Today we’re joined by Melissa Flatla. Melissa works with individuals (ages 9+) who have questions and concerns related to anxiety, depression, self-esteem, neurodiversity, trauma, and identity. In particular, Melissa specializes in working with the trans* and gender diverse population. Melissa works with clients to co-create a space wherein they can feel empowered to share their stories and move toward wellness through a lens of self-compassion. In honor of June being Pride month, today we’ll be speaking about all things gender identity.
For anyone listening who may not be familiar, can you please explain what being transgender is, or what questioning your gender identity means?
M: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll give a bit of a brief overview. So really, I'm going to start by giving some terminology. When we think about transgender we also need to think about cisgender. These are often the terms that folks might hear most often. Cisgender is essentially an individual whose sex assigned at birth and their gender - so their identity - align. Transgender, again I’m putting this very simply just for the sake of doing so, is someone whose sex assigned at birth and gender, so their identity, do not align. Now, there's a whole wide range of identities and terminology that I won't delve into today- I'll just give you sort of a scratching at the surface, but there's a lot more so if folks want to do some reading or watching some videos there's a wealth of info on out there.
When we talk about gender, we need to also talk about sex. I'll be saying sex, biological sex, sex assigned at birth, I might use them interchangeably today. Essentially what that is is it's a categorization that's based on somebody's external presentation at the time they're born; so, the baby is born and the doctor or the nurse looks at the baby- they look at their external genitalia and they place them in a category. Typically, it's either male or female although there is a third sex- intersex, and folks may be put in that category if it's not clear where they might fall. Now, this categorization- this assignment that's made for us really sort of shifts this trajectory for the child. This changes their socialization, it gives us a little letter to put on our birth certificate or on our passport, but it also changes, sometimes, what kind of opportunities somebody has access to, or how they're spoken to. It really dictates a great deal, and all of this happens before we have any idea how somebody feels or what their identity is because babies don't talk, so they can't tell us.
When I think of gender I also think okay, let's talk about sex at the same time so we can understand that those two pieces are in fact separate from one another. In terms of questioning our gender identity, everybody is going to define this in a very different way and I'm sort of prefacing the conversation with that because I think it's important to honor the fluidity of life, the fluidity of identity. We’re all on various journeys at any given time and that's the beauty of it; that's the beauty of being alive and being human. So, whether we are looking at, you know, any aspect of our identity there's really no one way to be someone. There's no one way to be a sibling or parent or a teacher or therapist; we get to decide that for ourselves we get to define that for ourselves, and I very much think that gender is the same. We are the ones who can determine what language feels most authentic, what expression feels like it truly brings us to the forefront, you know, how we want to be seen, how we to be received in the world. I think we do that with more than just gender, so it's a process we’re familiar with but when we start talking about gender, I think this is a place where people feel particularly vulnerable especially in the current climate. A questioning of gender identity to me is really something that I define as a personal journey you know, an aspect of our lives that that many of us may go on at various points and we may, you know, start and return to it as many times as needed but it's a place of curiosity and inviting ourselves to listen to our own voice and to me I really think that as moving towards authenticity. Who am I? How do I want to be seen? How do I want to present myself to the world? What feels right? And then really kind of stepping into that place if vulnerability but also liberation as they move towards feeling authentic.
K: Okay, that’s great. It’s nice to mention too that once you kind of figure out who you are like how you identify it doesn't always stay the same, right, later in life it can change.
M: Exactly, it's so fluid and I always make the same cheesy joke. For people who don't know me, I'm very cheesy I don't hide that, but I often think about how when I was younger, you know, I was really invested in in Pokémon- I was really into it. Now, I don't know anything anymore but for me you know, that was a big part of my identity in a very different way of course than gender, but that was a big part of my world -my identity. It's something that I moved away from overtime. Every part of us is constantly in a state of shifting so we assess and reassess overtime. The same can be said with gender and some people may feel very firmly set and established in something whereas others may move in and out of it at any given time and both are valid, and both are beautiful.
