Setting the Record Straight

You may have seen a news segment or article related to a recent tweet from actor and TV personality, Mario Lopez. In the excerpt (below), Lopez shares his opinions about young children and gender awareness.

My purpose in discussing this excerpt is not to vilify Lopez, or even to discuss the situation surrounding his employment circumstances or subsequent apology and retraction of the statement. It is clear that his sentiments are shared by a great many people. Because these ideas are so widespread, I feel they warrant examination and discussion.

Let’s start with the last sentence.

“When you’re a kid … you don’t know anything about sexuality yet. You’re just a kid.”

That’s not wrong, in and of itself. Young kids usually haven’t been taught about sexuality. One of the main errors here is that sexuality and gender have been conflated.

Many of you are probably aware that sexuality and gender are two separate concepts. If you weren’t aware before you read the previous sentence (and there is zero shame in that!), now you are.

At a very basic level, sexuality is how you express your attractions through behaviors, and is one facet of your identity. Sexuality is typically described with labels such as lesbian, gay, pansexual, bisexual, asexual, or heterosexual. There are many other labels for sexuality besides those listed here.

At a very basic level, gender is a role you perform. Gender expressions include clothing, hairstyles, and social roles/behaviors (such as care-taking, how one occupies space, and the like). Traditionally, gender expressions have been shaped according to societal expectations and teachings. Gender may be described with labels such as transgender, genderqueer, non-binary/enby, two-spirit, cisgender, feminine, or masculine. As with sexuality, there are many other words we can use to describe gender besides those listed here.

Where it gets tricky is that in our culture (and we are not alone), we often decide the gender roles we believe people should play based on their biological sex. And historically, biological sex has been determined by which genitals we see present or absent when a baby is born (or before they are born, thanks to technology).

Here in North America, that has most often translated to, “Humans with a penis are male, and should do/think/act/be in masculine ways,” and, “Humans with a vulva are female, and should do/think/act/be in feminine ways.” Our long-held definitions of what constitutes “masculine” and “feminine” are problematic, but are beyond the scope of this humble blog post(!).

To me, the heart of the Lopez excerpt is something we as adults, and especially parents, don’t like to think about–hell, most of us would prefer to flat-out deny–the fact that the majority of animals are sexual beings, humans included. And it’s a fine line, because we do not ever want to hypersexualize children. However, even children have feelings we would classify as sexual, although for children, those feelings are merely sensual (literally: experienced via the senses). Because, as Lopez might have been trying to say, young kids haven’t yet learned about what we think of as adult sexuality yet. But everyone figures out some of the kinds of touch that feel good to them, or not, at an early age.

Once we uncouple sexuality from gender, we are now having a completely different conversation.

On that note, it’s important to acknowledge that children become aware of their genders and the genders of others around the age of two or three. Myriad research has been done on this–it is a scientific “known.” Toddlers are also aware of whether or not how others are dressing them, treating them, and expecting them to act matches the gender they know themselves to be.

Every trans*person I know (including the one with whom I live) will affirm that they were aware of whether or not their gender identity matched how they were allowed to dress, how they were treated, and how they were expected to act from what most of us would consider a very young age (2 to 6).

[My friend Jay Pryor examines some of these concepts in their one-human show, “The Gender Reveal Party.” In TGRP, Jay explores their self-awareness of sexuality, gender identity, and so much more. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend the hour-long show.]

Another critical part of Lopez’s statement touches on the idea of irrevocable change. And, again, he is not wrong: hormone replacement therapy does lead to permanent physical changes.

Unlike being allowed to dress, be treated, and act according to your gender from a young age (which is identity affirming), hormone replacement therapy cannot actually be started until the child is at least old enough for natural puberty. Currently, many parents opt to have their teens or pre-teens use what are known as “blockers,” or, puberty blockers, to delay the onset of natural puberty. Blocking natural puberty gives the child the opportunity to continue to mature mentally and emotionally before beginning hormone replacement therapy and/or surgical intervention, if that’s in their best interest.

Blockers can be stopped at any time once they’ve been started, and the young person, in consultation with their parents, can then either allow puberty to occur as it would have without the blockers, or can begin hormone replacement therapy.

Just to be clear, no three-year-old is receiving puberty blockers, hormone replacement therapy, or gender confirmation surgery.

We know, again, from scientific data, that all children, but especially children who identify as genderfluid, genderqueer, or transgender, do better, both physically and mentally, when those closest to them affirm their identities by using their preferred name, using their preferred pronouns, allowing them to dress to match their gender identity, treating them according to their gender identity, and holding expectations for them congruent to their gender identity.

A recent study published on The Trevor Project (June 11, 2019) finds, “The Trevor Project’s new data underscores the need for LGBTQ inclusive and affirming policies, environments, families, and communities — especially in support of transgender and non-binary youth.” According to the data collected in this study, “two-thirds of LGBTQ youth reported that someone attempted to convince them to change their sexual orientation or gender identity,” and, “LGBTQ youth who experienced discrimination related to their sexual orientation or gender identity were twice as likely to attempt suicide” (emphasis mine).

Being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community is a known health risk. But this risk comes because of the detrimental policies, environments, family systems, and communities in which most of us must exist, not because of who we are, inherently.

Those of us in the LGBTQIA+ community respect the fact that those of you who are not in the community are confident in your sexual orientation and gender identity. We respect that, and would not even think to ask that you change in those regards. We are simply asking for the same respect. Trust us when we say we know who we are, even if it is different from who you are, or from who you would prefer us to be.

As always, thoughtful comments and questions are welcome.

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