We think we’re open-minded and up on what’s new, but we find ourselves increasingly in the dark as we meet and read more about people who describe themselves as trans, gender non-conforming, non-binary, gender fluid, and so on. We recognized we needed a crash course in gender identity and its parlance and the difference between it and sexual orientation.
So, we went to Nick Teich, 36, PhD, LCSW, who transitioned to male more than 10 years ago. He is CEO and Director of Camp Aranu’tiq, which he founded in 2009, and its overarching organization, Harbor Camps (harborcamps.org) in New Hampshire, which he founded in 2014. His website describes the organization as a nonprofit that provides camps for youth and families of specific populations that may often feel marginalized. The camps are designed to build confidence, resilience, community, and offer a place where campers can be their authentic selves. The content that follows has been edited and condensed.
A Gender Primer
Barbara/Margaret: At what age does someone become aware of gender identity and start to question their gender assigned sex at birth?
Nick Teich: There is no typical age when someone knows. Basically, gender identity is solidified around age 5. The person might not know or understand what is different gender-wise then and figure it out later in life, which is what happened to me. For example, they might transition at age 40 and when looking back, have known at age 5 something was off.
BB/MC: What kicks in to make the difference?
NT: It’s difficult to say exactly when it’s apparent because it’s different for each person. It could be that somebody knows someone else who is gender conflicted and that makes them aware. “Hey, that’s happening to me, too.” Or, at a young age, a child may refuse to dress “typically” like the sex they’re assigned at birth. They might say: “I’m not a boy, I’m a girl and I want to wear dresses and that’s who I am.” This can come on as young as age 3 or even younger. For other kids, it’s not in the consciousness until later. Looking back when I was age 5 or 6, I asked my mother to let me cut my hair short and told my parents I wished I were a boy. I wanted to be called a boy’s name. They referred to me as a tomboy. It was the late ‘80s and that was normal and acceptable. People then didn’t have transitioning on their minds.
BB/MC: What does it mean to be transgender or trans?
NT: It’s used as an umbrella term. Or instead of transgender, many people say affirming their gender. Another term under the transgender or trans umbrella, is non-binary. This means not necessarily identifying as either male or female. They’re in-between or might identify beyond typical genders.
BB/MC: With so much gender identity diversity, how do you assign, for example, which cabin kids share at your camps, which are such a wonderful available option?
NT: We ask if they prefer to bunk with kids who identify similarly to them or if they prefer a bigger mix of different gender identities. Most kids choose kids who identify similarly. In either case, age is the primary way we assign cabins.
BB/MC: What if someone has had a gender-affirming surgery or gender-confirming surgery? Does that make a difference?
NT: Nobody to my knowledge under age 15 has been able to get any type of surgery. We don’t care what anatomy anybody has; we just accept kids who identify as trans, gender non-conforming, or non-binary, or similarly. Rationally, it doesn’t really matter if someone with typical female or male anatomy is in the same cabin. What’s important is to have adequate policies, rules, and supervision ensuring that everyone is as safe and appropriate as possible.
BB/MC: What's the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity?
NT: Think about yourself. You have a sexual orientation—straight, gay, bisexual, etc.--and then you have gender identity—as a man or woman or perhaps somewhere in between or beyond. Now, when you think about gender identity, think of gender not sexual orientation. Trans people can be straight, gay, bi, etc., which has no bearing on gender. I’ve heard it said this way: Gender identity is who you go to bed as. Sexual identity is who you go to bed with.
BB/MC: What does "gender transition" mean?
NT: Several things. Transitioning doesn’t necessarily mean surgery. In young kids, it is a social transition. If the kid is prepubescent, their clothing and hair are the only signs that tell you what gender or sex the child is, or at least what sex or gender you think the child is. As they get older, there are medical ways to put off puberty for trans kids so that they can then take cross-sex hormones and/or buy time to decide whether transition is indeed the right path for them. If yes, then there are hormones they can take in their teens, which will enable them to go through puberty as the sex they truly are rather than the sex they were assigned at birth.
BB/MC: What are the correct meanings or definitions of transsexual, cross dresser, genderqueer, transvestite, gender fluid? There are just so many terms.
NT: Queer is a term that used to be politically incorrect until recently. Now some say they’re a member of the queer community. But that doesn’t tell you whether they’re talking about their sexual identity, gender identity, or both. Genderqueer can mean between or beyond typical genders. Transvestite as a term is passé. A cross-dresser is a better term. Typically speaking, a cross-dresser is a man who dresses as a woman part-time in private or sometimes in public. These are often straight men who identify as male and like to cross dress, but they are not necessarily transitioning to a woman. Sometimes, they, however, are trans and do transition. But cross dressing and trans do not go hand in hand necessarily. Gender fluid can mean a person feels differently about their gender identity from year to year or day to day. Or it could mean being more flexible on the gender spectrum. Usually, gender fluid people do not want to be boxed into one gender for the rest of their lives. *See definitions for more*
BB/MC: What is gender dysphoria?