Often times, it can feel important to put a label on yourself with regards to your gender identity or even your sexual preferences. What are some tips you would give to someone who is feeling that pressure?
M: I love this question. I really appreciate you asking this, it’s something I feel like I’ve talked about so often. My first inclination here is to really want to invite folks to explore the origin of that pressure. What would having a label offer them? Where are they feeling this pressure most? Really sort of unpacking that in a sense to get a feel for whether this is something that is a value of theirs whether it's something that holds importance in their lives versus is this sort of the social obligation? Do I feel I “need” to have a label for one reason or another, and then really wanting to explore from there. We live in a world that often values concrete ways of categorizing people. This is a very human thing that we do- we like to put everything neatly into boxes that conceptualising and easily articulate, but this doesn't really align with that fluidity of life and identity so we can come up against this this resistance or this friction of sorts. I often really want to invite folks to be curious about the origin of that pressure and if possible, to remind them that labels are for us; They don't need to be for other people and we're really in the driver’s seat with regards to the language we use, the labels that will resonate with. Some folks will feel that it's very important to them to have a label and others might be on the other side of that spectrum or somewhere in between. I think being able to work towards an understanding of where is the value for us, what is important, and how can we move toward that, I think supports that general sense of authenticity and really engages us in this process of being curious about ourselves and making space for and bring your own voice to the forefront.
We have a lot of power in determining the language that we use to talk about ourselves and our experiences and even our relationship with others, so we can sort of re-offer that as many times as we need or want, so you know reminding ourselves that there are really no rules here so why not have some fun and try things on. In doing so, can we shift that to a lens of curiosity rather than maybe a lens of obligation- perhaps it takes some of the pressure off.
Sometimes it can feel awkward to ask someone what their preferred pronouns are. How do you suggest someone can bring this up in a conversation?
M: I want to just preface this by saying I think this is something that is definitely a big part of conversation right now especially as we talk more about trans rights, and as we really further our own understanding from social and community perspective. I will just say, you know, there certainly are many times where we feel uncomfortable, or we feel maybe we don't have the awareness or the understanding to really engage in a conversation. If possible, I will sort of invite folks to step into that discomfort and to ask. We can ask questions; we can be curious and sometimes that capacity to really step into that space and ask someone in the same way that we would ask their name really helps to essentially normalize asking for pronouns and sharing pronouns within a space. It is nice in particular when cis folks can do some of that work as well instead of feeling like it often has to fall on the trans person’s shoulders.
If we are feeling uncomfortable or if it is something that doesn't feel accessible in that moment, there are few things we can do: one thing is we can start by using sort of gender-neutral language if we're not sure of someone’s gender or if we're not sure or their pronouns, this can be relatively subtle signal that we are safe that we are aware enough to kind of hold that space so someone may offer up their pronouns once there is that so initial sense of “okay, this might be a person I can share this with”.
Another thing we can do is focus on visibility- so having our pronouns in our e-mail signatures, our website bios, social media accounts, again that's an indicator that we are aware, that we're engaged, that we are safe, that we’re allies and to me that's sort of one of these lists of simpler, more subtle things we can do to just hold that safety for others.
For me personally, I like to just start by introducing myself with name and pronouns so I would often say “Hi my name is Melissa, and my pronouns are they and she.” By doing that not only am I offering that information to another person but I'm also inviting that in return if they're comfortable sharing. I think something like that could be very helpful, so when we're introducing ourselves, we can start by stating our own pronouns as an invite to the other person. Those would be my suggestions on the surface, but I will really invite folks if they’re able to step into a bit of discomfort to try asking, I mean there's no harm in asking a question, it’s certainly something that is not offensive in nature. It's the same thing as asking someone for their name, so really wanting to get to know someone- showing them that we care and that were present and that it's important to us that we refer to them in a way that honors who they are.
K: It is nice that social media has started adding pronouns to people’s bios as well, I find that very helpful.
M: Yeah, I was just seeing it on Instagram not too long ago. I was really excited to see that that's finally coming around and thankfully that's having this this impact and spreading out into other areas, whether it's the software we use or creating an account online it prompts us for it. I love seeing it and I'm so appreciative all the folks who have gone ahead and filled theirs out.
