Ask NCFY: Meeting the Needs of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Youth

Photograph of an androgynous young person.

Q. “Most of the literature about how to best serve lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth lumps them all together. What are some tips for working with transgender and gender non-conforming youth?”

A. Transgender youth, who do not identify with their biological sex, and youth who don’t conform to our society’s gender expectations differ from lesbian, gay and bisexual youth in two important ways, says Shannon Minter, legal director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. First, they often need access to hormone treatment to help them express their true gender identities. And second, they need safe spaces in which youth workers and other youth respect all gender expressions.

“For a young person who is truly transgender, the inner compulsion to live as the other gender is very strong,” Minter says. “Young people whose gender identity is established at an early age need access to counseling and hormone blockers, and if puberty has already begun, teens require access to cross-hormone therapy.” If a program cannot provide access to age-appropriate hormone treatment, he says, young people will often go to dangerous lengths to get it. They might use street hormones or inject silicone away from the safe, sanitary setting of a hospital or clinic.

Minter recommends that youth workers first check their state’s laws on the age of consent for medical care without parental approval, then contact the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, the association of medical providers who specialize in treating transgender people, to get referrals. There are also several free or low-cost clinics (PDF, 351KB) in urban areas that will provide medical care to transgender teenagers, he says.

In addition to helping young people find medical treatment, if they want it, youth programs should work hard to show through their activities, housing arrangements and privacy policies that they accept and embrace young people’s identities.

“It may not be obvious by looking at a young person whether they are male, female, or something else. Some don’t clearly identify as either male or female,” Minter says. He describes some practices that allow transgender young people to communicate their gender identity and make them feel welcome:

  • Using the pronoun and name the young person is comfortable with (this may not be the youth's legal name)
  • Letting youth dress in the way that fits their inner gender identity
  • Making housing, sleeping, and bathroom arrangements based on the youth's inner gender identity
  • Making sure that staff and other youth are respectful of a young person’s identity and privacy

For more recommendations, read “A Place of Respect: A Guide for Group Care Facilities Serving Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming Youth” (PDF, 589KB), published last year by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.

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