NT: This is the clinical term for feeling at odds with the body and/or gender you were born with/assigned at birth. In the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the term Gender Identity Disorder was recently changed to Gender Dysphoria. You might be born with female anatomy, but you feel like a male or vice versa. The typical course of treatment is through transition. This is the actual clinical definition: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/gender-dysphoria/what-is-gender-dysphoria
BB/MC: What are the correct pronouns to use and use correctly? We recently read about a gay, cis male, what does that mean? Also, should we ask these days when meeting someone (anyone) how they want to be referred to or is that awkward?
NT: Pronouns can be the typical he/him/his, she/her/hers, or others. The dictionary has now accepted “they” and similar pronouns as grammatically correct. In fact, as of December 2019, Merriam-Webster named “they” singular gender-neutral pronoun as the word of the year! We have always used the singular “they” in language. For example, “My package will be delivered today. They are going to leave it at the front door.” You know only one person is delivering the package, but you don’t know whether that person is a man or a woman (or another gender) so you use “they.” Now, many people prefer “they/them/theirs” as their primary pronoun. For example, “Sam is my friend. They are coming to my birthday party, and I hope they get me a good gift. I will buy them a gift for their upcoming birthday soon.” It’s okay to ask what pronoun people use; it shows respect. You tell me what I need to know in terms of how you want me to refer to you. A cisgender person identifies as the sex they were assigned at birth. Most people in the world are cisgender. *See the definitions sheet.
BB/MC: We read about a person who described their self as a woman of trans experience; what does that mean?
NT: People might describe themselves as such because they identify as a woman first and foremost. So instead of leading with “trans” (as in, I’m a “trans woman”), they prefer to say, “I’m a woman of trans experience.” It’s different for everyone. And one should never ask about a trans person’s “old name.” They should just respect the name that they currently use.
BB/MC: We read about places and institutions that are LGBTQIA inclusive; are some not inclusive of all those groups? Is it changing? And what to “I” and “A” mean?
NT: I think on a broad scale in the U.S. it is changing, but it also depends on where you live. Things were moving in a favorable direction until this current administration in the White House. They are now dialing back the laws and perspectives as much as they can. “I” means intersex, someone born with biological traits of both sexes. It can be chromosomal, hormonal or a mix of things going on in a person’s genome. “A” means allies, anyone who is a friend and advocate for the LGBTQ community but doesn’t identify as LGBTQ themselves.
BB/MC: Do we know how many people are trans in the U.S. right now? And how that number has grown, if it has, in the last 5 to 10 years? If so, why?
NT: There is no way to know because many who transition leave their trans identity behind. I’m a husband, father and suburban person who blends in most of the time unless people ask me what I do for work. If I didn’t want to be out, I wouldn’t answer any kind of survey that I’m trans. I would just be a man living my life. So, it’s hard to know. The numbers have grown, that we’ve seen. We don’t know exactly why. Many theorize, and I agree, that the Internet has helped make different identities more accessible to many different people, and there are groups where people can discuss it and learn from one another.
BB/MC: Are there any anti-discriminatory laws protecting trans people? If you find out your child or your grandchild is having trouble identifying with gender, how do you best handle it? What are some great resources to tap into?
NT: PFLAG: “Our Trans Loved Ones”
Human Rights Campaign: “Supporting and Caring for our Transgender Children”
BB/MC: Does therapy help for the child and if so what kind; strategizing how to cope?
NT: Yes, it can help immensely. Most trans kids go to therapy to talk about their feelings around gender, especially if they are interested in transitioning socially or otherwise. Some doctors require that a therapist is seen. For some kids, they know they’re trans and don’t really feel that they need therapy to cope with it. It shouldn’t necessarily be pushed if it’s unnecessary, but I do think it’s helpful for most trans people at some point in their lives.
BB/MC: What have you learned—any preconceptions changed?
NT: I think some people believe that trans people are automatically accepting of themselves. This is true in some cases, but not in many others. For example, I was raised in the same society as everyone else my age in the U.S.; mostly, media portrayal of trans people was limited to The Jerry Springer Show, and it was quite unfavorable. I thought, “that can’t be me because I’m not like that, I’m more normal!” And I didn’t want to be “like that” until I understood that there were many different trans experiences and ways to be. I understood that it doesn’t have to define you, and you can be and do whatever you want as a person who just happens to be trans.
BB/MC: What if the trans person undergoes a transformation and then realizes it’s not right for them? Is it reversible? How do you handle and go about this?
NT: In my experience, this is uncommon. I think it’s something that people fear the most when someone announces that he/she/they wish to transition. For young people, transitioning socially and/or using puberty blockers (this is medication administered to kids to delay puberty in their assigned sex) is completely reversible if necessary. Most cross-sex hormone treatment and surgery is much more difficult to “reverse” and is typically utilized by young adults and adults.
