When Gisele Hardock of Cochrane, Alta., saw her 15-year old come into the kitchen three weeks ago, she did a quick double take, then get on with what she was doing: Ali had painted their face with red and blue swirls and was wearing a fitted suit vest over a plaid shirt. They were half-way through customizing the shirt with a wool design, so colourful strands of yarn were dangling from the fabric and a knitting needle was still pinned to the area getting the DIY treatment.
Hardock’s family of five had been self-isolating for over two months, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so Gisele was unfazed by the latest look: “I don’t so much care what [Ali] looks like on the outside, it’s what’s inside that counts.”
“Experimenting lets me be happier,” said Ali, who identifies as genderqueer and greygender, which for them means defining outside of the male/female binary, with a shifting sense of gender. Being able to communicate what’s on the inside through clothes and make-up goes beyond just cultivating style: “It’s who I am.”
Over the last few months, away from school peers and with ample free time on their hands, young people like Ali, lucky enough to have an affirming family, have been getting creative with gender expression.
And research shows that family support makes all the difference for the mental health of LGBTQ2 youth, which is particularly important during times of stress like the present.
Even though Gisele is still learning all the terminology and concepts around Ali’s identity, she always returns to the principle that “kids are valuable, and their opinions are valuable.”
A 2016 study concluded that transgender children with accepting families are as psychologically healthy as their non-transgender counterparts. The Family Acceptance Project has found that LGBTQ2 youth who’ve experienced family rejection are 50 per cent more likely to attempt or consider suicide. While not all gender non-conforming or gender-questioning youth identify as LGBTQ2, these studies are a reminder of how important unconditional love and acceptance are for every young person.
Eddy Robinson, the Community Programs and Outreach Team Lead at Calgary’s Skipping Stone Foundation, said it’s important for parents to remember that gender identity and expression are related, but not interchangeable.
“Gender identity is something that we feel inside,” Robinson told HuffPost, “whereas expression is the thing we can control and communicate to the world through things like clothing, mannerisms, toys, and make up.” Creative gender expression isn’t specific to the Queer community, even though LGBTQ2 folks have so much to offer in this realm.
“Having online engagement has made a really cool opportunity for kids to get involved in that space of gender bending,” said Robinson. TikTok personalities like @glambylambeth show the sparkly side of gender nonconformity, while Instagram’s @a_smile_and_a_song delights with queer cosplay and @labellesophie comes through with non-confirming comics. But not everyone can shine in the way they want; many are trapped in unsafe spaces.
The Gay and Lesbian Youth Services of Western New York said it best on their Instagram: “For some of us, being under #lgbtquarantine has given us space to play with our gender expression, and for others it has made it much harder to express who we are. No matter what, we see you. You are valid, and your gender expression is YOURS 💜”
While older youth can find community and celebration of who they are through social media, younger kids depend on caregivers to support their gender expression through clothing, play-style, and dress-up.
Mary-Catherine White of Keswick, Ont., told HuffPost that she put her daughter Kate’s hair into a ponytail for the first time last week. This milestone was particularly meaningful for Kate: assigned male at birth, she has consistently identified as a girl, and she changed her name last fall. Mary-Catherine said isolation has given Kate time to express herself the way she wants.
While Kate misses her teachers and friends, Mary-Catherine admits to feeling some relief at not having to explain Kate’s gender, or navigate interactions with any unsupportive family members. “It’s been a wonderful thing for us to feel safe and protected.”
For parents still unsure how to support their gender expressive child, Eddy Robinson suggests thinking about the difference between feeling safe and “feeling that you’re going to thrive.” An affirming home celebrates all gender expressions, and family members might even play with gender alongside the child. Having books that celebrate diversity, like those published by Flamingo Rampant or TV shows like Steven Universe, will help develop this kind of family culture.
For additional supports, Robinson recommends reaching out to other families with gender-creative kids, or to local Pride groups. Calgary’s Skipping Stone Foundation offers trans and non-binary specific resources, and the Centre for Sexuality is running an online GSA (Gay-Straight/ Gender-Sexuality Alliance) for youth, called Cloud GSA.
Mary-Catherine White has appreciated the websites Gender Creative Kids and Sex Positive Families. Robinson recommended finding a gender-affirming therapist if a child needs support with mental health, or if the child is consistently identifying as something other than their assigned sex at birth.
School has not always been a safe space for Ali, but when asked if they feel supported at home, they respond with an enthusiastic yes. Although they know this isn’t the case for many of their friends, Ali said gratefully, “I’ve had the chance to be really creative and explore the clothes I wear; now I feel I’ll have more confidence to go back to school wearing clothes that represent me better.”
As for the first-day-back-to-school look they’re dreaming of?
Look for the kid wearing a colourful flowing skirt, a vest, a moustache and—of course—swirly make-up.
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