Thursday, February 4, 2016

Gender Identity 101

Exploring one's gender identity and expression are part of my practice. Many of my clients are well-versed in the terms of gender identity. This post is not for them. It's for their friends and loved ones who might be struggling to understand their experience. 

Today, I will offer a basic understanding of what it means to be trans and/or non-binary as well as guidance for you, the loved one...

Let's start with the beginning. The T in LGBT stands for transgender (trans). Transgender refers to experiencing a mis-match between one's felt gender and the gender one was assigned at birth. The opposite of this is cisgender. I'm cisgender. The gender I was assigned at birth, female, fits with my perceived gender identity. For someone who is trans, this is not the case. 

Now, this is the foundation- and there are many trans identities.

Gender is a deeply personal experience and none of us are exactly alike. Let's look at some of the identities under the so-called trans umbrella... 

One of those is non-binaryNon-binary refers to an experience that doesn't conform to or transcends conventional notions of male or female gender. Agender and gender fluid are two examples of non-binary identities (I encourage you to explore the Gender Wiki I have linked to throughout this paragraph for further reading about the many varied and emerging gender identities). 

Bottom line: allow people to share how they identify rather than make assumptions. Get more support from LGBT affirmative and gender therapists such as myself. We're here to provide support one-on-one, for couples, and families. 

A few more key points about gender identity:
  • Gender identity is distinct from sexuality. People who are trans, cis, and non-binary experience varied identities and sexualities (the two are not correlated).
  • A person's understanding of their gender identity might grow and change over time. There are many reasons for this, one of them being transphobia (the very real threat of violence that keeps people "in the closet"- even to themselves).
  • In terms of pronouns, they/them is coming into favor for a lot of non-binary folks because it's gender neutral (in fact, singular they was declared the 2015 word of the year).
And, guidance for you:
  • Understanding your loved one's identity is a process. Just as it took your loved one time to come to terms with who they are, you'll need time, too.
  • It's normal to experience a sense of loss- which includes denial, anger, fear, and many other mixed emotions- when you learn the news. This changes over time.
  • Educating yourself about trans issues shows interest in your loved one's experience and will help understand them better. This is an opportunity to become closer.
There is a lot more we could discuss about gender identity- such as transitioning (whole other cup of "T" so to speak)!- but my goal here is to keep it simple. There will be time for more information. I hope you found this "Gender Identity 101" post to be helpful. 

Want to read more about trans issues? Here are a few sites for your consideration:

Monday, February 1, 2016

What to Say When Someone Comes Out

When a friend or loved one comes out to you as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, it can bring up a lot! You want to react in a supportive way but aren't sure how, you have your own questions or concerns about what it means, and you may be surprised- to name a few possible inner reactions. Not to worry. 

Someone wants you to know them better and trusts and values you enough to take this step to being more open with you. Breathe that in. It's a good thing that someone wants to be seen for who they are in your eyes! 

Here's how to respond in a way that is accepting and supportive:
1. Be a matter of fact. A gentle nod, smile, or other nonverbal response of acknowledgment works great. This conveys that people can be themselves with you without having to "take care of" you- or your over-reactions. 
2. Be appreciative. Follow up with a quick, "Thank you so much for sharing that with me" and move on. This communicates that you value the opportunity to know them better but leaves them in control of how much they choose to share with you.

--> These ideas are offered with the idea that the person coming out to you is a friend or acquaintance. If it's someone closer to you, you may want to make your interest and acceptance in the person more explicit with a phrase like, "I want to know more" or "Tell me more." And, directly sharing that "I love you no matter what" never hurts. :)

It can also be useful to look at what not to do.

These reactions, whatever the intention, are hurtful:
1. Offering doom and gloom. "That's the worst thing you could have told me. I would have rather you said you were _____." It's important that your worries and fears be worked through but process them later with someone else.
2. Questioning the person's identity. "Well, I don't think you're _____. Are you sure?" The time to contemplate your questions is not with this person.

Remember, if things don't go as you'd hoped or planned, there will always be another chance to talk. The most important thing is to be your self- just as your friend is doing with you! 

I hope that you found this post helpful. Thankfully, we're not defined by any one response at any given moment in time. Rather, we share ourselves slowly through many interactions over time as we grow and change together. No one's as simple as a stereotype- including you!