Gender identity and pronouns?
Hello esteemed members of the CYC-Net,
My name is Joshua and I am a second year Child and Youth Care Counselor major at Mount Royal University. I am currently undergoing my practicum experience at an after school program where the population I am working with involves youth roughly around the ages of 11-14. One young individual I have become acquainted with at the center is biologically female but prefers to be addressed by male pronouns. I have noticed that the other youth and even some staff tend to use female pronouns when referring to him but I try to gently remind them of his wishes. That being said, I find myself in a fix at times when I’m engaging other youth alongside this young man and the wrong pronouns are uttered by several people. I often have moments of hesitation as to whether I should jump in and correct them or instead give this young man a chance to speak for his own self. To further add to my hesitation, I often am unsure as to how in depth of a conversation I need to have with the other youth about gender identity because I am unclear as to whether this young man has fully embraced identifying as the male gender or is at a stage where they are merely experimenting with it. My question to you fellow members is: How do I approach this situation so that the other youth understand the concept of gender identity and act respectfully to this young man and in return have him feel safe and okay enough to speak up for himself without feeling embarrassed?
Thank you for your time and effort,
The best thing to do is talk to the young person about how you can better support him in these situations. Gender and pronouns can be tricky to navigate, and sometimes dangerous, so it is extremely important to have a conversation first with the individual about how you can be supportive, and what he wants you to do in situations.
The other thing to look at is how the agency or program is generally supportive of trans and queer youth. Are bathrooms gender neutral or single use? Are staff affirming? Programmatically, how are gender and sexuality addressed? Is there space for a general conversation about gender and sexuality?
Regardless of this particular young person's identity, gender is fluid, and being able to have those conversations with young people is important to their interactions and navigations in the world.
Those are some really fantastic and timely questions. They are definitely challenging ones and ones that I have some personal experience with. Good for you for recognizing that this has the potential to be a really uncomfortable and difficult situation for this young man and seeking out support and advice!
First of all, I would recommend having a conversation with the young man in question and ask him how he is doing with being misgendered in the group and if there are things that he would or wouldn't like to see happen around this. Everyone is different and at a different level of comfort with themselves and their identities so different interventions make sense at different stages, which you won't know until you talk to him.
Correcting pronouns can get tedious if it is being done over and over again. I like to think that in a lot of situations people who use the incorrect pronouns for someone haven't been exposed to people who use different pronouns before and may not understand why they need to use a different one and how important it is. I would recommend looking into some external groups that do things like trans awareness workshops or anti transphobia workshops for young people and bring them into your program as guest speakers. This works on a few levels, bringing people from outside the organization tends to lend credibility to what is being said rather than it being program staff saying it, it takes away pressure from the young man in your group to have to be the expert, but gives him space to talk about his story if he would like to, and it gives the young man in your program the opportunity to develop relationships or find role models in people who are like him and do fully get him. That aspect of things works especially well if you can find a group that invites young people within their organization to facilitate the workshops.
I am pretty sure Mount Royal is in Montreal and while I don't know any organizations off the top of my head in this moment I have friends who do and can find out for you reasonably easily if you message me off list.
Additionally, when the presentation happens, I would be mindful of how it is framed. I've seen lots of well intentioned youth workers who say things like "Come on guys, this is important so we can all learn how to support Johnny" but that can feel really uncomfortable when you are the one who is singled out as being different and requires a whole workshop so that people know what to do with you. So framing the importance as something that is important for their growth and development rather than to benefit one person in the room. This is important because trans people and non binary people are everywhere, and it's a human rights issue that we know how to treat them respectfully and include them. It's a little less fun sounding, but the need to keep everyone safe is an important one.
