Gender is a Spectrum: How to Support Students and Parents in Understanding the Complexity of Gender Expression and Identity.

Gender is a Spectrum: How to Support Students and Parents in Understanding the Complexity of Gender Expression and Identity | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

Our world has historically been built for those who identify as cisgender (a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex). A cisgender person knows what soccer team to join, what section of a store to shop in, what toys or decorations to buy, and especially what bathroom to use. In our society, to question your gender identity is to suddenly be left stranded and confused. Clothes that outwardly appear to fit, make you feel like an imposter, signs that signal belonging no longer include you, and with all of these societal displacements come incredible amounts of fear and anxiety about not fitting in, about maintaining relationships with loved ones, and about how to stay safe in a world that may not understand or welcome you.

Parents and professionals, you have seen this struggle. You know these students are hurting and often wonder what the best course of action is to provide them with some support and understanding. Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program can help these adolescents and young adults on their journey toward self-acceptance and recognizes the importance of treatment that is specific to the needs of this population. Students are validated and supported by staff, therapists, and fellow students, wherever they may be in their process. Aspiro’s therapist Leigh Uhlenkott, is trained and certified in working with transgender youth, and her first-hand experience of guiding her own child through a gender identity journey provides Leigh with additional perspective, insight, and empathy, as she works with families and students.

Below, Leigh shares some helpful information for both parents and professionals.

What do we need to know about gender?

Often, we talk about “gender” in binary terms: you are either a boy or girl, depending on what sex organs you have. However, the term “gender” is more complicated than this. When we pick it apart, we begin to see the different ways in which we express who we are, rather than simply relying on our genitalia to do it for us.

We can break gender down into 4 key components:

  1. Gender Identity – an internal sense of our own gender, which may or may not be the same as our biological sex
  2. Gender Expression – how we dress, talk, or behave in order to show our gender
  3. Sexual Orientation – our sexual identity in relation to the gender to which we are attracted
  4. Biological Sex – the anatomy of an individual’s reproductive system

For example, two people could identify as a homosexual and identify as female, but one of these people could express their gender as more feminine, while the other could express themselves as more masculine, cutting their hair short and wearing traditionally male clothing.

Our students also fit in various places on this spectrum. For example, some of our students identify as males, while some who identify as females are more comfortable presenting as more masculine on the outside. Some students may be set in their identities and expressions while others may still be trying to figure out what their brains and bodies are telling them feels right.

While it can be clear from an outsider’s perspective that someone aligns more along the feminine or masculine spectrum, it is the person’s choice whether to disclose their gender identity. Some students may be “out and proud”, while others may be existing in “stealth”, where they don’t disclose any information about their sexual orientation or gender identity. As allies, we should not jump to conclusions about someone’s gender expression based solely off of looks or our assumptions.

We also need to be careful about who we disclose someone’s gender status to. According to GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), coming out as a transgender person is different from coming out as someone who is expressing their sexual orientation; for the transgender population, they are transitioning into their true selves, and having to tell someone they are transgender can feel disempowering. Thus, when we have conversations with people about gender, we need to remember how sensitive this information is and respect the person’s right to privacy.

How can a parent support a student on their journey through gender exploration?

First and foremost, students have the right to expect unconditional love, kindness, and support. No matter your understanding or feelings about gender, putting a child’s mental and emotional well-being before your own judgments will help you repair and maintain a relationship with your child. Rather than coming at children with solutions or questions or anger, try to listen and understand what they are saying. Maybe we haven’t questioned our own gender identities, but certainly, we have all known what it feels like not to belong, to be misunderstood, or to feel alone. Start from a place of empathy and remember, supportive parenting is effective parenting.

Creating a home that is safe for discussions about gender is a great place to start when it comes to demonstrating the unconditional support that our students need. An exploration into our own experiences with gender and examining where our beliefs on gender came from can un-earth some wonderful insights that can fuel real change in our relationships with our children. Being aware of our pronoun use and using the pronouns our students use to identify themselves is another way to help bridge divides. Ultimately, however, be gentle with yourselves. We all make mistakes when it comes to talking with our kids about important truths; all we can do is educate ourselves as much as possible, own up when we slip up, and look to grow from these moments.

How can I process through my own misunderstanding / confusion about what my student is going through?

We all have a gender history. From the moment our parents knew we were boys or girls, our identities were molded by these labels. When we have discussions with our children about their changing identities, we bring our own gender stories with us into the conversation, for better or for worse. What do we do to understand and process through our own thoughts about gender, or through a conversation that may not have gone so well?

Journaling is a simple and effective tool for any parent to use when beginning to understand and support a child’s gender journey. Having a place to write down your fears and your learnings about gender can help make sense of the new information you are taking in. Journaling can also give you as a parent the space you need to review your judgments and preconceptions in a neutral space, without the emotional attachments a face-to-face conversation can carry.

In addition, there are many parents who are asking and struggling with the same questions you are. Find your community through local Pride chapters or PFLAG groups; there are also conferences you can attend to get more information to bring back to your family. These organizations can give you the support you need to begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

What resources exist for me to gain better insight into gender?

We grew up in a time when gender was about whether you were a boy or a girl. Since our definitions of gender are evolving, there is a whole host of information out there to help support your conversations with your child about gender. For a comprehensive list of resources, please see the lists below:

Books:

Websites:

Camps

  • Camp Aranu’tiq-Transgender Youth Located: New Hampshire and California Founded 2009
    (Summer Camps for youth, teens, and families)
  • Gender Odyssey –  a summer camp for 14-18 

Conferences

About Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program​

Aspiro Adventure offers safe, effective, and clinically-sophisticated treatment options for adolescents and young adults with struggles related to gender expression and gender identity struggles.

Aspiro Adventure’s Wilderness Adventure Therapy program was uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research-backed, and safe outdoor adventure therapy programs. The professionals at Aspiro Adventure understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.

Aspiro Adventure focuses on helping adolescents, young adults, and their families through difficulties that occur when various behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present. Research shows that engaging individuals on a personal level with strategic and intentional activities will aid in developing the tools and skills necessary to engage life in a healthy and positive way.

By Leigh Uhlenkott, NCC, LMHC
  • Leigh Uhlenkott, NCC, LMHC
    Leigh Uhlenkott, NCC, LMHC
    Clinical Wilderness Therapist, Adolescent Males & Females, Ages 13-17

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Leigh Uhlenkott, NCC, LMHC
Clinical Wilderness Therapist, Adolescent Males & Females, Ages 13-17

Also specializes in: NLD / Spectrum Disorders / Learning and Executive Functioning Issues / Substance Dependence / Obesity / Self-Esteem Issues / Adoption / School Refusal / Anger Management / ADHD / Oppositional Defiance Disorder

During her 20 years of experience, Leigh has worked at a therapeutic boarding school for boys specializing in learning disabilities, 3 wilderness therapy programs; Expedition/Nomadic model, Transition Model, and now an Adventure based programming model working with adolescents with multiple diagnoses, and a school in Broward County, FL providing counseling, prevention work, and substance abuse counseling for adolescents. Leigh also has training in and a certification for working with transgendered clients. She has extensive experience working effectively with these clients and is passionate about doing so. Leigh’s eclectic approach fosters her ability to be creative with each individual she works with, finding the best possible interventions to meet their needs. She enjoys helping struggling families’ find their common ground so that they can move forward out of crisis. Leigh has a particular strength in utilizing wilderness therapy to find the perfect metaphors and rites of passage to support real change and sustainable success. When not working, she enjoys traveling and spending time with her family, friends, and her two rescue dogs—Fluffy and Yoda.