Understanding gender diversity

a person wearing a shirt and bow tie in front of a wall, looking to the side

Teenage years are a time when many young people start to reflect on their gender identity. It can also be a confusing time for young people and their families. Find out more about the concepts of gender that your child might be dealing with, how to support them during this time, and how to recognise any signs that they may need your support.

What is gender?

Gender is something that goes way beyond just male and female. For many people the gender they identify with doesn’t match the gender they were assumed to be at birth based on their physical and sex characteristics.

Gender refers to your sense of who you are as a guy, girl, or something else, as opposed to what your physical characteristics, genes and hormones dictate. Identifying your gender can be more diverse than simply seeing yourself as ‘male’ or ‘female’ and people express it in different ways. Sex refers to somebody’s physical characteristics such as genitals or facial hair etc. Here are some helpful definitions

  • Cisgender: A word used to describe people whose gender agrees with their body sex or assigned sex.

  • Transgender: A general word used to describe a broad range of non-traditional gender identities. It will often be used to describe somebody’s identified gender or expression ie. Transgender woman or trans masculine person.

  • Gender diverse/Non-binary/Genderqueer: Other gender diverse people, some of whom also identify as transgender, have a gender identity that isn’t simply ‘man’ or ‘woman’; instead, they choose to identify with a range of gender characteristics that feel comfortable for them.

  • Intersex: A broad term that describes someone born with aspects of both male and female sex characteristics. Intersex people identify at various points on the gender spectrum.

Transitioning or affirmation

When somebody starts the process of moving towards and living as their true gender it is known as transitioning or affirmation. People do this in many different ways such as their clothing, name, pronouns or body. If somebody wants to be called a different name or be referred to using new pronouns it’s important to respect their wishes and put the effort in to get used to it.

How might your teenager be feeling?

They have probably been feeling confused, worried, angry or upset about their emerging gender identity for some time. They might also be feeling a sense of relief and happiness through figuring out who they truly are. It’s common for people to be concerned about how it could affect their life especially around whether they will be accepted by their family and friends. Another big worry is likely to be school. They’ll probably be asking themselves questions like:

  • Should I tell anybody?

  • Which toilets will I use?

  • Am I allowed to wear a different school uniform?

  • Do I have to change schools?

  • Will everybody understand?

Check out our specific tips on exploring disclosing their gender identity at school.

What to think about when you talk to your child about gender?

While it may be confronting to hear your child talking about these issues, it’s important to create a safe space where they feel comfortable and supported, even if you’re feeling a sense of loss. Here are some points to think about when talking to your child:

  • Remember that while it might be a challenging time for you both, your child will probably also feel excited, relieved and happy to be talking to you about what they are experiencing. Listening and providing support will help to build trust and strengthen your relationship.

  • Recognise that it has probably taken a lot of courage for them to speak up, respect their decision to do so.

  • Realise that working through these concepts can be confusing for you both, so try to avoid any judgements and stay open minded to keep the lines of communication open and ensure your child feels supported and accepted.

A really great place to start is this video where Ross Jacobs from QLife talks about the best ways to support a transgender teenager.

Knowing when to get help

Working out your identity and worrying about where you ‘fit in’ can be a challenging time for teenagers, and can cause anxiety, distress and a sense of isolation. In addition, bullying is common for gender questioning and diverse people, with 80% admitting they have experienced bullying and discrimination at some point in their life. This can be a stressful time for your child and, if ongoing, can lead to mental health problems such as depression. You can help your child by recognising signs of distress, which may include:

  • being withdrawn from others, or losing interest in usual activities

  • changes in behaviour like being irritable and moody

  • feeling constantly tired or experiencing changes in usual sleeping patterns

  • appearing restless or anxious, or expressing feelings of worry or hopelessness

  • physical symptoms such as a stomach ache or headache.

If you think that your child is experiencing issues with gender you can find ways to support them here. However, if they are feeling distressed and it is impacting their ability to function contact the services below.