Voices of Youth: 3 things local youth wish adults knew about non-binary and trans identities

This article is part of Concentrate's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Washtenaw County youth in partnership with Concentrate mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, Concentrate staffer Sarah Rigg talks with local young people and their mentors about gender identity – an issue of importance raised in our listening sessions with local youth.

While adults across the U.S. are arguing about gender-affirming care for trans kids or whether they have to respect a teenager's pronouns, these topics are noncontroversial for many middle and high school students across Washtenaw County. 

At Ypsilanti-based after-school program Educate Youth, creating an accepting environment for trans and non-binary young people is standard practice, and has been for a decade. (Trans, or transgender, refers to a person whose sense of their gender differs from the gender they were assigned at birth. Non-binary refers to a person who does not identify as solely male or female.) So is sharing pronouns as part of introducing oneself.

"We do that if we get a new member here, so nobody is being called something that they don't like," says Educate Youth participant Anthony Brashers-Thomas, 16. 

Educate Youth participant Kierra Owens, 16, says that's the norm for her as a student at Washtenaw International High School in Ypsilanti Township, as well.

"It's a very diverse school, and very accepting of people who are part of the LGBTQ community," Owens says. "I make sure that I treat others how I want to be treated, because I want to be respected."

Educate Youth founder Gail Wokoff says that 10 years ago, some young people didn't know why they were expected to state their pronouns, but most of today's youth do.

"More people are directly affected and want to be identified for who they know they are," she says. 

Adults who work with local LGBTQ youth overwhelmingly say the younger generation has a different take on gender and gender expression issues. Here are three things they wish the adults in their lives knew.

1. Transgender and non-binary identities are not new.

Jennifer Schwartz, a clinical social worker and therapist working with LGBTQ youth through Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti, says that "a lot of these concerns are not new, but they have become a part of our modern cultural lexicon in a way they never were before."

"I appreciate that it's becoming a normalized part of their youth culture," Schwartz says. "Young people pick up language easily, and support each other easily. It's just not a big deal for many of them."

Brashers-Thomas, for example, says sharing pronouns when you meet someone new "makes everyone feel more accepted."

"When you go over pronouns, you get a better understanding of who you're sitting in the room with," he says.

Schwartz says that "some folks are relating to it as if it was new material," but records of "gender variance" go back thousands of years.

"Especially in young people, but also in general, there's a growing awareness of different gender identities and presentations," she says. "Young people have really connected with this information. There is a great deal online in a way it was not when I was a young person … who grew up in the 1990s. Now, this information is so readily available to us."

Justice Manguel, 23, works at Educate Youth. He agrees that access to information on gender identity has created a shift among people his age and younger.

"People who have more of an exposure to education typically ... are more open-minded about the subject of gender," Manguel says.

2. It's not about "passing," but about being who you really are. 

LJ Sarten is a former PrideZone facilitator at Ozone House, an Ypsi-based nonprofit serving at-risk and homeless youth. PrideZone meets once a week to support all Ozone House clients ages 12-24. Sarten says there's been a big shift from the '80s or '90s, when youth were primarily concerned with sexual orientation, to today, when there is a larger emphasis on gender identity. (Sexual orientation refers to which gender(s) a person is attracted to, whereas gender identity refers to a person's sense of their own gender.)

"It's not about fitting into a box but accepting that they don't fit within the box," Sarten says.

Sarten says people are often familiar with the term "gender dysphoria," which refers to when a person feels mismatched with the body they were born into. Sarten says he likes the opposite idea of "gender euphoria."

"At PrideZone, we talk about ways to present themselves that make them happy and affirm their gender," Sarten says.

He says, for instance, that a trans female teen may still choose to wear clothing perceived as masculine.

"They don't care about 'passing' anymore. They want to be comfortable with how they are," Sarten says.

That's true for R., a trans middle school student in Ann Arbor who uses he/him or they/them pronouns. R. asked to remain anonymous for this interview. 

They say people have bullied them – not in a mocking way, but by invalidating their male identity and their use of they/them pronouns.

"They'd say things like, 'That's not a thing' or 'No, you're not,'" R. says. "There's no one way to be trans or non-binary. You don't have to look a certain way. You're not less or more if you look a certain way."

3. Lack of support only makes things more dangerous for trans and non-binary youth.

Outside of the weekly PrideZone meetings, Sarten says Ozone House staff do a lot of work with LGBTQ+ youth. LGBTQ+ people are heavily represented among the runaway youth Ozone House serves. 

"We approach every youth from an inclusive, open-minded, affirming stance," Sarten says. "One of the first questions is, 'What is your preferred name and pronouns?' It's possible their parents or guardians don't use them, but we want to affirm them and want them to feel comfortable and safe."

Not using a young person's chosen pronouns is only one way that adults sometimes fail the youth in their lives. R. says that some relatives don't know what to say when R. brings up topics like gender and pronouns. 

"I've had people in my family just straight up ignore me," they say. "If I bring it up, they'll go silent and won't say anything."

Schwartz says young people who grow up in institutions that can be intolerant, like churches or schools, tend to be ignorant about these topics. But that doesn't keep some of them from getting online and asking, "Why am I different?"

"Just because you were taught it was not okay doesn't mean you don't have those feelings," she says. 

In the past, Schwartz says, people kept thoughts about being trans or non-binary to themselves, or even committed suicide. She says that means that "access to this information is literally life-saving."

She says exploring gender identities of all kinds is "age-appropriate" and a "normal developmental task" for youth ages 12-25 at Corner. 

"You can be supportive and make it good for them, or make it terrible and arduous and painful for them," she says. 

Corner Health Center youth clients can sign up for the weekly support group by emailing Schwartz at jschwartz@cornerhealth.org. Find information about PrideZone here

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe. Illustration by R.

To learn more about Concentrate's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click here.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.