As more kids question their gender identity, we need to support and accept them

Today's youth are much more open to questioning their gender, but it can still be difficult for their friends and family, writes columnist Amy Bell.

Kids, and their families, feel more acceptance and understanding when it comes to gender identity

A row of various LGBTQ+ pride flags.
While many kids feel comfortable questioning their gender identity or sexuality, it can still be a difficult transition for some. (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)

This story is part of Amy Bell's Parental Guidance column, which airs on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition.

I am a big fan of kids these days — they constantly amaze me. And, like a lot of other parents, I think the way they so openly approach and accept gender identity, gender fluidity and sexuality is pretty cool. 

Both of my children have close friends who have chosen to explore and live openly with a gender that feels true to them, even if it's not what they were assigned at birth, and some of them feel that gender is the least interesting aspect of themselves; it barely rates a mention when it comes to who they are. 

And while many more kids are now choosing to live a more authentic life, that doesn't mean it's just some trend or only popular because kids are being influenced by their peers. There have always been people in the past who wanted to do the same but felt they couldn't. 

Jen Marchbank is a professor of gender, sexuality and women's studies at Simon Fraser University and has spent years volunteering with the LGBTQ2+ activist group Youth for a Change, which she also co-founded. 

"What I've noticed is that we certainly have a great number of youth who identify as non-binary, whether that's trans or otherwise," Marchbank said. "Partly, I think, is that there is language. Kids have the language to express themselves. But also young people who can see other people living successful, visible lives as non-binary or as trans or as gender-fluid, that gives them some sense of 'ooh it's possible.' 

"I don't think there's any more kids, I just think there's more openness." 

Gender-curious kids feel safer and more protected now

Darcy Gatley just finished Grade 8 and she identifies as a transgender demi-girl, which essentially means she can identify as a woman as little or as much as she feels at the time. She agrees there aren't more people questioning their gender — just fewer people trying to stop them. 

"There's, like, a chart of how many left-handed people there have been over the years and it's gone up. Not because there are more people born left-handed but because people have stopped trying to make left-handed people right-handed," Gatley said. "There's not more people being transgender, it's just more of them feeling safe and protected." 

Families and friends are also impacted when anyone chooses to explore different gender identities. How can they be supportive but also be supported during some pretty big changes? For parents, talk to your kids and let them know you are always there to listen and understand. It can be a confusing time, but one great aspect of so many kids going on this journey of gender identity is there are more people to lean on who have had similar experiences and can shed some light and provide guidance. 

Anita Zaenker is Darcy Gatley's mom and, along with family and friends, she's been willing to do whatever it takes to make sure her daughter is supported and safe, even though the adjustments have been hard at times. 

"What we've had to adjust to is changes in name and pronouns. I used to think I had two boys but now I don't have two boys," Zaenker said. "What's been awesome is how supportive Darcy's sibling has been, [her] dad, our friends ... everyone is willing to make that change so that Darcy can be who Darcy is."

'There is still a very hateful subgroup out there'

But despite so many people being accepting and supportive, we still see a lot of aggression and hate toward marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ2+ community. 

Recent events featuring drag performers have been protested, and no matter how many rainbow crosswalks get painted, there is always someone waiting to deface them. There's no denying there has been a huge shift in the way we view gender and sexuality, and how much safer it is for people to express their preferences.

Marchbank says no matter how far we've come, we still have a long way to go. 

"People who hold particularly negative views and are prepared to spread them have become emboldened as of late. So there is still a very hateful subgroup out there. We just need supportive adults and allies to say, 'We're going to counter that.'" 

Growing up is tough no matter what — with incredible amounts of learning, change and pressure to fit in regardless of your gender or sexual orientation. But for those who feel they have to hide who they truly feel they are, it can be an especially lonely and sad time. It's awesome that so many kids today feel safe and supported in their journey to live honestly, and we should be proud of all the changes that have made that possible. 

Regardless of gender, kids need to be loved and supported and safe — and that is something that will never change. And with so many pride events scheduled in the coming weeks, I'm excited for anyone who might be participating for the first time while feeling comfortable in their own skin. 


Amy Bell is a digital contributor to CBC. She can be heard weekdays on The Early Edition as the traffic and weather reporter and parenting columnist.