Non-Binary Youth

by Micah at neutrois.me

I presented Non-Binary Youth at the Gender Odyssey Professional Conference, held in Seattle, August 2015. The audience was primarily medical and service providers of transgender health.

You are definitely encouraged to share with your provider, as well as family or friends, or yourself.  I only ask that you include  attribution or acknowledgement; the best way to credit me is linking to my site.

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Hint: To get the most out of this, on the parts that say INTERACT, actually stop and give yourself a minute to silently provide an answer.

I’m Micah, and I’ll be your host for this workshop.

Personal Intro

I’ve been transitioning for 5 years, and blogging about it for nearly as long.

My journey has been: to figure out what transition is, what it means to live as a non-binary person, what options are available, and how these services can be accessed while navigating a rigid binary-thinking society.

Conferences

This is my 4th year presenting on non-binary identities.

This content is based on my own layman’s research (a lot of it), personal experience, experiences gathered from my community, deep thought, and a dash of common sense.

Before we Begin

I suggest going through Part 1: What is Gender? of the “adult” Non-Binary Transition workshop. It will walk you through gender, and familiarize you with concepts of transgender and non-binary identities.

All ready?

Ok, now that you’re a super gender pro, let’s move on!

The first thing people ask about a person that doesn’t even exist yet:

Is it a boy or a girl?

Before you’re born, you’re put into one of two categories. And you don’t get a choice.

Most kids are ok with this assignment.

Some are not, and are very vocal in letting their parents know. These kids are who we usually see represented as trans youth. They say things like “God made a mistake” or “I’m really a boy, why can’t you see that?” Their cross-gender is often unequivocal.

Then there are those kids who aren’t quite at home in their birth-assigned gender, but aren’t as thrilled about the other side either.

Don’t get confused — they can be very sure about who they are. It’s just their gender that doesn’t fit neatly into either category.

Who are these non-binary youth? Let’s try to paint a picture.

As babies grow into toddlers, they begin expressing individual choices.

As adults, we expect those choices to fit into pre-determined templates.

So, we tend to notice kids whose choices stand out from these expectations.

Princess boys are perhaps the most noticeably non-conforming group.

Roughly speaking, these are “boys who like girly things.”

The way they transgress norms does not blend into our society’s rules for gender.

Being a feminine boy is less socially sanctioned. Masculinity is allowed less room to veer into was it considered feminine territory.

When they do, they raise alarm.

Therefore, parents / providers start looking for answers.

That’s why you’ll see many of them at transgender conferences or as patients in your practice, some at very young ages like 3 or 4.

Tomboys are “girls who like boy things.”

Because it’s more socially acceptable for girls to do boy things, like wear pants, or play sports, or have shortish hair, they are able to blend in a bit more for a little while longer.

Unless they continually insist “I’m a boy” — in which case a parent might become alarmed, and look towards transgender info.

But otherwise, if their behavior or expression is not extreme, they are likely to get ignored.

Thus, this population is often overlooked when they are younger.

Until puberty hits. 

Puberty can trigger body dysphoria, and with it comes the realization that something needs to be done, otherwise the child will be very unhappy.

That’s when parents or kids themselves start seeking help.

The previous two slides were meant to represent in a general sense of

  • who is more likely to seek help (represented in your practice)
  • when they will seek more information, and for what reasons

In reality there are many more expressions of gender nonconforming and/or non-binary youth.

They all feel constrained by gender in some way

  • either society’s norms or stereotypes
  • the way they are allowed to express their gender outside of their home
  • or some aspect about their own gender

It is uncomfortable for them to be forced to choose one side or the other.

On the other hand, these kids are all different in the way they feel about various aspects of their gender.

  • their birth gender:
  • ok being seen as any gender.
  • prefer to be validated as birth gender, ie “boy who likes girl things” letting it slide when it doesn’t happen.
  • uncomfortable being seen as either.
  • their social gender:
  • some kids are really uncomfortable with their name, or their pronoun
  • some express a clear choice early on, others don’t care
  • body:
  • variation in how they feel about their physical sex

Lots of teens seem to be coming out as trans these days.

Genderqueer has become a sort of gateway gender

It’s the entry point where many teens start thinking about gender (and sexuality) for the first time.

It’s a safer way to explore gender:

  • Less pressure to decide on identity, but still room and time to explore.
  • Some teens are just exploring: gender, sexuality, adolescence.
  • Some are not, grappling with deep distress around their gender.

