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Understanding Gender in a New Light

Nonbinary expression was once celebrated in many ancient cultures.

Over the past several years, the concept of gender diversity has become one of our most hot-button issues. There is constant debate in our local, state, and federal government bodies, discussions at school-board meetings, daily news coverage, and innumerable social-media thought pieces. How did we get here?

A Changing Landscape

An increasing number of Americans report that they personally know someone who is transgender. While the general impression might be that the number of persons who identify as transgender and gender-diverse (TGD) has gone up, a recent report from UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute found “the percentage and number of adults who identify as transgender in the US has remained steady over time.”

Interestingly, the sense that there are more TGD persons is likely related to their increased visibility in the media, as well as a growing number of brave TGD persons who are “out” in their lives. Optimistically, we might take this to suggest there has been some progress as people feel more empowered to live authentically. At the same time, we must also recognize that not all media coverage is intended to cast TGD persons in a positive, accurate light, but rather to stoke the flames of fear and prejudice.

Much of the recent conversation has focused on TGD children, adolescents, and young adults. Studies suggest that increasing numbers of young adults report being transgender or nonbinary. For example, according to the Pew Research Center, roughly 5 percent of young adults in the US report their “gender is different from their sex assigned at birth.” With greater visibility and conversation, it is not surprising that younger generations feel more comfortable discussing the complexity of their gender identity while also expressing greater acceptance of friends and loved ones who are TGD.

Politically, there have been a few wins. In June 2023, the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) declined to review a ruling from a federal appeals court that found people with gender dysphoria are entitled to protections afforded by the Americans with Disabilities Act. By doing so, SCOTUS affirmed that TGD persons who experience gender dysphoria must be protected from discrimination on that basis. The importance of this cannot be overstated, since it may ultimately allow TGD persons to challenge state legislation that currently restricts gender-affirming medical care and other accommodations to those struggling with gender dysphoria. Over the next several months, particularly in light of the upcoming presidential election, it will be important to continue monitoring news coverage and legislation related to TGD persons—especially given the easy ways that people use the entire LGBTQ community as a wedge issue.

‘Nonbinary’ Is Not New

Globally, there have been many diverse cultures that did not historically subscribe to the notion of the gender binary. In fact, these cultures not only permitted, but celebrated those who experienced gender across the spectrum. However, with European colonization and the spread of rigid religious beliefs, native ideologies regarding gender expression and identity were stamped out in favor of the gender binary. As a result, those who might have once been embraced for gender diversity instead experienced marginalization, judgment, and rejection. Over time, social mores and laws evolved to reflect this negative perspective.

There is activism inherent in the work of supporting gender diversity, particularly since it challenges divisive notions resulting from religious and/or exclusionary ideology. When we stand with, and among, TGD persons, we directly resist historical and hetero-patriarchal structures within society—the very same ones that impact all members of the LGBTQ community.

Additionally, for many, the psychological and spiritual work of understanding and embracing gender diversity has come to represent not only activism, but an appreciation of the nuances of gender and the wisdom of indigenous cultural practices.

Loosening Our Concept of Gender

The ways in which we have been conditioned to adhere to rigid standards of gender, as well as the ideals of masculinity and femininity, have had a profound effect on how we see ourselves, the world, and the nature of our relationships.

Consider the adage “Boys and men don’t cry.” Is it possible that this widely held belief has paved the way for men (both cis and trans) to feel they cannot truly own their emotional experience of the world? This sentiment ultimately communicates that it is unacceptable—and unsafe—to express emotion because it signifies weakness. This is only one example out of so many in our culture that persuades us to think, behave, and respond in narrowly defined ways that deny our individuality and personhood.

We can begin to combat these notions in our own lives by first allowing ourselves, and those around us, greater freedom of expression. Begin by asking yourself: Do I hold onto beliefs about gender that no longer fit or serve me and others? Is it difficult for me to allow others to express and experience their gender identity in a way that is different from my own?

What steps can you take to move beyond the binary, and how can you encourage other members of the LGBTQ community to do the same?

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Daryl Shorter, MD

Daryl Shorter, MD, is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is board certified in both general and addiction psychiatry. His clinical practice focuses on the use of psychotherapy and medications to treat mental health and substance use disorders. Dr. Shorter serves as the psychiatrist of record at The Montrose Center and lectures widely on LGBTQ mental health and wellness. Dr. Shorter can be reached at dr.darylshorter@gmail.com.
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