Visibility of the transgender community is steadily increasing due in large part to high-profile transgender people such as Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and Janet Mock. These three women, by living openly, are helping to educate the public on what it means to be transgender, the experiences and challenges faced by trans people, and the work we all must do to create a world where no one is discriminated against because of their gender identity or expression.
These lessons are especially important for those of us caring for young people in out-of-home care or who have been adopted. Although research on transgender youth is limited, the information we do have consistently shows that transgender youth are over-represented in systems of care. Many trans youth enter foster care or become homeless after facing rejection by their families and peers.
Like all youth in care, the responses trans youth get from adult caregivers have a huge impact on their well-being. It is especially crucial that we seek the knowledge necessary to ensure that we do not re-traumatize trans youth in our care. And beyond that, that we are able to welcome, support, and affirm them so they can build permanent connections and live to their full potential.
Key Terms and Concepts
When I facilitate LGBTQ competency trainings with child welfare professionals, we always start with an exercise related to terminology. Why? Because language matters. Being able to understand and properly use the language our clients use is key to building trust and creating an inclusive environment.
Let’s review some of the basics:
- Sexual orientation refers to a person’s inherent, enduring emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction to other people. Examples of sexual orientations include heterosexual/ straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and asexual.
- Gender identity refers to a person’s innate, deeply known identification as a man, woman, or some other gender. Examples of gender identities include male, female, genderqueer, genderfluid, and bigender.
- Gender expression refers to the external manifestation of a person’s gender identity, which may or may not conform to socially defined behaviors and characteristics typically associated with being either masculine or feminine. Examples of words that describe someone’s gender expression include masculine, feminine, androgynous, butch, and femme.
- Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth. (Many people also use the word trans, but it’s not acceptable to call someone transgendered.)
Sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same thing. In short, sexual orientation is about whom you love and gender identity is about who you are. If you know someone’s gender identity, you don’t know anything about that person’s sexual orientation.
Everyone has a sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, although we tend to discuss these concepts only in relationship to the LGBTQ community because of the impact they can have on the lives of LGBTQ people.
Understanding What Transgender Means
One of the most important points to grasp is the difference between sex assigned at birth and gender identity. The first thing out of a doctor’s mouth when a baby is born is typically a declaration of the baby’s sex assigned at birth based on their external genitalia—“It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” For most people, that declaration aligns with their gender identity. The word to describe people with this experience is cisgender. For some people, their sex assigned at birth is not aligned with their gender identity; the word to describe people with this experience is transgender. For example, a transgender man is male (gender identity) and was assigned female sex at birth.
There is no one transgender experience. The transgender community is diverse in experiences and identities. This is why “transgender” is referred to as an umbrella term—many different experiences and identities fit under its definition. For example, some transgender people will transition from one gender to another, others may not. And not all trans people who transition will seek medical intervention as part of the transition. Some trans people have gender identities that do not fall within the gender binary of male or female. For example, qenderqueer people typically reject this binary and embrace a fluidity of gender identity. People who identify as genderqueer may see themselves as being both male and female, neither male nor female, or as falling completely outside these categories.
As we work to improve our practice with trans youth, we need to understand these concepts deeply enough to break them down and answer the questions of those around us—colleagues, supervisors, attorneys, judges, parents, and kin.
Tips for Creating Gender-Inclusive Environments
Every person can play a part in creating environments inclusive of people with all gender identities and expressions. Start by examining the ways in which the gender binary system—the institutionalized enforcement of the notion that there are only two, mutually exclusive and distinct genders: male and female—affects our daily lives. Whether at your workplace, at your child’s school, or in your community, you will quickly realize how inescapable the gender binary is.
During your day, take note of how often you must identify yourself as one gender or the other in order to meet your basic needs. For example, the vast majority of public restrooms provide only two options: male or female. Access to safe and gender-appropriate restrooms is a real concern for trans and gender non-conforming people who far too often face ridicule, harassment, and even violence just for using the restroom.
Examine the assumptions you regularly make about people based on their perceived gender and challenge yourself to avoid these assumptions. Strict gender roles and stereotypes limit everyone. Help ensure that the people in your life have the freedom to identify and express themselves in a way that feels true to them. For example, it is not uncommon to hear declarations like, “Boys can’t wear pink!” or “Dolls are girl toys,” coming from young children as they play. Moments like these are opportunities to speak up and help others understand that there’s no such thing as a “girl toy” or a “boy color.” There are just toys and colors.
Why is it important to build this awareness? Because our misconceptions or biases rooted in gender stereotypes often become barriers in our work to ensure safety, permanency, and well-being for the youth we serve. If left unexamined, they can prevent us from ensuring the most positive outcomes for young people.
