Gender fluidity: What it means and why support matters

Take a moment – yes, now – to consider your gender. Do you identify yourself as a woman, a man or another gender: how would you describe your gender identity? How do you show your gender to others through your appearance or behavior – in other words, your gender expression? And has your gender identity or gender expression changed or stayed the same over time?

Questions like these can be especially helpful if you are wondering how gender identity and expression can change as children grow older. And, of course, these questions can resonate with many adults as well.

At times in my life I have had shorter hair and a penchant for men’s pants and dress shoes. I also sometimes enjoyed playing male roles in theatrical productions and dressing as a man on Halloween. At other times in my life, I’ve had longer hair and frequently worn dangling dresses and earrings – and more feminine Halloween costumes. Although my gender expression has evolved over time from less feminine to more feminine, I have always identified as a girl or a woman.

What is gender fluidity?

Let’s define some terms. Cisgender means that a person’s gender identity matches the sex – female or male – designated on their original birth certificate. Gender fluidity refers to the change over time in a person’s gender expression or gender identity, or both. This change can be in expression, but not in identity, or in identity, but not in expression. Or expression and identity can change together.

For some young people, gender fluidity can be a way to explore gender before finding more stable gender expression or identity. For others, the fluidity between the sexes can continue indefinitely as part of their life experience with gender.

Some people describe themselves as “fluid between the sexes”. As an identity, it usually falls under the transgender, not binary umbrella, which applies to people whose gender identity does not match the sex assigned to them on their original birth certificate. (Non-binary means that a person’s gender identity does not fit into strict cultural categories of female or male.)

Not all people who experience changes in their expression or gender identity identify as gender fluids. Not everyone wants gender-affirming medical treatment to change their body to better align with their gender identity, either.

How does the genre evolve and change?

People usually begin to develop a gender identity in early childhood, around age 2 or 3. Gender identity develops in multiple social contexts: a person’s family, their wider community, society. and the historical era in which she lives. Each of these can have very different norms and expectations regarding gender expression and gender identity.

For example, a child may live in a family that believes gender is more complex than boys or girls and encourages a diversity of gender expressions. That same child can live in a city where most people believe boys should ‘look like boys’ and girls should ‘look like girls’. And that child could live in a society and in historical times with gender norms similar to those of their community. Thus, that child may feel more free to have a different gender expression or identity at home than in public.

For many people, gender identity and expression develop early and stay the same over time. For others, one or the other may change. While such changes can occur at any time in a person’s life, they are more common during childhood and adolescence than later in adulthood.

What is the difference between fluid gender and transgender?

While some people develop a gender identity early in childhood, others may identify with one sex at one point and then another later. For example, a person identified as female on their original birth certificate may identify as a girl until their teens and then identify as a boy for the rest of their life. This person would be considered transgender, but not necessarily gender fluid.

Another person who follows this arc of development can only identify as a boy until they are in their twenties, then identify as non-binary, then identify again as a boy later in the day. ‘adulthood. This person could be considered fluid because they have experienced one or more changes in their gender identity or gender expression. It’s wise to note, however, that they may never use the term gender fluid as an identity tag for themselves.

Ultimately, anyone who identifies as Gender Fluid is a Gender Fluid person. Often the term is used to mean that a person’s gender expression or gender identity – essentially, their internal sense of self – changes frequently. But the fluidity of genres can be different for different people.

How does gender fluidity relate to the health of children and adolescents?

Just like adults, children and adolescents who express or identify their gender differently from their designated sex at birth are more likely to experience prejudice and discrimination. These experiences can create minor stress that is harmful to their mental and physical health. Compared to cisgender youth, transgender youth are two to three times more likely to experience depression, anxiety, self-injurious behaviors, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

All communities have expectations about what is “normal”. A young person who is fluid between the sexes may be at greater risk of prejudice and discrimination because their changing gender identity or expression defeats the expectation that each of these aspects of the personality develop early and remain the even over time. And harmful interactions may not just happen with cisgender people. A young person who is fluid between the sexes may also face discrimination from some people in the transgender community who see them as “not really transgender”. Seeing a young person dressing more feminine one day and more masculine another day can seem confusing or even threatening to anyone with strict gender ideas.

How can you support the gender fluid youth in your life?

I encourage you to think about gender fluidity in the context of the diversity of human experiences related to gender identity and expression. While acceptance is important in how we treat anyone, it is especially important for children and teens.

  • Listen to young people and validate their experience of their gender. Everyone is the expert of their own gender.
  • Be patient, as a young person’s gender fluency can be part of developing their gender identity.
  • Helping gender-sensitive youth make informed decisions about gender care, such as hormone therapy and gender surgeries.
  • Connect them with support and resources so they can talk to others with similar experiences. Gender Spectrum is a great resource for the youth and adults in their lives.

The article Gender Fluidity: What it Means and Why Support Issues first appeared on the Harvard Health Blog.

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