We Can Affirm AND Challenge Young People

By Liz Thorne

A recent article in the Atlantic explored gender and the intersections of adolescent development, medical care, and parenting. Through the experiences of young people, trans and gender non-conforming folks, families and researchers, the article explores the central question of how to balance providing young people the support (from family support and mental health services to puberty-blocking drugs, hormones and/or surgery) they need while keeping in mind that adolescence is a time of identity exploration, and there is a diverse spectrum of gender identities beyond cis and trans- over 50 different identities are listed on Facebook. The article has received criticism from some readers, often those in the trans/gender non-conforming community for the focus on people who “desist” or “detransition”. Needless to say, there are so many layers to unpack in this issue, but setting that aside for a moment, I want to bring forward the pieces I found poignant as a cisgender female, heterosexual, White parent and professional working in adolescent and school health.

One thing that stood out to me in the article was the central tension between fully affirming and accepting young people’s (whether it is your child, student, or patient) identity with the pacing of young people making medical decisions that impact them for the rest of their lives. From the perspective of a parent, I fully understand wanting to give your kids all of the resources they need to be successful. I also recognize the experiences of trans and gender non-conforming folks in the medical community, and moving away from any sort of gatekeeping or putting in place hoops to jump through in order to get care.  Youth development practices came to mind while I was reading this article, particularly the tenants of Developmental Relationships, a framework created by the Search Institute’s research in what makes relationships powerful for young people. The elements are:

-       Express care

-       Challenge growth

-       Provide support

-       Share power

-       Expand possibilities

Developmental relationships not only express care and provide support, but they challenge growth. We need both. Mental health, influences of peers and social groups and societal and cultural norms all contribute to the development of gender identity, and all of these layers need to be interrogated by young people as they figure out who they are. However, that nuanced and critical analysis of themselves and their culture by young people needs to happen in an environment where they are affirmed and supported.

A well-trained team of providers working in partnership with youth and families will lead to better outcomes.

Sharing power, particularly with regard to the medical community for trans and gender non-conforming young people is paramount. A well-trained team of providers working in partnership with youth and families will lead to better outcomes. Finally, expanding the possibilities for young people as they explore their identities, to me, is to continually challenge stereotypical gender norms and roles. This is something we talk about a lot in our family. Case in point- my 2 year old son loves to wear his big sister’s dresses. It is fascinating to see how this one clothing choice changes the way the world interacts with him. Yet, when he plays loud and rough he is “all boy”. We constantly challenge those gender stereotypes as they come up (which is almost everyday). Boys can wear dresses. Girls can have short hair. Boys can play with baby dolls. Girls can be loud and climb things.

Whether you like or dislike the Atlantic article as written, one thing that I think even critics can agree with is that the foundation of any healthy identity development must be affirmation, love and support.  It stood out to me that many of the young people in the article were surrounded by affirming and supportive parents and had the means and ability to access medical professionals who also affirmed their identity. This is not the case for many young people in this country. We all can do our part to create a more affirming and loving society- in our homes, communities and institutions. Below are lists some actions I came up with, and would love to hear others from anyone reading this as well!

-       Support statewide policies that make access to medical services for trans and gender-non-confirming youth available and affordable.

-       Make sure your state department of education and school district has a non-discrimination and student rights policy that includes trans and gender-nonconforming students as a part of Title IX, as Federal guidance on the issue was rolled back by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

-       Support your school to have an all-user bathroom and policies that allow students to use the locker room that aligns with their gender identity.

-       Call students by their preferred pronouns. Let them wear clothing that makes them feel good.

-       Ensure comprehensive sexuality education includes information and skill building around respect for people with different gender identities.

-       Bring voices from the trans/gender non-conforming community into your classroom. Engage your school’s Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) and reach out to organizations run by and for folks in the trans and gender non-conforming community.

-       Challenge stereotypical gender norms and tell the young people in your life you love them, for who they are, daily.

-       Support and donate to organizations in your community that serve trans and gender non-conforming youth and families.

 

Resources:

-       The Trevor Project https://www.thetrevorproject.org/

-       Human Rights Campaign, Welcoming Schools professional development program. http://www.welcomingschools.org/

-       Trans/Gender Non-Conforming Justice Project http://www.thetaskforce.org/current_action/transgender-non-conforming-justice-project/

Supporting K-12 Schools to #TeachThem in a Time of #MeToo

By Liz Thorne

The #MeToo movement has shown the extent to which acts of rape, sexual violence and sexual misconduct permeate the lives of countless women, as well the people and institutions that allow it to perpetuate like an “open secret”. Last month, the news of allegations of sexual misconduct against Asis Ansari added a new dimension to the #MeToo discourse. There was a debate about whether the actions of Asis belonged in the same conversation as the actions of Harvey Weinstein or Larry Nassar. But folks working in the field of sexuality education knew that it did.

While I was consuming all of this in my news feed, I just kept thinking to myself, “This is why we need more comprehensive sexuality education in every school in every town starting from preschool through higher education!” According to the Guttmacher Institute, fewer than half the states require schools to include the topic of “avoiding coercion” as part of a sexuality education program and similarly, a majority don’t require discussion of healthy relationships. But teaching young people about healthy relationships is the primary prevention for sexual violence because it’s centered on breaking down gender stereotypes, setting healthy boundaries, communication, and that consent is more than just “not hearing no”.

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There are states and school districts that are using this as an opportunity to strengthen laws and policies around sexuality education. The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) has developed a toolkit to support educators to advocate for policies that support comprehensive sexuality education. They also created the partner #TeachThem movement to build on the awareness that #MeToo has brought to the need for stronger comprehensive sexuality education. But even states with strong policies struggle with implementation due to a lack of funding for professional development for teachers and administrators.

This is why I’m so proud to be supporting a school district with funding from Advocates for Youth to develop a sexuality education plan of instruction K-12 inclusive of policy, scope and sequence and training/professional development. Earlier this month we held a meeting with folks representing: education, public health and child welfare at the state level; school administrators; district staff; county public health; community based organizations that provide culturally specific sexuality education; university; LGTBQ rights; and sexual assault/violence prevention.  The group came together to critique the first draft of a district sexuality education policy. We envisioned a policy that codifies instruction that is not just developmentally appropriate and science-based, but inclusive and trauma-informed. A policy where school level data are used to guide instruction, and teachers are enthusiastic and equipped to teach sexuality education through strong professional development and support from an incredible network of community partners. There is so much more work to do, but I left this meeting filled with energy and hope.   

I salute these and other professionals, sexuality educators, young people, teachers, administrators and advocates across the country working to strengthen sexuality education. Our work has never been more important or needed.

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