More about Nick:
Nick started Camp Aranu’tiq in 2009, and its overarching organization, Harbor Camps, in 2014. He began Camp Seneb for youth with skeletal dysplasia in 2016 and Camp Reflections for youth with facial differences in 2019. Beginning in 1993, Nick was a camper, counselor-in-training (CIT), bunk counselor, and member of camp leadership at a camp in Maine. He now has over a decade of experience running camps. Nick works year-round on all facets of Harbor Camps. He holds a PhD in social policy from Brandeis University and a master’s degree in social work from Boston College. In the “off-season,” Nick lives in the Boston area with his wife, Erika, their toddler Rebecca, and their dog, all of whom join him at camp in New Hampshire for the summer.
He wrote Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue (click here for link) (Columbia University Press, 2012)
To contact Nick: nick@harborcamps. Harbor Camps: P.O. Box 920251, Needham, MA 02492; Phone: 781-400-1617
Glossary of Terms
From the website: : https://www.hrc.org/resources/glossary-of-terms
Many Americans refrain from talking about sexual orientation and gender identity or expression because it feels taboo, or because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. This glossary was written to help give people the words and meanings to help make conversations easier and more comfortable.
Ally | A person who is not LGBTQ but shows support for LGBTQ people and promotes equality in a variety of ways.
Androgynous | Identifying and/or presenting as neither distinguishably masculine nor feminine.
Asexual | The lack of a sexual attraction or desire for other people.
Biphobia | Prejudice, fear or hatred directed toward bisexual people.
Bisexual | A person emotionally, romantically or sexually attracted to more than one sex, gender or gender identity though not necessarily simultaneously, in the same way or to the same degree.
Cisgender | A term used to describe a person whose gender identity aligns with those typically associated with the sex assigned to them at birth.
Closeted | Describes an LGBTQ person who has not disclosed their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Coming out | The process in which a person first acknowledges, accepts and appreciates their sexual orientation or gender identity and begins to share that with others.
Gay | A person who is emotionally, romantically or sexually attracted to members of the same gender.
Gender dysphoria | Clinically significant distress caused when a person's assigned birth gender is not the same as the one with which they identify. According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the term - which replaces Gender Identity Disorder - "is intended to better characterize the experiences of affected children, adolescents, and adults."
Gender-expansive | Conveys a wider, more flexible range of gender identity and/or expression than typically associated with the binary gender system.
Gender expression | External appearance of one's gender identity, usually expressed through behavior, clothing, haircut or voice, and which may or may not conform to socially defined behaviors and characteristics typically associated with being either masculine or feminine.
Gender-fluid | According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a person who does not identify with a single fixed gender; of or relating to a person having or expressing a fluid or unfixed gender identity.
Gender identity | One’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither – how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One's gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth.
Gender non-conforming | A broad term referring to people who do not behave in a way that conforms to the traditional expectations of their gender, or whose gender expression does not fit neatly into a category.
Genderqueer | Genderqueer people typically reject notions of static categories of gender and embrace a fluidity of gender identity and often, though not always, sexual orientation. People who identify as "genderqueer" may see themselves as being both male and female, neither male nor female or as falling completely outside these categories.
Gender transition | The process by which some people strive to more closely align their internal knowledge of gender with its outward appearance. Some people socially transition, whereby they might begin dressing, using names and pronouns and/or be socially recognized as another gender. Others undergo physical transitions in which they modify their bodies through medical interventions.
Homophobia | The fear and hatred of or discomfort with people who are attracted to members of the same sex.
Intersex | An umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations. In some cases, these traits are visible at birth, and in others, they are not apparent until puberty. Some chromosomal variations of this type may not be physically apparent at all.
Lesbian | A woman who is emotionally, romantically or sexually attracted to other women.
LGBTQ | An acronym for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.”
Living openly | A state in which LGBTQ people are comfortably out about their sexual orientation or gender identity – where and when it feels appropriate to them.
Non-binary | An adjective describing a person who does not identify exclusively as a man or a woman. Non-binary people may identify as being both a man and a woman, somewhere in between, or as falling completely outside these categories. While many also identify as transgender, not all non-binary people do.
Outing | Exposing someone’s lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender identity to others without their permission. Outing someone can have serious repercussions on employment, economic stability, personal safety or religious or family situations.
Pansexual | Describes someone who has the potential for emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to people of any gender though not necessarily simultaneously, in the same way or to the same degree.
Queer | A term people often use to express fluid identities and orientations. Often used interchangeably with "LGBTQ."
Questioning | A term used to describe people who are in the process of exploring their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Same-gender loving | A term some prefer to use instead of lesbian, gay or bisexual to express attraction to and love of people of the same gender.
Sex assigned at birth | The sex (male or female) given to a child at birth, most often based on the child's external anatomy. This is also referred to as "assigned sex at birth."
Sexual orientation | An inherent or immutable enduring emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to other people.
Transgender | An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation. Therefore, transgender people may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc.
Transphobia | The fear and hatred of, or discomfort with, transgender people.