How do people come to claim new gender identities? – Gender and society

How do people come to claim new gender identities?  - Gender and society
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Author: Sonny Nordmarken

Have you ever wondered how people come to terms with their new gender identity? In my recent article Gender and Society, I interviewed 75 people who identified as trans, non-binary, genderqueer, gender-fluid, gender non-conforming, or genderqueer, among other labels, and asked them how they identified with the terms used. . I conducted these interviews between 2011 and 2020, and almost all participants were located in four regions of the United States: the West, Southwest, South, and Northeast. Almost all of them shared stories about how and when they discovered their current identities. I call the process of identity formation they experienced “coming into identity.”

Almost all interviewees identified their identity through a process of self-reflection related to one or more of four experiences: exposure to gender minorities and/or new ideas about gender, gender experimentation, emotionally difficult experiences, and conversations with others.

Learning about gender diversity, learning about gender minorities or otherwise learning about them through books, magazines, the Internet, especially social media or other media, prompted more than half of the respondents to think about themselves. The ideas that gender can change and the new vocabulary of gendered identities were crucial in helping interviewees understand gender beyond binary categories. By seeing or learning about people who have demonstrated how it is possible to be gender diverse, and learning how these individuals came to their identities, the interviewees were also able to see themselves in new ways.

In my data, the impact of gender diversity has become more accessible over time: less than half of people surveyed before 2014, and most of those surveyed after 2014. However, access to information and models was uneven. Black interviewees were less likely than other racial groups to discuss their narratives of gender diversity, and they learned about gender diversity through searching for information or patterns rather than by chance. Additionally, membership in a sexual minority community likely increased exposure to gender diversity.

Experimenting with gender, wearing clothes or hairstyles associated with another gender, or trying new names or gender pronouns to see if they feel right, were part of the identity experiences of almost half of those surveyed. Trying on pronouns, identity labels, or names was a common way to “figure out” one’s identity. Although interviewees spoke of clothing experimentation as important to their identity-building process, it was not necessarily a concerted attempt to figure out one’s identity.

More than a third of the interviewees realized their identity by reflecting on an emotionally difficult period or event. As they processed these difficult experiences, such as depression, midlife, or marginalization in social interactions, they realized that their gender was an important part of what they were struggling with. Self-reflection allowed them to experience changes in self-awareness and well-being as they identified as the other gender. The past three decades have seen an increase in the number of emotionally difficult experiences leading to identity awareness.

Finally, more than a quarter of the respondents were helped to understand their gender identity by talking with supportive circumstances. These interviewers talked to therapists, friends, family members, or new acquaintances. Some of their conversation partners unapologetically encouraged the interviewees to reflect on themselves, while others simply served as a willing audience for the interviewees to talk about their identity and think about. The past three decades have seen an increase in identification through conversation with others.

Despite sharing rich stories about how they came to be their identities, most of the people I interviewed also experienced a consistent sense of gender throughout their lives. However, lifetime gender identity claims have declined over time. While all or nearly all participants who self-identified in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s experienced gender differences in childhood, slightly more than half did in the 2000s and 2010s. Additionally, the majority of participants who identified in the 1970s and 1980s said they had “always been this way,” compared to less than half of those who identified in the 1990s and 2010s. The proportion of participants who described being “out of body” dropped from about a quarter of those who identified in the 1970s and 1980s to 6% among those who did so in the 2000s and 2010s.

This study shows how identity is a social process that involves understanding oneself through ideas, interactions with others, and modes of self-reflection. Identity stories challenge the assumption that the gender identity of all individuals, including people who currently identify as cisgender, will not change in the future. This research also demonstrates our immense capacity to experience, understand, and be ourselves in ways that exceed expectations, including our own.

Sonny Nordmarken is an assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University. His research explores power, inequality and resistance in the lives of gender minorities. He is currently working on a book about the experiences of everyday resistance of gender minorities. You can find him on Twitter @SNordmarken

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