Being a therapist and working with struggling teens and young adults for over ten years, I tend to think I’m pretty aware and opened minded. I had the opportunity to attend the first annual GEMS (Gender Education Demystification Symposium) recently, and was reminded that the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. For example, how many of us take for granted that we don’t have to think twice before walking into the men’s/women’s bathroom at the grocery store. For transgender individuals this seemingly simple concept creates a lot of anxiety, even to the point that many will train themselves to hold their urine to avoid public restrooms.
I wanted to take a minute to share some of the simple basics I learned at this conference, so we can all be a little more sensitive and aware of those around us. For starters, the concept of gender is not black and white, there are many gray areas. Think of it on a continuum, with one end being female and the other end male. Any individual can fall any where on this continuum in different categories. The categories being assigned gender (what the health care professional assigned you at birth), gender identity (what gender you feel you are or identify as), gender expression (how masculine or feminine you feel and present as), and sexual orientation (which can be broken down into two parts, those you are sexually attracted to and those you are romantically/emotionally attracted to).
Many transgender or gender nonconforming individuals have been subject to some degree of rejection, largely due to being “different” or misunderstood. I think we can all do our part to help these individuals through their growing up years, as adolescence is a difficult time. Some simple yet important things to keep in mind when interacting with individuals different than ourselves are, first to create a safe space, and then be curious, be honest about what we know and don’t know so we can learn, be open to each individual’s experience and way of looking at the world, ask for what you need and be open to what others need, and validate other’s emotions.
Again, the older I get and the more I learn the more I realize I don’t know. There is more and more information that is becoming available on gender nonconforming individuals. If you don’t understand- research, ask questions, learn, grow. And not just in this area, there is so much out there we don’t know. Never stop learning and growing.