Whether it’s a phase or not, you have to take them seriously.

There’s something they are trying to tell you about themselves.

A big cause for hand-wringing is whether these kids are trans, or not.

  • Beneath this is anxiety of not knowing what’s going to happen to them
  • Therefore, not knowing what to do with them now.

In reality, some are transgender, some are not.

Non-binary youth can maintain their gender non-conforming identity for a long time.

Some are comfortable in their birth gender, and may settle into being gender non-conforming girls or boys, or may move away from gender non-conformity entirely.

Others may indicate (verbally or not) that they are transgender, even if they don’t fit the binary mold.

Those who do want to transition may want to go towards

  • the “opposite” binary gender
  • simply, away from birth gender; their target gender is not as defined
  • or a specific non-binary gender (target gender may be more defined)

In this workshop, we’re not going to talk about shepherding kids’ identity — there are other great workshops for that.

We’ll assume that the young people we’re talking about currently identify as non-binary.

Whether they continue to do so, or later realize they are trans or not, is not as important.

We’re going to cover specific challenges faced by non-binary youth, compared to typically transitioning (binary) youth.

INTERACT: How are they different from typical (binary) transgender youth?

That’s what we’ll be exploring.

We understand transgender traditionally to mean that if you are assigned female, you transition to male; and if you are assigned male, you transition to female. These are all concepts we can understand.

But what does a non-binary person transition to?

We can think of gender as having two major components:

Public Gender 

  • is what everyone sees. It’s how you are perceived by others.
  • it’s a social gender, and extends beyond yourself.

Private Gender

  • is an inner feeling, an internal experience.
  • mostly indescribable, abstract, you just “know” it. It may be fuzzy and unclear, and indescribable even to yourself.
  • nobody else can know or feel this but you.

Gender outside the binary does not exist: in forms, in fitting rooms, in bathrooms, in clothing stores and vitamins and love stories.

Nobody is going to see a non-binary kid and know instantly know how they identify.

That’s the first big issue of having a non-binary gender.

Who do you want to be when you grow up?

(Binary) transgender kids now have role models they can look up to.

But what about non-binary kids?

        Their public gender does not exist, which can make it very difficult for to imagine what they’ll look like, or even for them to know what they want to look like.

There’s nobody to point to and say “that’ll be me” or “that’s who I want to be.”

        It’s impossible to see a real version of themselves in the future, unless we imagine it. Nobody even knows what the possibilities are.

Parents / providers can’t imagine how this kid is going to look like all grown up in 10 years.

        It’s very difficult to live with this uncertainty on all fronts.

How do you explain something when there are no words for it?

Expressing hesitation does not mean their gender struggles aren’t real.

        Their parents and their peers and their teachers and TV may all be telling them different things.        The messages kids are getting from various sources may be causing them to doubt.

It can be just as confusing for parents and providers.

        In fact, it’s usually more confusing than it is for the kids, who are just freely expressing themselves in the most pure way.

There is no external validation telling you this is real.

        Quite the opposite - everywhere you look, everyone you talk to, gives you that look where you feel you're crazy pants for supporting these children.

        This lack of external support breeds a circle of doubt. It’s important to seek a support system that will validate you.

        Whether as a parent or provider, seek someone that will encourage you, affirm that you are on the right path.

“I’m not necessarily going from point A to point B. All I know is I left point A.”

The journey for non-binary people is usually different because they don’t have a clear destination.

Although it’s very clear that they are not entirely male/female, the rest is not.

While there is individual uncertainty when it comes to binary trans kids, we know in aggregate where they’re headed and what that looks like.

For non-binary kids, their destination is unknown.

One contributor to this uncertainty, as we saw, is that there are no role models, no visions for the future.

Another element are the constraints of reality. Very often non-binary people are forced to make a lot of compromises, to choose among unideal options so it fits within the binary reality.

When you know the outcome is not optimal, it’s very hard to settle on a destination. You want to keep looking for options.

Kids are growing. 

It’s the nature of children to be learning about the world, and that includes learning about gender.

Each new piece of information is a new discovery at some point. New knowledge will change their perspective on their gender:

  • how they want to express it
  • what it means to live with a non-binary gender in the world
  • and what they want to do about it

Getting used to change is part of the process.

Once you are accustomed to something, it’s seems easier to do other things you never thought possible.

It’s hard for everyone — kid, family, providers — to stay in the middle. It’s a zone of glares and stares, awkward situations, everyday anxiety.