Another question we get from parents a lot is how to talk to their kids about their gender identity if they are questioning it and struggling with figuring themselves out. What advice would you have to parents of kids who are questioning their gender identity?
M: What a rich question. I have the benefit of working with number of young folks, so I'm hoping that this will be a space I can offer a bit of insight here. One of the most common remarks that I often hear coming from young folks, but sometimes parents too is that they can feel the discomfort around the subject coming from the other person. So sometimes my younger clients will say “I can kind of sense my parents tense up” or “I can feel that they're not sure what to say or how to navigate this” and so they almost want to rescue their parents from that space. Sometimes they might interpret that as an indication of the subject is maybe something shameful or embarrassing and they might step back somewhat. I want to be clear that the discomfort is not inherently good or bad, it is a human experience, and I don't think it's something that we should feel we have to hide either. I actually offer the same suggestion to anyone who asks, and you’ll probably hear me say these words again today but being curious and honest I think really strike me as important elements of any conversation, but especially one around something like identity or gender. Historically, there has been a great deal of shame and perhaps many of us are still kind of on our own journey of learning and engaging with ever-evolving language and ever-evolving information, I think just being really up front, being clear and sort of naming or feeling confident in naming where it is that we’re coming from and being clear about our desire to be present and to learn alongside our loved one.
I think it's really beautiful, and it could be very beautiful to know that you've got someone who wants to accompany you along that space, who wants to be there with you and is willing to say “yeah, you know, I don't have all the answers, I have questions of my own and I've got places where maybe I have concerns or I want to explore something with you, but I'm also here. I mean I want to learn from you I want to hear the language that you learn I want to hear what you resonate with.” I think it's the same thing that parents are doing with their kids around any other topic, you know, being present, being honest about what it is that you know, what it is that you don't yet know and just being really clear about what your desire is and what your intention is in having that conversation with your kid- it goes a long way. Often, I tell folks when in doubt, go back to the basics. Sometimes we overthink it a little bit and truthfully what you're doing here is probably the same thing you're doing in so many other areas and that's being present, being honest, being curious, showing all of that love that you have for your kiddo in a really direct way. I think that's a very beautiful thing and I can tell you I hear a lot of wonderful things about it in session from kids who feel really loved and supported. You don't have to get everything right, you don't have to know all the answers, they’re going to tell you.
One last question for you: How can we best support our loved ones in the LGBTQIA+ community?
M: I knew I was going to come back to some of these words I'm glad I said earlier! Again, I think just being curious and being present with folks is going to go a long way. Like I said, sort of coming back to the basics- the tendency we have to overthink is really, to me, an indication of how deeply we care. So, you know, being patient with ourselves as we navigate this journey alongside a friend or family member or colleague. We may be engaging with the material that we have had no exposure to before, we may be engaging in it when we've had exposure to material that maybe isn’t the same language that the person we love is using. To me, I think what we can do here, and what often goes a long way is listening very closely, you know, what kind of language do I hear my loved one using, and can I allow them to be my guide in terms you know what I might want to do some learning about, the questions I might have, what language I'm using. This is a tricky one I think that I often invite folks to try and acknowledge, if present, that fear of saying the “wrong thing.” You know, try not to fear slipping up. To me, those moments where we may say something that isn't quite the right fit, or we may reflect back a concept and perhaps we're not exactly on the right page, these are really critical for learning, for growth and they're also incredibly humanizing. When we’re sitting with another person that we love and we're engaged, we’re curious and we’re present, we're already extending all of that care to them. I think they can see us there; they can feel that genuine connection. The world isn't going to explode if we say a word that they don't resonate with or if there's a gap in our knowledge. We all have places to learn- even for myself, as someone who works primarily with the trans community, and I consider myself quite well-read in terms of the material that's available and I'm learning new things everyday from my clients. The beauty of that is we've all got our own journey and we're going to be intertwined at some point but at the end of the day, everyone uses different language for any part of their own self identification whether it's gender otherwise. What we do in other situations is we listen; we listen carefully [and we] we ask questions. To me it's really the same thing here and I certainly appreciate and recognize that this can be a topic that can feel threatening or overwhelming at times. I think it comes back to that almost fierce and intense love that we have with people in our lives, and we want to do right by them. I think the truth will just coming back to the basics in a sense would be curious and being honest are going to going to make a really profound difference in that person's journey and in our own. It will maybe take the pressure off a little bit too.
