During adolescence most youth begin to question what it means to be a man or a woman; and more specifically, youth ponder how their gender identity fits into their overall identity. As mentioned, questioning of this type is a normal and natural part of adolescent development. For most youth, their gender identity will correspond to their biological sex and results in a single gender identity; i.e., either masculine or feminine. However, for some youth, they may have a strong sense they belong to both genders. This type of gender identity is called transgendered.
For transgendered people their biological sex does not predict a single, corresponding gender identity. Instead, their internal experience of themselves is that of the opposite gender, or of both genders. Thus, one gender defines their identity biologically, but the opposite gender, or both genders, defines their identity psychologically. Transgendered people often describe feeling as though they were born into the wrong body type. For example, a child may be born with male chromosomes (XY), testes, and a penis; however, as he grows up, he may describe feeling as though he was meant to be a girl. He will want to dress and style his physical appearance like a girl, and he will want to do stereotypical "girly" activities, and may even ask to be called by a girl's name. Thus, although his sex is male, his gender is feminine.
While adolescent questioning of gender, and gender roles, can be challenging and somewhat uncomfortable, it does not ordinarily create an enormous amount of upheaval or significant distress for most youth. However, transgendered youth may experience extreme confusion or conflict during adolescence because gender identity forms and solidifies during this time. Although transgendered youth may experience a high degree of distress during the adolescent period, it is important to note that the experience of being transgendered does not begin to suddenly emerge during adolescence. There is usually some indication of this discomfort and uncertainty long before this time. But because adolescence is a period of rapid sexual development, these feelings usually intensify during this time. Thus, this can be exceptionally stressful and difficult period for these teens.
Transgendered people are a minority group for the simple fact that most people are not transgendered. And like other minority groups, transgendered persons may experience many types of mistreatment, and may feel alienated from others. Since many people do not understand what it means to be transgendered, these youth are not only misunderstood, but also teased, ridiculed, and even punished for being who they are. This maltreatment harms not only these youths' self-esteem but also increases their risk for developing other more serious problems such as depression, drug abuse, delinquent behaviors, poor school performance, etc. Furthermore, these negative experiences can cause them to feel alone, isolated, or defective, particularly if they don't have an opportunity to talk with a knowledgeable and understanding adult.
The experience of being a transgendered youth can be extremely challenging, not only for the transgendered youth, but for their families as well. It's especially important for families to keep an open mind and to educate themselves about how to best support these youth. Quite often parents wonder, "Why is my child transgendered?" and may even wonder if there was something they did, or did not do, to cause their child to become transgendered. Unfortunately, these questions are not easily answered because the research is not yet nearly complete. There are many theories currently under investigation including: intra-uterine events, genetics, brain development, hormonal exposure, and cultural influence. Nonetheless, at this point in time it simply isn't possible to confidently identify the causal factors (Ettner et. al., 2007).
Gender identity should not be confused with sexual orientation. Gender identity describes what gender(s) people consider themselves to be; sexual orientation refers to the gender(s) people find themselves attracted to. Many transgendered people are mistakenly assumed to be homosexual. Homosexual attraction refers to feelings of attraction to the same gender, while heterosexual attraction refers to feelings of attraction to the opposite gender. However, this becomes a bit more complicated with transgendered people. For instance, a biological male whose gender identity is feminine, and who describes feelings of attraction for men, is actually describing a heterosexual attraction. However, from outward appearances, it may simplistically seem like a man is attracted to another man (homosexual attraction). Therefore, like all youth, transgendered youth may be heterosexual (straight), homosexual (gay or lesbian), bisexual, or questioning. The next section will discuss sexual orientation in greater detail.