And in terms of the young man getting to a place where he feels it is safe to correct people's pronouns, I've been out as genderqueer for more than 5 years now, and it's still something I struggle with on a daily basis. It is exhausting to correct everyone all the time and to be having that conversation constantly. Especially when it is someone who is in a position of power over you. It's scary and you never know how someone is going to respond. Bringing up the issue in the last few months has gotten me a variety of responses from arguments about whether or not singular they is a pronoun, confusion about what a pronoun is, hostility towards nonbinary people, to people being supportive, getting it and using the right pronouns. So, adjusting your expectations that this young man will eventually be able to fully take over this task or do it consistently, as that may not happen for quite a long time. In the meantime, your role is to make the space as safe and welcoming as possible and that means that you and the other staff need to jump in there and correct as much as possible and promote a culture shift as much as possible to help this young man feel safe in his identity so he can feel safe to advocate for himself eventually.
I hope this is helpful, and I'm certainly up for discussing it more if that would be helpful.
It sounds like your role in this situation boils down to being a good ally. You mentioned wanting this young man to feel safe in order to express himself and speak up for himself. I think it is really important to remember that trans folk have to speak up for themselves and justify their existence, their gender, their bathroom decisions, etc. on a continuous basis... and that's hard. He will become more comfortable with who he is as he grows, though that is the same for all teens on all ends of the gender spectrum. He needs you to continue to speak up for him and with him.
In terms of the other youth in the program, I believe that the
solution lies in education.
I've listed a few suggestions on how to start that.
•Find a local group to come and speak to the program. I noted that
you live in Calgary so did a quick google search and found a link to
some sources that might be helpful. http://www.calgaryoutlink.ca/ It
might be useful to contact them and ask if they could do a workshop on
trans inclusion and the gender spectrum at your program.
• If that is not available I might suggest creating an experiential learning program with the focus on privilege and gender identity.
• Or find a good documentary to bridge a conversation and begin to educate the group on trans issues.
There is a lot of helpful information online on how to be a good ally. One video that really sums it up is this great youtube video – 5 Tips for Being a Good Ally: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dg86g-QlM0
Good luck with the rest of your practicum.
It’s sounds like you are working hard to be an advocate and I think it’s great you are “gently reminding” those who are mis-gendering this young guy, particularly colleagues. I’m always a big fan of asking young people what they would like, so I’d start there. As I’m a cisgender male, I thought it would make sense to ask some colleagues who are not cisgender what they thought. Here is a response from one person Bridget Liang.
“Having a sit down conversation with this young person helps to figure out what to do. But there are some obvious things that also need to be done in prep in order to be able to fully support this young person.
There's the obvious asking if the worker should correct people when they get it wrong. If yes, then great! If not, then asking what they would like to do.
Pronouns can also require code switching; the ability to change gears at a moment's notice. A trans/gender non-conforming person may use different pronouns in different spaces for safety reasons. For example, with my friends and in most of my life, I use she/her pronouns when I'm in front of straight people in my usual life, they/them in queer space, and I endure he/him when visiting family (even though it feels like I'm dying inside).
Affirm and validate that whatever pronouns and ways they want to be is okay. Gender is messy and complicated. Pronouns can change from day to day or space to space. Ways people dress or present themselves can change from day to day and space to space too. It doesn't hurt to check in with someone what pronouns they're using periodically if you know them. It sounds like the worker has some idea of trans issues.
Ideally, being able to explain to the group about gender creativity/diversity. There are people whose genders/ways of expressing themselves are different from what you assume. This is a good time to talk about diversity in general and respect. Like racial/cultural differences, ability/body differences, size, and gender. Emphasize being able to live with each other and respecting the ways people do things different from you. Because we want to be treated the right way too! (Platinum rule: treat people the way you want to be treated).”
Bridget has said I can post her email in case you are interested in following up with her, email@example.com.
I would also suggest you check out the September 24th, 2013 episode of Child and Youth Care Podcast (www.CYCPodcast.org). It is called “Supporting Trans* Children and Youth: A conversation with Hershel Russell”. Mr. Russell is trans-male psychotherapist, educator and activist who discusses different understandings of gender and how to support young people who are "gender-independent" or trans.