I think that's all the questions that I had for you today. Is there anything else that you wanted to add?
M: I think there's one thing that I hope that folks will take away from today, and it's really to be kind to themselves, whether you are navigating a gender journey of your own or you’re navigating one alongside someone you love and care about, you're not going to have all the answers- none of us ever do. I mean sometimes we don't even have all the questions and to me that's part of what makes life engaging and interesting, and certainly there are moments where that is uncomfortable and overwhelming, and I imagine it is also liberating. There are so many different boxes that we sort of squeeze ourselves into and that can be such a profound task to unravel some of what we've learned or some of what we know. The world is a whole lot more expansive than we might think and the beauty is that we're learning more and more about it everyday. Listen to the people that are around you, be curious, utilized resources if you can, or ask for some if you're not sure where to go. It doesn't have to be this is daunting task. You don't have to know everything; you're just being present in the same way that you’ve done all along, so I hope that we can turn the dial back a little bit on the pressure for ourselves and for other people.
Thank you so much again to Melissa Flatla for joining us today!
June is pride month, which is a fantastic way to celebrate all of those in the LGBTQ+ community. We thought it would be important to also raise awareness to the increased risks of mental illness experienced by those who identify at LGBTQ+, and share a few ways we can help to prevent the risks from becoming anything more than risks. A 2010 study showed that 47% of trans youth in Ontario had thought about suicide, and 19% had actually attempted suicide in the preceding year (Scanlon, Travers, Coleman, Bauer, & Boyce, 2010). LGBTQ+ youth contemplate suicide two to three times the rate of youth who identify as straight, so it’s important to know how to help them through the tough times of coming to terms with their sexuality or gender identity.
How Can We Help?
Look for Signs- Educating yourself and your loved ones on the warning signs of suicide and depression is a great way to help LGBTQ+ youth. It’s important to recognize when your child/friend/student/sibling is behaving differently than usual so that you can help to avoid a potential crisis. Resources such as The Trevor Project or Crisis Services Canada are readily available resources for anyone struggling with depression or suicidal ideation.
Open Your Ears- Sometimes we just need to talk it out. From a simple “you okay?” to a more in depth conversation about emotions and how to cope, it’s important to be ready and willing to listen to the individual that is struggling. It’s also important not to push the individual to speak when they aren’t ready to. Whether or not the person has come out, try to show empathy and understand that speaking about their thoughts and feelings may be incredibly difficult and scary for them. Prepare yourself for the possibility of a tough conversation, and make sure they know that you’re there to support them through their hard times, not to judge them for how they feel or the choices they are making despite your own belief.
Be Open Minded- Often times it’s hard for loved ones to fully understand what certain labels mean. Gender dysphoria, two-spirited and queer are all terms that not everyone is familiar with- so it’s important to be open to learning about any label that your loved one may or may not put on themselves. The Ma Group has put together a list of many gender and sexuality identifying terms to help better understand some of the newer and less “common” identifiers.
Be Supportive- As tough as it may be to hear that your loved one is going through a hard time, I can assure you it’s even harder on them. Admitting that they need help is a step in the right direction, and you need to be there for them. Thank them for trusting you enough to open up and talk about their thoughts and feelings, and ensure them that you will do your best to support them no matter what.
If you feel that your loved one’s symptoms are severe enough that they might inflict harm on themselves or others, direct them to the nearest emergency department or mental health facility.
Dr. Diana Garcia
Dr. Diana Garcia has over 20 years of experience in the field of psychology. She has provided psychological and counseling services in Ontario, and the states of Pennsylvania, and Florida