When adults and caregivers reject a young person’s gender identity or expression, the negative impact on that young person is severe. Groundbreaking research out of the Family Acceptance Project, led by Dr. Caitlin Ryan, demonstrates the connection between a caregiver’s response to a young person’s trans identity and that young person’s well-being. A young person who is severely rejected is more than eight times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers.
So what does rejecting behavior look like? Any pressure for a child to be more or less masculine or feminine is a form of rejection. As is refusing to use the name and pronouns that affirm a young person’s identity.
It’s pivotal to advocate for young people in your care who may face challenges because they don’t conform to strict gender stereotypes. If you’re the social worker for a teenage girl who wants to buy clothes from the “boys’ section,” and she is facing resistance from her foster parent, make sure she knows she has your support. Offer to take her shopping yourself. Educate the foster parent about the negative effects of not allowing a young person to dress the way she desires.
Language is an important part of creating gender-inclusive environments. For example, if you don’t know someone’s pronouns, it is okay to ask and much better to ask than to risk making the wrong assumption.
Tips for Workers on Finding Affirming Placements for Trans Youth
Ensuring that foster and adoptive parents are prepared to provide an affirming, gender-inclusive environment is critical. All prospective parents should be provided training to ensure they are prepared to support trans youth. Training should cover the key terms and concepts related to gender identity and expression and the stories and experiences of trans youth, and provide the knowledge and skills necessary to advocate for the child.
When pursuing potential placements for trans youth, be sure to use gender-affirming language and refer to the young person by the name and pronouns that young person wants. Consider reaching out to resource families you’ve worked with who have qualities conducive to creating an affirming environment. Perhaps the parents don’t conform to rigid gender roles and stereotypes themselves. Perhaps they’ve shown a commitment to learning and a willingness to have their worldview challenged. Maybe they’ve shown a real ability for working across differences.
Discussions with families about a young trans person joining their home should clearly explain the child’s identity, unique needs, strengths, and talents. Conversations specific to the child’s gender identity should be handled in a straightforward manner. The more parents understand the child and have a chance to educate themselves, the better prepared they will be to create a safe, affirming environment or to come to the determination that they are not the right family for the child.
In many cases, workers need to be prepared to be advocates for the trans youth in their care—with caregivers, teachers, administrators, and community members. Workers often have to protect young people from discrimination and help them build and maintain a positive identity.
Tips for Parents of Trans Youth
Families with the opportunity to provide a loving, affirming home to a young trans person can take several steps to ensure they are doing their best for the child.
First, they can gather information and learn about the trans community and the key concepts outlined at the beginning of this article. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation has a wealth of resources related to transgender children and youth online at www.hrc.org/trans-youth. PFLAG has a helpful guide to being a trans ally online at www.pflag.org.
Next, it is crucial for parents to support and affirm their child even when they have their own learning to do when it comes to understanding gender identity. As noted above, there are many ways to demonstrate support and acceptance and doing so is essential to ensuring healthy outcomes for the child. Supportive parents allow their children to ask questions, raise concerns, and talk about the issues they are facing. Parents must carefully navigate when and how the child’s trans identity is disclosed to others. Depending on the child’s age and developmental stage, parents should take the young person’s lead in this area. Conversations with the young person should include the risks of rejection, any safety concerns, and the availability and strength of the child’s support network.
Parents should also be ready to advocate for the young person. All youth deserve adult caregivers who wholly accept them for who they are and will be in their corner during difficult times. Trans youth are no different and chances are there will be moments when advocacy is needed. For example, in a school setting, it is often necessary to educate teachers and administrators on how to best support a trans youth. HRC recently published a guide on supporting transgender students in K-12 schools that you can access from www.hrc.org/trans-youth. Parents may also have to offer extra support and education in a clinical setting when healthcare providers may not be as knowledgeable as they need to be about trans youth. Faith leaders, congregations, and other community members may also need to be educated about trans issues and encouraged to be supportive.
Finally, parents can connect to the increasingly visible and powerful community of trans kids and their families. It is very important for you to facilitate connections for your child with other trans kids. If a local community is not available in your area, organizations like Gender Spectrum (www.genderspectrum.org) provide opportunities to connect online. Other parents can share invaluable advice and guidance when it comes to navigating the issues and decision points that arise when raising a young trans child. These parents have asked the same questions you will and have found answers that worked for them.
All of us involved in foster care and adoption can and should take advantage of available resources to continue learning about the needs of trans children and youth. We owe it to children to allow them to be their authentic selves and to support them through their life’s journey.