I’ve only been in the Executive Director chair at PFLAG National for ten weeks and the revolutionary moment we are in around gender, gender identity, and gender expression could not be more evident. PFLAG chapters all over the nation—indeed all over the world—are experiencing a significant influx of parents with very young transgender and gender-expansive children. Much like the parents of lesbian, gay and bi kids in the 70s, many of these parents step into their local PFLAG chapter meeting with a mix of bewilderment, deep worry, and relief.
Today, the parents of youth who identify as a gender different from the one checked off on a birth certificate face a mountain of barriers to raising healthy kids. Even in families that wholeheartedly embrace their child’s authentic gender, prevailing “wisdom” among many therapists, caregivers, teachers, coaches, clergy and mentors may be dangerously misinformed and destructive to their child’s growth and well-being.
PFLAG’s approach as we welcome more and more of these parents to the family is to create spaces that maximally serve them and their families. This includes researching and developing lists of local, regional, and national resources that are all-gender affirming, staying current and creating additional affinity support group meetings to the chapter schedule for parents who are desperate for safer spaces among parents navigating the same difficult waters.
What exactly does it mean to be all-gender affirming? In 2007, I was a principal researcher for the first National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS). Our findings were published in the groundbreaking book Injustice at Every Turn, in 2011. At the time, 840 of our 6,500 respondents did not identify as male or female, and wrote in 500 distinct identifiers for their genders. Some of my favorites were Gender Pirate. Gender Mosaic. Hybrid. NoGender. Genderfabulist. Many had no desire for hormones or medical procedures. Others found gender-confirming medical procedures essential to their gender journey.
Gender-expansive respondents in the NTDS were largely younger than people in the full sample. They demonstrated both resistance and whimsy in their write-ins, refusing to fit into a gender box created by people and systems with a very rigid gender agenda. While I see many negative posts about gender-expansive kids as being nothing more than “special snowflakes” or privileged, “helicopter-parented” kids, the reality is that genderqueer kids in the study were more often kids of color, living in poverty, and bi-identified than respondents who identified as male or female. Far from being “overindulged” they were often suffering under some of the worst oppression our society dishes out.
The other thing that many of us don’t recall is that those noisy 70s feminists beside whom we were marching in those early PFLAG-founding pride protests were among the first scholars to note that gender categories were a fiction, made up to punish anyone who challenged gender “norms,” especially lesbian, gay, bi and transgender people. Gender rigidity has always been the foundation of homo- and bi-phobias, deeming “sissy boys” and “mannish dykes” as the most deviant and dangerous of queers.
Schools, churches, sports teams, youth leadership, and support programs are largely unprepared for our gender-expansive kids. We know this because it has been a very steep climb making these institutions supportive of trans kids who do fit into the binary. Creating all-gender affirming spaces means we must create policies and practices that serve kids of all genders—those in the binary, and those beyond.
I know, I know. It seems like a lot. We have barely been able to define trans-affirming policies and practices that work for our binary-embracing kids. But the good news is, we have done it. We know what a healthy trans childhood and adolescence looks like thanks to grassroots work by thousands of trans activists, parents and families of trans youth, and trans-affirming allies. We have strong community-based research, best practices, and good legislation. And despite the many who aren’t informed or affirming, we do have great all-gender affirming therapists, caregivers, teachers, coaches, clergy and mentors. But we still have many mountains to climb.
We must climb them simultaneously. In the 2017 US Transgender Survey published by NCTE—just ten years following the original study—8,000 of its 25,000 trans participants identified as non-binary or gender expansive. I haven’t looked at this data closely, but I am certain that these 8,000 respondents provided us with many more than the 500 genders that were named in 2007.
This should be a source of joy for all of us because, unlike the childhoods LGBTQ people in my generation survived, this generation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans and gender-expansive kids are claiming and naming themselves at much younger ages. Together, we’ll carve innovative pathways through the many institutions that encumber and thwart our youth. Let’s all get ready. Our kids deserve nothing less than an all-out, all-gender celebration.
Dr. Jaime M. Grant is Executive Director of PFLAG National