The LGBT Health & Development Program

Gender Nonconformity and LGBT-Affirmative Climates, Part 1

Posted on August 20th, 2012 by IMPACT in Research Blog, Youth Blog. No Comments

Research and policy analysis on violence experienced by gender nonconforming and sexual minority youth can inform necessary dialogue regarding childhood, gender norms and sexual orientation.  Research can be used as a tool for developing interventions that will reduce the disproportionate rates of victimization among these youth compared to their peers.

Gender nonconformity refers to traits and behaviors that are often associated with physical appearance. However, it can also include mannerisms and hobbies considered untraditional for one’s biological sex. Although gender nonconformity is related to having a transgender identity and being a sexual minority, these are distinct yet overlapping constructs.

This is not a new topic; The New York Times recently published an article about the complexities of childhood gender-nonconformity. A year ago the clothing store J-Crew made headlines for an advertisement depicting a mother painting her son’s toenails pink. The caption read, “Lucky for me I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink.” Incidents like these have elicited a nationwide conversation on gender and gender roles, yet media attention has focused on pundits who perceived gender-nonconforming behaviors as “stifling” and who criticize parents for supporting it.

Such attitudes run contrary to the research literature.  The behaviors that most likely inflict psychological harm onto gender nonconforming youth are typically associated with intolerance, discomfort, or fear, which manifest as victimization, discrimination or neglect. In short, prejudice and stigma—not pink toenails—are what “cause” psychological distress. The article, “Childhood Gender Nonconformity: A Risk Indicator for Childhood Abuse and Posttraumatic Stress in Youth” addresses some of these concerns. Additionally, heterosexual identified individuals can also be gender nonconforming; a majority (59.6%) of the most gender-nonconforming participants self-identified as heterosexual.

Other key findings:

  1. Regardless of sexual orientation, participants who reported high childhood gender nonconformity were at an elevated risk for physical, sexual, and psychological childhood abuse (CA), and increased risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  2. High gender-nonconforming girls experience the highest incidences of CA, including sexual abuse.

Again, the research suggests that the problem is sexual prejudice, not gender nonconformity.  Future research concerned about the well-being of youth should focus on eliminating prejudicial attitudes, as well as increasing safe climates that encourage youth to be themselves.

Finally, Check out Part 2 of this blog where I discuss the importance of and research behind diversity-affirming environments for gender nonconforming and sexual minority youth.

For an interactive look at gender non-conformity, check out our Gender Identities & Expressions Map!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily the views of The IMPACT Program.

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