In 2014, I was a school counselor working with low-income and at-risk youth. There, I founded and led our first GSA, or Gay-Straight Alliance. It attracted students from multiple grade levels and the group was full of bright, creative, and engaged kids – truly inspired teens. I always tried to be watchful and nuanced when framing our discussions because of how sensitive and impressionable teenagers are. I quickly noticed that the kids were expressing a lot of confusion. Specifically, they got into animated conversations about the growing list of divergent (and sometimes bewildering) gender identities and sexualities being introduced by mainstream LGBT advocates. I remember one meeting in particular: a girl told the group about a set of bracelets she had seen online. Each one is a different color, worn to supposedly indicate what gender you are “identifying as” that day – so others know what pronouns to use when addressing you. She seemed puzzled and asked us, “I mean, how exactly can you feel like a boy, or a demi-girl, or non-binary? Are they talking about emotions, like if I’m feeling kinda angry and aggressive, does that mean I’m identifying as a guy that day? Or like, what kind of clothes I am wearing?” Other students chimed in, agreeing, and we had a thoughtful and interesting conversation about what it could mean to have a gender identity. We couldn’t reach a satisfying conclusion, perhaps because gender identity is complex and multifactorial.
Interestingly enough, a few years later, one of the young women who couldn’t even fathom the notion of gender identity, now suddenly claimed she had a new one herself – she had come to identify as a “trans boy.” Apparently, she had made this self-discovery after spending a lot of time online trying to learn more about gender identity, precisely because she didn’t understand it and wanted to be a good ally.
The iatrogenic nature of this cycle seems clear and deserves more research, but mainstream medical and mental health organizations have been largely silent about the potential causality in this relationship. I have been speaking up about this phenomenon since 2016. Through appearances, writing, workshops, and my podcast, which I co-host with Stella O’Malley, Gender: A Wider Lens, I advocate for psychological exploration first, rather than starting with a social and medical “affirmation.”