A new component has been added to freshman orientation these days. College students across the country are telling others their preferred choice of gender pronoun the day they start at university.
And if they want to “change” their gender the next day, the next week, the next month? So be it.
Yes, this is really happening. While “ze,” “hir,” “hirs,” “xe,” “xem,” and “xyr” may sound foreign to most of us, these terms and all that their use imply are hitting our children square in the face virtually everywhere they turn. This is no accident.
The term “gender fluidity” has been around since the 1990s, but today it’s a social juggernaut. Gender fluidity refers to people who do not categorize themselves as just male or female; their gender may fluctuate even on a daily basis. As Dr. Daphna Joel, a psychology professor at Tel-Aviv University, told The Guardian, “There are multiple ways to be male and female” — and the majority of millennials apparently concur.
In a recent survey, more than half the people ages 18 to 34 believe gender exists on a spectrum and that it should not be limited to the categories of male and female, according to Fusion’s Massive Millennial Poll. Some countries, like India, recognize a third gender and think the United States is still in the Dark Ages, since it does not have such a federal policy. But we must understand the factors that have led to the meteoric rise of gender fluidity.
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Non-binary gender is nothing new. David Bowie’s alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, introduced millions of young people to gender fluidity. More contemporary artists followed: Annie Lennox, Boy George, Marilyn Manson. In spite of these pop influences, the gender fluid movement remained relatively small — but that changed with the rise of the Internet.
"The No. 1 factor is the Internet," said Dr. Ken Zucker, a psychologist and head of the Gender Identity Service in Toronto. "If you’re struggling to find out where you fit in, the Internet is filled with things about gender dysphoria [the feeling that your emotional and psychological identity as male or female is opposite to your biological sex]."
A mix of curiosity and access to unlimited content on the Internet frequently leads children to find captivating photos of androgynous actors and models. Jaden Smith’s gender fluid style has been revered by many young people, especially when he wore a dress to prom. Miley Cyrus has become one of the most visible gender fluid supporters and has declared, "I don’t relate to being boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relate to boy or girl."
Science has revealed that gender confusion is usually a temporary condition. "Approximately three-quarters of children who have issues with their gender are comfortable with it by adolescence," according to Dr. Zucker. Gender confusion can be used as a "handy label for whatever ails a child."
The reality is that "in most children, gender dysphoria will disappear before, or early in, puberty," noted Dr. Cohen-Kettenis, head of the department of medical psychology at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam.
The exponential rise in gender fluidity correlates to the dramatic change in social norms. Many parents are deemed "fashionable" for embracing diversity in their child. Dr. Alice Dreger, a former bioethics professor at Northwestern University, has said that parents who encourage their kids to experiment with their identity "are socially rewarded as wonderful and accepting." Parents themselves have been influenced by the gender fluid movement through popular TV shows like "Orange Is the New Black" and "Transparent." Additionally, many schools in the United States celebrate Transgender Awareness Month (last one was November 2015) in which children are given pronoun buttons and discuss gender fluidity.
Social media promotes gender fluidity as well. Specifically, Facebook offers nearly 60 gender options for users to choose from that include "bigender," "agender," "cisgender," and "two-spirit." This overemphasis on gender can diminish the importance of a person’s ethnicity, race, and other personal aspects.
Our strong gender non-conformity awareness may be doing some unforeseen harm. Promoting gender fluidity in children can confuse or distress them. "If a girl prefers to climb trees rather than play with dolls or a boy likes ballet, will she now wonder if she’s really not a girl or a boy at all?" said journalist Melanie Phillips.
Businesses have tapped into our culture’s obsession with gender fluidity. As a result, gender fluid fashion has taken over. Trans models, such as Hari Nef and Andreja Pejić, have helped bend the traditional norms of masculine and feminine. Designers like Rick Owens and Alessandro Michele of Gucci are purposefully "eroding the once rigid demarcation between conventionally feminine and masculine clothes" to profit from this gender fluid phenomenon.
Many researchers believe the flux in gender identity is actually more like a fashion choice. Young people are emulating what they connect to on Tumblr and Instagram. Their frequent switch of gender pronouns may correlate to their most recent fashion interest.
Less than two decades ago, the majority of pediatricians did not encounter gender identity disorders in children. "Most children develop a clear sense of whether they are boys or girls between the ages of 18 and 30 months," noted Dr. Domenico Di Ceglie, founder of Britain's Gender Identity Development Service.
Yet the overwhelming power of social media has changed the social landscape. While we wait to see if gender fluidity is more than just a fad, there is one thing we know for certain: Our use of pronouns may never be the same.
Daniel Riseman, founder of Riseman Educational Consulting in Irvington, New York, has been counseling students and working with families for 16 years on every aspect of the college admissions process.