gender Identity refers to how an individual understands and experiences their own gender. Gender involves a person’s psychological sense of being male, female, both or neither.
How does Gender Identity differ from sex? A common misunderstanding of gender identity relates to how gender identity is different from biological sex, assigned gender at birth, gender expression and sexuality. Biological sex refers to an individual’s sex at birth, typically whether they are male or female. Our sex is determined by our chromosomes and reproductive organs. Gender however does not have any relationship to our biological makeup. Gender is how we view ourselves.
A young person may identity as having a male or female gender. Other gender identities include non-binary, gender fluid or gender queer highlighting that an individual doesn’t identify as either male or female and instead identifies as either both or neither. The term ‘transgender’ highlights that an individual feels their gender is different from the gender they were assigned at birth. A difference in assigned gender/sex and gender identity can lead to experiences of discomfort and distress. This experience is referred to as ‘gender dysphoria’.
What is the difference between gender and sexuality? Another common misunderstanding in relation to gender identity relates to the relationships between gender identity and sexuality. It is important to understand that an individuals gender identity is completely independent of their sexuality. Whether a young person identities as female, male, non-binary or gender fluid, does not relate to their sexual preferences. It can sometimes be helpful to think of gender identity and sexual orientation as two distinct spectrums.
Sexual orientation refers to whether an individual identities as gay/lesbian, straight/heterosexual, or bisexual/pansexual to name but a few. Within society it is often a misconception that an individual sexual orientation impacts their gender identity. However, this is not the case. A individual gender identity and sexual orientation are two distinct and separate characteristics.
What is the difference between gender identity and gender expression? Another important point of consideration when exploring the topic of gender is the difference between gender identity and gender expression. Gender identity refers to how an individual sees themselves. Gender expression on the other hand refers to the outward expression of gender. Common gender expressions are feminine, masculine, and androgynous. An individual may identify as one gender, but their outward expression may be completely different. It is important to allow a young person to experiment with their gender expression to gain a clearer understanding of who they are and how they wish to express themselves.
How does Gender develop? There have been many psychological explanations of gender presented over the years. One of the first psychologist to suggest an explanation of gender was presented by Freud’s psychodynamic explanations. Freud suggested that during the phallic stage of development (around the age of 5) children experience a crisis or complex. Freud suggested that successful resolution of this crisis would result in the acquisition of fender behaviour typical of an individual’s sex. Freud’s theory is now heavily criticised for being outdated and not truly reflective of the complexities and variations of gender identity.
Cognitive psychologists such as Kohlberg have also presented developmental theories of gender that suggest that gender socialisation occurs when children recognise that gender is constant and does not change (Gender constancy). Kohlberg’s explanations of gender have also experienced significant criticism and challenge. A point of note however from both these theory suggests is that gender develops and is not necessarily reflective of birth sex. Research has shown that infants do no prefer gendered toys (Bussey, 2014) but by the age of two children begin to show preferences for gendered toys (Bervin, Bhlin and Berlin, 1999). Research such as these does appear to highlight the impact of socialisation and societal expectations and beliefs on gender expression.
In more recent years, psychologists have looked to biological and neurological evidence when considering gender explanations. Evidence from brain scans has highlighted that transgender brains usually show greater resemblance with their gender identity than their sex (Bakker, 2018). For example, male brains typically tend to have a thinner subcortical area than female brains. Guillamon and Playa (2013) found that female to male transgender participants typically had thinner subcortical areas and thus their brain structures were more typical of a male brain. Whilst neurological evidence and explanations of gender are still developing and it is currently a very exciting time in relation to the potential advancement of knowledge and understand, the research evidence so far does conclude that often the structure of the brains of transgender individuals often more commonly associates with their gender identity than the gender they acquired at birth.
How can I support a young person who may be struggling with their gender identity
If a young person you know is struggling with understanding or expressing their gender identity, it is important to make sure they feel supported, loved and cared for. Here at bMindful Psychology we have put together our top five tips for support a young person struggling with their gender identity:
It is extremely important to provide a young person with an environment in which they feel they can talk through their experiences and discuss how they feel. If a young person shares with you any struggles they may be experiencing, it is important to remain free from judgement. Listening, can validate experience and the act of disclosing an area of difficulty can also decrease the intensity of an experience due to a young person feeling that they are not experiencing these struggles on their own.
Allow a young person autonomy over themselves. Encourage expression and exploration at their own pace. As a support figure your role is to provide encouragement, acceptance and compassion, not to determine when and how a young person expresses themselves.
If a young person you know is experimenting or experiencing difficulties with their gender identity, take time to educate yourself on how they may be feeling. It may also be useful to educate yourself on terms associated with gender identity and their meanings. There are many very informative websites that you may use for this. Here at bMindful psychology we recommend: Mermaids (Homepage – Mermaids (mermaidsuk.org.uk)) and Young minds (Gender Identity & Mental Health | Guide For Parents | YoungMinds). Both of these websites have lots of detailed information and resources that can be helpful to both the young person and their parents, carers, and supporters.
Ask how they wish to be addressed – Pronouns
It is important to ask a young person how they wish to be addressed. Asking a young person what name they would like people to use can provide an individual with a sense of autonomy and control in a otherwise very confusing and potential difficult period. It is also important to ask what pronouns they wish use. A young person may wish to use feminine (she/her/hers), masculine (he/him/his), neutral (they, them, their) or neo (Ze, Zir/Zem, Zirs,Zes) or may choose to adopt other pronouns.
Be alert to potential struggles
Experiencing difficulties with gender can have a significant impact on an individual’s mental health. If you know a young person who is struggling with their gender identity or expression, try to remain alert to any difficulties or struggles they may be experiencing. If you recognise that a young person is struggling, reach out for wider support. This may be by talking to their school, wider family or by seeking medical or therapeutic support.
If you feel you or a young person you know needs further support in this area and would like to speak with a trained professional, the team at bMindful would be able to offer that support. Please contact 0161 510 0111 for more information.