Regardless of how these kids are going to identify, it’s important to validate their current identity.

Don’t try to push them either way — to a trans binary identity, or to a cisgender conforming, or to cisgender non-trans identity.

You can’t label it for them.

We use our adult lingo. Kids have their special way of verbalizing their feelings around gender, and just expressing themselves in general.

Become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

It’s more distressing for the non-binary kid to choose a gender, than for them (and you) to face the social consequences of being in the middle.

Be open to any possibility, any outcome, and embrace all futures.

EMBRACE UNCERTAINTY

This is a mandate: the future is uncertain, and that’s ok.

Focus on supporting them now.

What do they need now to be happy? To live with less worries, less stress?

Medical transition can be a critical decision in the lives of transgender youth.

I want to very briefly go over this topic before we move on to more challenging subjects.

If they haven’t been through puberty, then there’s a huge decision they are going to have to make.

Puberty blockers buy time.

They put a pause on puberty, so the kid doesn’t develop any secondary sex characteristics.

They prevent having the child undergo physical changes they do not want, that might cause a lot of harm to them.

But at some point, they must decide:

  • go on cross-sex hormones

OR

  • go through with endogenous (birth) puberty

Medical transition is binary — go through male or female puberty.

(There may be alternatives, like low dose cross-sex HRT, but these are unexplored in youth.)

If they’ve completed their endogenous puberty, then the medical options open to youth are the same for adults.

A combination of puberty blockers with cross-sex hormones is possible.

Let’s move on to social aspects of transitioning, which is the primary transition method for children.

What do non-binary kids want?

Sometimes they want to be seen as neither gender; neither a boy or a girl.

But that’s not always the case.

  • Sometimes they want to be seen as both - maybe even simultaneously.
  • It may depend on the day and how they’re feeling that day.
  • Sometimes they prefer one gender more than the other.
  • Or they want to be seen in a way that conflicts with society’s view of gender. They want to be seen as a girl who has short hair, or a boy who likes dresses.

There are really infinite variations and possibilities.

Ultimately, kids just want to be able to do the things they love, like they things they like, play with toys they find fun, wear the clothes they feel most comfortable in, regardless of society’s arbitrary rules about what they should and shouldn’t do based on the genitals they were born with.

They just want to live.

They don’t want to be invisible.

Because if someone sees them as just boy, or as just a girl, it is yet another moment in which their gender was not seen. 

The point is, they want to avoid being categorized incorrectly, and avoid the feeling the discomfort that comes along with that.

Never assume, Always Ask.

Repeat it as a mantra.

You will never know how someone identifies. Their outer expression might not reflect their inner identity.

The best thing you can do to support someone in transition: leave the door open for changes and remove any friction in making those changes.

It’s a huge relief if they ask or check-in about any changes up front.

INTERACT: When you meet a child, how you do know whether they are a boy or a girl?

We look to cues that signal someone’s gender.

Kids (and/or their parents) are using cues to give the right signal to other people about who they are.

But usually this signal gets misinterpreted by other people.

What sorts of cues can be manipulated to give the right “gender signal”?

A lot of non-binary people try to find the sorts of cues that don’t fall into either “male” or “female” categories.

These include things that don’t immediately signal that person’s gender, like ambiguous names, nicknames, various pronoun options, hairstyles or clothing options.

Conversely, sometimes their preferred cues give people mixed or incorrect signals about their gender, like when the cues conflict with people’s expectations (i.e. boy in a dress).

With kids, the cues are mostly social. Their bodies haven’t changed enough yet to distinguish them that way.

Social is their only means of transition (physical + legal transition won’t happen for a few years).

Social cues are not permanent - they leave room for growth, room for change, room for exploration.

  • A small change can make a huge impact.
  • Social changes won’t “make” them trans or non-binary.
  • Distress will make them sad, unhappy.

When do you commit to making a change? How do you know this particular request is something they won’t change their mind about tomorrow? It’s hard to tell.

  • Follow the clues. Do what the kid needs to do right now.
  • Listen to how the kid feels about not having X changed, and how they would feel it were to change.

Social cues are not permanent - there are no “mistakes” - the kid can change their mind without consequences.

It’s gradual. You don’t have to flip the switch on everything all at once.

  • Take baby steps. It’s a great way to test things out, and see how kids are reacting and adapting.
  • Some of these cues are very easy to change: Buy new clothes - DONE! Order a binder online - DONE!
  • Some are difficult to change: It can be very scary to go out in public wearing clothes that might deride ridicule or stares.
  • Working your way into making these changes public is also a gradual process.

