Hold on Boys/Girls/Friends Outside the Binary

Like I mentioned last week, I’m officially relegated to Foster-Care-Land which means the rest of my posts may have distinct foster care flavor to them. This week I went to a PRIDE foster care parent training (I would have gone to two but I had a very serious traffic problem in which I found myself on a road that just ended with no way around construction). At this training, there was a lot of discussion of how things have changed across this training and how now there should be a discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation. I thought, “Well great! I’m glad we’re talking about it! Foster parents are supposed to take in all kids regardless and they should have tools to know how to be respectful of who a child is no matter their age.”

That’s not exactly what happened.

Now, I get that these trainings have a lot to cover and it may seem more pertinent to teach someone how to handle a crisis situation where a child has experienced very serious trauma physically and mentally than to talk to potential parents about pronouns. I also get that more mental trauma can be created when when a child feels like who they are is not respected by the authorities in their lives. There are 4 online sessions that last 3 hours apiece and 5 in-person sessions that last 3 hours apiece so I think that somewhere in there could be a slightly more thorough explanation of gender and sexuality.

I’d like to provide potential foster parents with more accurate terminology than I saw in the training just to give this information a bit more of a nudge into gender studies territory.

  1. Sex and Gender are not synonyms. Sex typically refers to the biology of a person (genitals, hormones, chromosomes, etc.) and can be described using terms like male/female/intersex. Gender is the psychological element of a person or how they describe themselves and terms like woman/man/agender/genderqueer/third gender/bigender/polygender and many others can be used. You may not need to know these variations for every kid you encounter but if a kid tells you they are one gender or another, you should learn something about it.
  2. Gender and Gender Identity are synonyms. The training I went to used gender when they should have said sex and gender identity in the place of gender which isn’t really accurate. Using terms in this way suggests that a child is really one thing even though they identify as something else which can be harmful to the child and how they perceive themselves and their relationship(s) with their foster parent(s) in the long run. A child is not a boy who thinks he is a girl. A child is not even a boy who identifies as a girl. This example child is a girl who was assigned male at birth. Who a child is and who they think they are is the same thing. Remember, they probably know themselves better than anyone else could.
  3. Just because your foster child is young does not mean they don’t know. If you’ve got a kid who can form coherent sentences, then they know. The ability to understand your own gender develops around age 3. While interacting with other children, your foster child may have some sense of who they are attracted to (most likely in the context of holding hands or spending extra time with playing). Some kids don’t know until later because it just hits them later or they don’t learn the word for who they are for a long time but some kids just know and they know early. So don’t think because you’ve gotten a 4 year old girl that she won’t tell you he’s a boy. And don’t think that because you’ve got an 8 year old girl that she won’t tell you she has a crush on another girl and maybe a boy at the same time. And just because your foster kid is still in elementary school doesn’t mean they won’t come home one day and say they don’t really feel like a boy or a girl. Kids are people and they know these things about themselves.
  4. Just be respectful. If a kid is in your care, they’ve already suffered some trauma. They don’t need any more trauma caused by someone being disrespectful of their gender or sexuality, especially since you’re supposed to be taking care of them, nurturing them, and loving them. The previous trauma could be related to their guardian’s responses to their gender or sexuality so keep that in mind. Questions aren’t inherently bad, especially if you’re really trying to learn about who this child is and how you can best support them. Pointed questions that are really just ways of trying to convince them they’re wrong are bad. Don’t do that. Be better than that. Just know that this is their body, their identity, their life and they are the expert on who they are just like you are the expert on who you are. And for the love of all that is decent in the world, do not complain if the child uses a word that you don’t know. Don’t tell them how you’re going to screw up because the world is changing too fast for you and people are just making up words nowadays to feel special. What that says to a child is that who they are does not matter enough to you to be respectful to them. You would rather not change than support their understanding of themselves. Like I said, they have already sustained trauma and have been hurt and disappointed by adults, they don’t need any more of that.
  5. IT DOES NOT MATTER IF THEY CHANGE THEIR MINDS. I wish I could make that last statement flash in neon. People change all the time! They grow and learn and make decisions. Those decisions about who they are are right for them at the time. That doesn’t mean they were wrong, it just means they’ve changed. If they change their hair, it will grow back. If they stop liking their clothes, they can get new ones. If they find a word that better describes their sexuality than before, you should support them and use that word. They can go off of one kind of hormone and supplement others. And, yes, they can even go back on surgeries if that’s something they want. It has happened before. Some of these issues you may never have to encounter because of a lack of funds or insurance issues or rules from medical people about procedures on minors but know that when your foster child is willing and able to make these decisions for themselves that they know what is best for who they are.

So, I think these 5 points sum up the major things I would want foster parents to know about gender and sexual orientation that I feel weren’t really talked about in the training. My foster care supervisor at DSS wants me to talk about these points at the next training session to kind of make up for it. I think it’s important to be up to date on any sort of information that can help kids flourish and so does she, which is why she’s more than happy to have me share what I’ve learned through GSWS. We’re a more open society now, so I think we should be able to talk about gender and sexuality especially with kids. They need that kind of information so they aren’t blindly going through changes and feeling scared to ask questions. I want to be a resource for kids and I really want to let these families know how to be respectful of what kids know and who they are because it’s really that simple.

I hope this post has been helpful to someone. It’s another that means a lot to me. I’ve only got two more weeks left at the DSS so that means only two more posts.

More next week!