Gender fluidity: What it means, and how to support a loved one who identifies as fluid or non-binary
He, she, and they
In psychology, the words ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ have a specific meaning. ‘Gender’ refers to whether the person acts masculine or feminine; while ‘sex’ is about whether the person is a male or female—and whether the person has an x-chromosome, a y-chromosome, or two x-chromosomes. To better understand gender fluidity, it is therefore important to know that fluidity is in the sense of gender and not fluidity in sex.
In the nine years of my clinical practice as a clinical psychologist, the term ‘gender fluid’ only became popular in the past few years, where my clients would identify themselves as being ‘non-binary’ or ‘fluid’. I have since started to look up this concept and read more about it, such as the common definitions. It’s been identified that gender can be in a spectrum and those who identify as non-binary can change their gender over time or depending on the situation. Many of my clients (especially the parents) do not believe that such a condition exists.
Below are the two most popular questions asked by my clients, which I would like to share with you.
Is gender fluidity in the mind or body?
As with all the other mental disorders that we have learned in clinical psychology, there are many factors that may potentially cause the person to identify themselves as being ‘gender fluid’. The biological, psychological, and social perspective are the important perspectives that I have looked into to corroborate and understand this concept.
In the biological aspect of gender fluidity, it is quite straightforward. Genetics make up a person’s gender identity and it determines whether that person is male or female. In other words, it does not change. It does not depend on time, situation, and how the person feels about it. If the person is born with the genetic makeup that determines he is a male, then he is a male, and vice versa.
From the psychological and social perspective, however, the explanation of gender fluidity can be complex. A person may begin developing their gender identity around their early childhood. At this point in life, the person’s family or caregivers, the community, society and culture, as well as the historical time at which they live, would form the person’s gender identity. Each interaction and environmental factors could form different norms—and expectations—about the person’s gender expression and gender identity.
A very classic example that is commonly practiced in many cultures would be, “Boys should wear blue and girls should wear pink; and boys should play with cars and girls should play with dolls.” These are some examples that society at large has instilled in each and every one, to enforce the idea of what boys and girls should look like as well as behave. A child who shares similar gender norms as their community would feel obliged to fulfill these expectations.
In contrast, a child who lives within a family and community which believes that gender can be complex—beyond just looking like a boy or girl—will then be encouraged to have a diverse gender expression. While many people develop their gender identity at an early age, for others, it may change or happen at any point in their lives. Therefore, gender identity, gender expression, and gender fluidity can be largely influenced by the psychological and social aspects of a person.
How to support gender-fluid individuals?
It’s imperative to understand that we cannot deny one’s personal feelings about themselves. They know best about themselves. We can think of gender fluidity as part of the diversity of human experiences, and this also relates to gender identity and gender expression. For individuals such as teenagers and youth, it’s particularly important to listen and help them to understand their gender identity and expression, as they are learning about themselves too.
Here are some ways for you to be supportive of your friends or family members who express their concern and doubt on their gender:
- Listen to the person and validate their experience of their gender.
- Believe that they know themselves best and be patient with them, as they are trying to develop their gender identity (especially for the youth).
- Connect them to support systems and resources, where they can talk to those with similar experiences or with professionals, so that they can express their emotions in a supportive environment.
Sam Jeng Mun is a senior lecturer and clinical psychologist at Taylor’s University. Besides being a lecturer in private universities for the past nine years, her professional experiences also include working in the government hospital, private hospital, and private practice. In her clinical practice, she mainly conducts psychotherapy, psychological consultations, psychological workshops and talks and psychological assessments for children and adults. She is passionate about building awareness about mental health and improving the level of mental health literacy among people.