Take a moment now – yes, to think about your gender. Identify yourself as a woman, a man, or another gender: How would you describe your gender? Gender identity? How do you show other people your gender by looking or acting – in other words, yours Gender expression? And has your gender identity or expression changed or stayed the same over time?
Questions like these can be especially valuable when you’re wondering how gender identity and expression can change as you grow up. And of course, these questions can resonate with many adults too.
At times in my life I have had shorter hair and a preference for men’s pants and dress shoes. I also enjoyed playing male roles in theatrical productions on occasion and dressing up in costume as a man on Halloween. At other times in my life, I had longer hair and frequently worn dresses and dangling earrings – and more feminine Halloween costumes. Although my gender expression has shifted between less feminine and more feminine over time, I have always identified myself as a girl or a woman.
What is gender fluidity?
Let’s define some terms. Cisgender means that a person’s gender identity is the same as the gender – female or male – that appears on their original birth certificate. Gender fluidity refers to the change in a person’s gender expression or gender identity over time, or both. This change can be in the expression but not in the identity or in the identity but not in the expression. Or expression and identity can change together.
For some teens, gender fluidity can be a way to explore gender before encountering a more stable expression or identity of gender. For others, the fluidity of the sexes as part of their life experience with the sex can persist indefinitely.
Some people describe themselves as “gender specific”. As an identity, it usually fits under the umbrella of transgender and non-binary, which applies to individuals whose gender identity does not match the gender assigned to them on their original birth certificate. (Non-binary means that a person’s gender identity doesn’t fit into strict cultural categories of women or men.)
Not everyone who experiences changes in their gender expression or identity identifies as gender specific. Also, not everyone wants gender-affirming medical treatment to change their body and better adapt to their gender identity.
How does gender develop and change?
People usually begin developing a gender identity in early childhood, around the age of 2 or 3. Gender identity develops in several social contexts: a person’s family, their larger community, and the society and historical time in which they live. Each of these can have very different norms and expectations about gender expression and gender identity.
For example, a child might live in a family that believes gender is more complex than boys or girls and encourages a variety of gender expressions. The same child can live in a city where most people believe that boys “should look like boys” and girls “should look like girls”. And that child could live in a society and at a historical time with gender norms similar to those of his community. As a result, that child can feel more free to have a different gender expression or identity at home than in public.
For many people, gender identity and expression develop early and stay the same over time. For others, both can change. While such changes can occur at any time in a person’s life, they are more common in childhood and adolescence than later in adulthood.
What is the difference between gender fluid and transgender?
While some people develop a gender identity early in childhood, others may identify with one gender at a time, and then with a different gender later. For example, a person listed as female on their original birth certificate may identify as a girl until puberty and then as a boy for the rest of their life. This person would be considered transgender, but not necessarily gender specific.
Another person following this developmental arc can only identify as a boy until they are 20 and then identify as non-binary and later identify as a boy again later in adulthood. This person could be considered gender specific because they have experienced one or more changes in their gender identity or expression. However, it is wise to note that you may never use the term gender fluid as an identity label on yourself.
Ultimately, anyone who identifies as gender specific is a gender specific person. Often the term is used to mean that a person’s gender expression or gender identity – essentially their inner self-esteem – changes frequently. But gender fluidity can look different for different people.
How is gender reassignment related to child and adolescent health?
Just like adults, children and adolescents who express or identify their gender differently than the gender determined at birth are more likely to be exposed to prejudice and discrimination. These experiences can lead to minority stress that is detrimental to their mental and physical health. Compared to cisgender teenagers, transgender teenagers are two to three times more likely to have depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts and behavior.
All churches have expectations of what is “normal”. A gendered adolescent may be at greater risk of prejudice and discrimination because their changing gender identity or expression contradicts the expectation that each of these aspects of personality will develop early and stay the same over time. And the harmful interactions must not only occur in people who are cisgender. A gender-specific adolescent can also be discriminated against by some people in the transgender community who see them as “not really transgender”. Seeing an adolescent dress more feminine one day and masculine the next can be confusing or even threatening to someone with strict ideas about gender.
How can you support gender specific youth in your life?
I encourage you to reflect on the fluidity of the sexes as part of the diversity of human experiences in relation to gender identity and expression. Acceptance is important for dealing with people, but especially important for children and young people.
- Listen to the teenagers and validate their experiences with their gender. Everyone is the expert on their own gender.
- Be patient, as a teen’s gender reassignment can be part of their gender identity development.
- Helping gender-specific adolescents make informed decisions about gender-affirming treatments such as hormone therapy and gender-affirming surgery.
- Connect them to support and resources so they can talk to others with similar experiences. Gender Spectrum is a great resource for both gender youth and adults in their lives.