A transgender individual is someone who identifies with a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth. To understand this better, it can help to be very clear with our language.
“Sex” is a medical term that refers to a person’s genetic, hormonal, and physical characteristics, both internal and external. When a baby is born, their sex is assigned based on the physical characteristics that can be seen at birth.
“Gender” refers to a person’s sense of their own identity, their internal sense of self. For some people, their sex and gender line up. They were identified as male or female at birth and that identification feels right to them. We refer to these people as being cisgender. For other people, their gender identity is different than the sex they were assigned at birth. This is the experience of transgender people.
Some transgender people identify with the opposite gender from the one they were assigned at birth: a child is born and designated as female, but identifies as male. Other transgender individuals may identify as non-binary, meaning they don’t identify as entirely male or entirely female; gender fluid, meaning their gender identity changes; agender, meaning they don’t identify with a gender; or more. There are many different gender identities that can fall under the umbrella term of transgender.
If you want to understand more about what it means to be transgender, there are many wonderful resources available including:
Gender Spectrum has many wonderful educational articles about transgender identity:
Gender Spectrum’s “Gender 101” page:
Gender Spectrum’s “Gender Basics” video:
Gender Spectrum’s YouTube channel:
Central Toronto Youth Services has a fantastic guide for families of trans youth:
Many parents ask this question! It is understandable that you would be worried that your child is just experiencing a phase. However, the vast majority or children, youth, and adults who identify as transgender are consistent in that identity. It is very unlikely that a child or youth who identifies as transgender will “grow out of it” or change their mind. What’s more, therapy and other interventions designed to change a young person’s gender identity can be psychologically harmful and cause extreme emotional distress.
For most young people who share their transgender identity, the process of self-discovery and of disclosure is a lengthy and serious undertaking. Although it might seem sudden to you as a parent, your child has probably been struggling with this issue for many years.
Children as young as two understand their gender identity, whether that is transgender or cisgender. The American Academy of Pediatrics released guidelines in 2018 to help parents and professionals support children and youth who identify as transgender. Their recommendation is “gender-affirmative care.” For young children, what that means is affirming your child’s gender with your words and actions. This includes using the pronouns and name that feel best for your child and letting your child choose clothing that matches their sense of self. There is no medical intervention that can happen until puberty. However, respecting your child’s sense of self is critical to their mental health and well being.
From the American Academy of Pediatrics Healthy Children: Gender Identity Development in Children www.healthychildren.org:
How does gender identity develop in children?
Gender identity typically develops in stages:
Around age two: Children become conscious of the physical differences between boys and girls.
Before their third birthday: Most children can easily label themselves as either a boy or a girl.
By age four: Most children have a stable sense of their gender identity.
Many parents have this question! Coming out as transgender is a big deal. Many young people wrestle with their feelings in private or with a trusted friend for a long time before sharing with their parents. Many transgender youth also work hard to hide their gender identity for fear of ridicule or rejection by friends, family, classmates, and others. It is not uncommon for parents to be completely surprised by their child’s disclosure.
Not necessarily. A gender identity relates to one’s sense of self. All of us want to experience congruence in our lives, the sense that our insides and our outsides match and that people can see us for who we really are. For some transgender people, changing their names and pronouns is the most important step in achieving that sense of congruence. Other ways people transition include changing clothing and hairstyles, changing speech and body language patterns, using hormones to change one’s physical appearance, and using surgery to alter one’s body.
Deciding which types of changes are needed is a very personal decision, one that can take time and support. Working with a gender therapist is an excellent way to begin to sort out these questions.
These are three examples out of many different gender identities. Binary gender identity refers to people who identify as either male or female, opposite ends of a binary spectrum. People who identify as non-binary experience themselves as not exclusively male or female. Gender fluid means that one’s identity changes, rather than remaining static. And gender queer is an umbrella term for non-cisgender identities. Its meaning will vary, person to person. It can be helpful to ask someone what the term they choose to describe their gender identity means to them.
Gender Spectrum has a helpful guide called The Language of Gender, if you’d like to learn more.
This is a very common question! Gender identity (transgender, cisgender, non-binary, etc.) has to do with an individual’s sense of self. Sexual orientation has to do with a person’s attraction to other people. So just as a cisgender person (someone whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth) might be straight, gay, or bi-sexual, a transgender person may also be straight, gay, or bisexual. (Of course, just as there are many different gender identities, there are also many different sexual orientations. These are just a few examples.) Transitioning from one gender to another doesn’t tell you anything about a person’s sexual orientation.
Good question! It is easy to confuse gender identity, our own internal sense of our gender, with gender expression, the way we show our gender to the world through clothing, hair, etc. We are familiar, for example, with cisgender women who dress in stereotypically masculine clothing. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they feel like men. It just means that they feel comfortable in more masculine clothing. Similarly, trans women may dress in stereotypically masculine clothing while still experiencing themselves as women. You don’t have to wear a dress to be a woman!
We don’t yet know all the factors that contribute to the development of gender identity, but we know that there is no single cause. Multiple factors come together to form an individual’s gender identity. That said, there is no evidence that parenting choices are one of those factors. Parents can have a huge impact on their children’s well-being, but not on their gender identity.
Finding support for yourself is an excellent first step. The more you know about gender identity and affirmative parenting practices, the better able you will be to support your child. See our next FAQ on “Gender Therapists” for help in finding a therapist who has meaningful experience in working with gender diverse children and families.
Come to a TransFamilies meeting! Meeting other families who have similar experiences will provide comfort and reassurance. If your child is young, we also run family play groups, when there is sufficient interest from group members.
Call a TransFamilies volunteer at 831.205.0078
Gender therapists work with clients (adults, youth, or children) who are exploring their gender identities, as well as with parents and other family members who may need information, support, or guidance. In addition to being a licensed mental health professional, gender therapists should have extensive knowledge and understanding of the components of gender and the questions that people who are exploring their genders will have. Ideally, they will have extensive experience working with transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming clients.
Not all clinicians who state that they treat transgender individuals have the same level of knowledge and experience. The link below will help you ask the right questions to make sure that your gender therapist has the training, experience and sensitivity to be right for you, your child, or your family.
Santa Cruz Trans* Resources - This site has everything! Gender therapists, medical practitioners, personal care referrals (hair removal, cosmetics, voice training, and more), insurance information, legal resources, and more. This is your overall Santa Cruz and Bay Area comprehensive resource site.
Gender Spectrum is at the forefront of training schools and their annual conference is an awesome resource for families with gender diverse children of all ages.
Safe Schools Project of Santa Cruz County works with schools and school districts to promote safe and inclusive schools especially for LGBT youth in Santa Cruz County and throughout California.
Trans* Teen Project has links to local and national resources.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights and Gender Spectrum, in conjunction with the ACLU and the Human Rights Campaign, have produced a terrific guide for schools striving to become more gender-inclusive.
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