Gender and sexuality can be very complicated issues for young people. People identifying as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans or intersex (LGBTI) often face discrimination, bullying or violence and experience much higher incidents of mental health issues as a result. This is why it is so important that young people discuss gender and sexuality, are supported to be themselves, and know where and when to seek further help.
Signs this might be causing concerns:
- confusion about sexual feelings
- feeling rejected or isolated because of sexuality or gender
- feeling uncomfortable in their gender
Gender, sexuality and mental health
The National LGBTI Health Alliance (2011) estimate that 36.5% of trans people and 24.4% of lesbian, gay and bi-sexual people will at any time meet the criteria for a major depressive episode. Trans* women (male to female) are especially likely to suffer from mental health issues. These figures stand in stark comparison to the general population, which is as low as 6.8%. Furthermore, gay, lesbian and bisexual Australians are more than twice as likely to experience an anxiety disorder as heterosexual Australians are (31% compared to 14%). This is a result of the marginalisation and abuse people of diverse gender or sexuality may experience or fear throughout their lives.
The term gender, which can be understood as the way an individual expresses and understands themselves in relation to their sex, is often used interchangeably with the term sex. This reflects the common underlying assumption that the two are always aligned. However for many young people their gender identity may differ from their sex (which is indicated by biological sex characteristics, such as genitals, hormones and sex organs). Such individuals may feel uncomfortable in their own skin, or as though they are trapped inside someone else’s body. For intersex people, their physical sex may not be distinctly male or female. Some common gender definitions include:
- trans*: this is a broad term often used to refer to either transsexual and/or transgender. Generally speaking, trans refers to when a person identifies with the opposite gender.
- transsexual: transsexual individuals identify as the opposite gender to their biological sex. Physical transformations, e.g. genital reassignment surgery or hormone therapy, may be undertaken to change sex.
- transgender: this is a broad term that like trans, covers a range of identities and or behaviours. Transgender is most often used to describe non-traditional gender behaviours or identities.
- intersex: intersex refers to a range of conditions where a person’s sex is not strictly male or female. This may be due to the presence of male and female sex characteristics, or the underdevelopment of primary sex characteristics. For many this will be apparent at birth, but there are some intersex conditions that not apparent until puberty, when an individual is trying to conceive or that may never be diagnosed.
Sexuality can be complicated and is not fixed for everyone. There are many kinds of sexualities that people identify as having – and it is now accepted that same-sex attraction is a normal part of human sexuality. Young people often begin to explore and understand their sexuality throughout their adolescent and childhood years, with many including straight, gay, lesbian and bisexual people aware of sexual attractions from an early age. Regardless of when a person begins to explore their sexuality, this can be a confusing and challenging time, with gay, lesbian and bisexual young people in particular often experiencing an especially difficult time “coming out” to family and friends.
Some of the common terminology associated with sexuality includes:
- Heterosexual or straight: heterosexual refers to when people tend to be attracted to the opposite sex or gender.
- Gay: gay refers to same-sex attraction and is most often used to in reference to men.
- Lesbian: lesbian refers to women who are mostly attracted to other women, or people identifying as women.
- Bisexual: bisexual refers to individuals who are attracted to both sexes and genders. Pansexual or pan is also often to indicate a diverse sexuality, and attraction to people regardless of their gender.
- Asexual: asexual refers to individuals who do not or have not yet experienced sexual attraction to anyone.
What young people can do about gender and sexuality concerns
If a young person is being harassed or feels threatened in any way, it is important they seek assistance immediately. Discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender is illegal in Australia, and nobody should be forced to tolerate harassment. Make sure you provide support and reassurance, and if appropriate you can assist them to make a complaint to the human rights commission.
Furthermore, it is important that young people discuss gender and sexuality, and realise that both are incredibly diverse and that it is healthy to explore gender and sexuality. If an individual is struggling with their gender or sexuality it can often be helpful to talk to someone, such as a counsellor, parent or teacher. There are many LGBTI support services throughout Australia that can provide assistance and support for young people. Learning of the experiences of others who have been in a similar position may help some individuals who are struggling with their gender or sexuality.
ReachOut.com resources on gender and sexuality
Recommended professional resources