The spectrum of gender and sexuality has changed a lot over the past 30 years. I’m not so naive to think we haven’t always lived in a society with people who identify broadly across a complex gender and sexuality spectrum.
But back when I was at school in the 1980s, most people were straight and if they weren't - they were gay. And that was a big deal. So big, it was tackled the only way we knew how back then: our TV shows had a token gay person as a peripheral character so that we could learn that “the gays” were people too and we should still invite them to our barbecues.
Most of us lived in a gender binary world and we gave it literally no thought.
Flash forward to 2018 and suddenly I find myself parenting a queer teen. I’m pleased and relieved that she is coming of age in a time where she can comfortably express who she is - although as a society we still have a long way to go before everyone is seen as equal. I also see how this time is overwhelming and confusing for her, as she tries to figure out exactly who she is.
As a cisgender woman, I always knew it was a possibility that one or more of my children would identify differently. I thought I was ready for anything. How hard could it be, I thought, I love my children for the whole people they are, and all I want is to help them find a way to live a happy life.
Since my child came out about a year ago, however, I’ve found myself on a steep learning curve.
We attend a gender clinic together regularly, where my child can discuss how she’s feeling and any questions she has in a supportive environmen
My teenager was a girl at birth, but now things aren’t so clear cut. At this stage I would say she can’t be pinned down on much, but she’s on a journey and we’re open to seeing where she ends up. It’s her journey though, not mine. What I can say is that I’m the proud mum of a queer teen.
The term ‘queer’ covers a broad range, and it’s often used as an umbrella term to avoid excluding anyone that LGBTIQ+ and variations may leave out. Some people also simply identify as queer with no further explanation - because why do we need one? The ambiguity of the term is appealing to some too because it unites people into a community without the need for a more specific label.
I should also say at this point “she” is the term I use for my child, but even that is a fluid proposition. It can change depending on who she is with, and how she is feeling. It is polite to ask someone what gender pronouns they prefer, and to use gender neutral terms like “they” and “them” if you’re unsure.
What I have learnt, though, is that fluidity is not unique to my child. Sometimes, if she’s telling me about someone she knows from school and I ask something broad such as, “What are they like?” she’ll use their gender identity or sexual orientation to describe them.
“Oh, she’s an asexual lesbian,” my daughter said recently of a new friend she’s made.
I was just wondering what grade she was in and whether they like the same music, but all right.
Then, that same child will be described differently a month later.
“She’s pansexual now.”
This makes me realise just how important it is to teens to work out who they are and where they fit in society. I can only imagine the chaos that is going on in every teenage brain as they try to navigate their way through all their feelings, all the while being pushed and pulled by societal norms and peer pressure.
We attend a gender clinic together regularly, where my child can discuss how she’s feeling and any questions she has in a supportive environment. The people she’s getting to know there can also help her if and when she makes the decision to transition from being a girl to being a boy.
Some changes are cosmetic and can be reversed - such as wearing boys’ clothes and asking people to call her by her preferred boys’ name. There are even puberty blockers that can stop puberty in its tracks and allow it to recommence later, if you so choose. Other changes, such as some caused by hormone therapy, can be irreversible, according to the hospital staff we’ve spoken to. That’s for people who are a lot more sure than my child is right now.
it’s more important than ever for them to have a support network that accepts them for all that they are, at any given time
The gender clinic also introduced me to the concept of the Gender Unicorn. The Gender Unicorn (sometimes also illustrated by the Genderbread Person) breaks down gender and sexuality into five key areas that help to describe how someone may identify.
Those five areas are gender identity (a scale from male to female), gender expression (masculine to feminine), sex assigned at birth, who they are physically attracted to, and who they are emotionally attracted to. None of these are binary options, and - with the exception of sex assigned at birth - answers to those questions can change. This is especially the case when that person is young and still figuring out who they are.
With so many combinations possible on the Gender Unicorn, it’s easy to see how overwhelming this all is for teenagers today. That’s why it’s more important than ever for them to have a support network that accepts them for all that they are, at any given time.
As my child goes on this journey, I’m right there beside her. What I know so far is that I have a lot more to learn, and that’s okay. I’ll keep listening and loving my child - and I’ll keep being grateful we live in a society that now understands that there are many ways to be yourself.