We’re talking about social changes, but it’s not as easy as declaring it.

Social means people… other people.

Which means that for some social changes, other people have to follow along to turn it into reality.

Since it involves other people, often the first step is to inform others about what’s going on.

Either a new name, a new pronoun, or simply announce that the kid will be wearing an outfit that might not fit with others’ expectations.

Coming out sounds like it’s a one time thing. It implies one event that can be over and done with. That’s not the case at all.

That’s why I like to call it disclosure. And like everything else, it’s a spectrum.

Who you inform, when you tell someone, what you tell them about this child, why are you opening up, it all depends.

Disclosure is an ongoing process.

Each situation is independent. It can be a one-off situation, like at a grocery store, or one you handle long-term, like with family or school.

There are also unwanted disclosures, when someone else “outs” the kid. You have to be prepared to handle those.

Coming out can be very scary, especially when you have no idea what the outcome will be.

First, their identity may not be taken seriously. They’re playing dress up, just being rebellious (especially if they’re a teen), they’ll grow out of it.

Rejection from family and community is also a potential possibility.

While most of these common conflicts are shared by other trans youth, what are specific challenges non-binary kids face?

  • Their gender and identity is hard to explain. Most people are unfamiliar with non-binary gender, and/or non-binary transition.
  • While stories about trans kids are common these days, there are few (if any) non-binary narratives in the media that you can refer others to.
  • And, the kid’s gender might evolve. How do you make a big announcement, and then backtrack on it?

Another big difference is that, unlike binary trans youth, non-binary youth cannot be stealth.

  • They are usually visibly different. They stand out.
  • They are not transitioning to a gender that we have a word for, that other people can understand.
  • Not fitting into either boy’s or girl’s club. Not having a “group” to belong to. Part of the non-binary experience is dealing with continually being different from everyone else.
  • And unlike trans kids, they might not want to “transition” in the typical way we think about it. So as they get older, they’ll start developing, which will highlight their differences more.

Since non-binary kids may visually stand out already, preparing for disclosure — wanted and unwanted — may be advisable.

What things can non-binary youth be stealth about? There are certain things a kid might want to keep private, that are possible to do so.

INTERACT: What can you as a provider do to ease disclosure?

School plays a big role in a kid’s life. There they are forced to face gender challenges every day.

At school, you’re dealing with a host of players: teachers and staff, the child’s peers and classmates, other students in the school, those in higher grades

Many times gender segregation is rampant, especially as kids gets older: in bathrooms, locker and changing rooms, athletics, uniforms

With trans kids, the rule is to allow them to use the facilities according to the gender they identify with. Trans boys use the boy’s bathroom, trans girls use the girl’s. (There may be battles for those rights, but it’s clear what should be done. With non-binary kids, what should happen isn’t clear at all.)

But where’s the “girl who looks like a boy” bathroom? They might get bullied for that (and not just from their peers, staff also bullies).

In many occasions, boys won’t be allowed into “girl” teams like gymnastics, cheerleading, or dance.

The feeling of being segregated by gender, even in a soccer team, can be very isolating and stressful for a kid who doesn’t quite feel like either.

Lastly, gender isn’t just about trans children, it affects everyone.

  • Is the school teaching them about different family structures, about the different ways gender can be expressed?
  • Are they empowering young girls to excel at math, or teaching young boys to be nurturing?

Inclusive curriculum is important not just in affirming this one kid’s experience, but also everyone else’s who might veer from strict gender roles and expectations.

Kids don’t exist in a vacuum. Everyone sees their gender. 

Much of their life revolves around various communities, communities where gender can play a big role… or not, but gender is always with us (and these kids stand out)

Community can also be good a source of support, a shield to protect and rally with you.

How do you talk to others when referring to your kid?

  • How does the kid act in each situation? Are they allowed to be themselves all the time? When are they not?
  • What does the kid do when confronted?
  • What do you do when confronted?

INTERACT: What issues may come up as a provider to work through with the family? Examples:

  • What name and pronouns to call the kid in school
  • How to come out to extended family
  • How to get family and friends to comply with kid’s new name and pronoun, or to affirm their gender
  • Rejection from religious or other community

INTERACT: What are your 3 takeaways?

[For questions or comments, feel free to get in touch.]

Thank you for following along and learning about non-­binary youth!

Check out neutrois.me/non-binary-transition for the whole shebang on non-binary identity and transition.

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