“If I talk about emotions or cry, my father says I’m not acting masculine enough. He’s always telling me to go to the gym and lift weights. I wish he would accept me for who I am.”

“My mother got mad at me when I cut my hair really short. She says it’s not feminine. But who says I have to conform to a gender stereotype?”

“I don’t identify as either male or female. I don’t think it matters. I feel neutral about gender.”

Gender is a hot topic on college campuses. Many of the college students I see in my office bring up gender issues, as they go through the journey of learning who they truly are. I’ve met many university mental health professionals and administrators who are encountering the same phenomenon. Are students changing the definition of what it means to be a man or a woman? Is there an increase in students who are transgender, gender fluid, or gender non-conforming?

Before discussing gender trends, let’s review the language of gender, which continues to evolve. Gender identity is a person’s internal sense of their gender, of who they are. Gender expression is how a person shows gender externally through clothes, language and behavior. Transgender is an umbrella term for people who do not identify and/or express themselves as the sex they were assigned at birth. This could include people who were assigned male at birth and identify as female, who were designated female at birth and identify as male, or who don’t identify as either gender. Gender fluid describes people whose gender identity and expression could vary from day to day.

Gender is incredibly complex, emerging from a combination of factors: chromosomes, hormones, physical characteristics, psychology, and culture. Throughout the world, gender is expressed in a multitude of ways, and some cultures are fully accepting of genders that fall outside of what is typically male or female. College campuses are also places where the complexity of gender can be seen every day.

Image Provided By ILGA
Source: Image Provided By ILGA

Here are five things you should know about gender trends on campus:

  1. College aged adults are redefining what it means to be a man or a woman. Half of people aged 18-34 believe that gender is a spectrum, and that some people fall outside conventional categories of male and female.
  2. While college-aged adults take a more flexible view on gender in general, the majority of college students – 96.9 percent describe themselves as identifying with their sex at birth, according to a 2016 American College Health Association (ACHA) Survey. In other words, a person who is designated female at birth continues to identify as female. 3.1 percent describe themselves as non-binary. Non-binary in this survey means students are either transgender or their current gender is not consistent with how they were assigned at birth. Although 3.1 percent seems like a small number, when one considers there are approximately 16 million college students in this country, this could work out to almost half a million students.
  3. It is hard to say if students have increased their identification as non-binary or transgender, as the ACHA survey altered their questions on gender identity, preventing comparisons with previous surveys. Researchers in general have had difficulty getting reliable results on transgender rates in the adolescent population, but they are estimated at 1 percent.
  4. Colleges provide special protections to transgender students under Title IX, a law prohibiting discrimination against students based on gender. Colleges continue to work out details on how to create a welcoming and inclusive environment to all students on the gender spectrum, with many schools offering new housing options, LGBT resource centers, and support groups.
  5. College students who are transgender have about double the rate of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders compared to other college students. They may be more vulnerable to these mental health issues as they are more likely to be bullied in middle school and high school, or face rejection from family and friends. Colleges and national organizations are offering training for mental health professionals to better help students who are transgender.

If your child is transgender or gender questioning, your support is critical to their mental well-being. This may be a confusing time for you and your student, as they define who they want to be. Transgender students express their gender  in different ways, and may or may not dress differently, seek hormone therapy, or pursue gender confirmation surgery.

Here are steps you can take to help.

  1. Maintain a loving and positive attitude. Your child is closely watching your response, and may be less likely to communicate with you if they feel rejected.
  2. If you are feeling overwhelmed, talk with a therapist or find support through PFLAG, an organization for the LGBT community and their families.
  3. Ask your child what pronoun they want you to use. Some will want the pronoun for the gender they identify with, while others will want another word. Some students prefer the pronouns they and their instead of he/she or his/her.
  4. Help your child navigate through insurance challenges and be an advocate. Many college insurance plans offer coverage for transition-related medical treatments.
  5. Encourage your child to see a campus therapist or a psychiatrist if they are struggling with mental health issues.

When I hear young adults say they are questioning their gender expression or gender identity, I support them finding their authentic selves. With celebrities like Caitlin Jenner coming out as transgender, and Miley Cyrus describing herself as gender neutral, the world is becoming a more accepting place for people on the gender spectrum. Wherever your child’s gender road leads, your support and love will go a long way to ensuring their emotional wellness.

Check future blogs for details on my upcoming book on parenting and college wellness.

©2016 Marcia Morris, All Rights Reserved

Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.

If you’re interested in reading about a particular topic regarding college wellness and your child’s mental health, please email me at marciamorrismd@gmail.com.

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