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Young people need us to see them as they are, and adults are off the mark, a study say

By Madeline Holcombe, CNN

There is more we can do to make our kids feel seen, accepted and secure — and it starts with adding more terms for gender identity and sexual orientation to the official forms we give them, according to a new study.

Researchers in Minnesota analyzed data from students across the state in grades eight, nine and 11, finding that a significant portion of the youth population identified with terms including lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, pansexual, transgender, genderqueer, genderfluid or nonbinary.

Many of the identities the students in the study use are often absent from forms and surveys given to them, which is especially concerning given the high rates of depression and bias-based bullying many students, particularly those who identified as pansexual, nonbinary or transmasculine.

A step as simple as expanding identity options could help, according to the study, published Monday in the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“When these words are on forms and surveys, young people are able to see that adults in systems like schools and healthcare settings see the importance of including them instead of perpetuating erasure that doesn’t allow for nuanced recommendations or policies,” said study author Nic Rider, assistant professor and coordinator of the Transgender Health Services program at the University of Minnesota Medical School Institute for Sexual and Gender Health.

The study has limitations in that it looks at data from one state and offers only English language identities from a Western perspective, Rider said.

But this statewide look at identity is a huge step forward, said Ryan Watson, associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Connecticut.

“This study is a much needed advance in our understanding of the growing diversity of sexual and gender identities,” Watson, who was not involved in the study, said via email. “The ideas that these terms represent are not new; that is, the idea that someone could be attracted to multiple genders is not new within the past decade. However, we finally have terminology that can represent these complex realities.”

What adults can do

The world is run by adults, and the study showed that they can do more to make the institutions meant to serve young people more inclusive.

“These results are a call to adults to educate themselves on the terms and language youth use to describe their identities,” said lead study author Amy Gower, research associate of general pediatrics and adolescent health in the department of pediatrics, University of Minnesota Medical School.

“Everyone can do some research if they hear someone use an identity they are not familiar with. We can all work to make spaces inclusive and free from bullying and discrimination so LGBTQ+ youth can thrive.”

The larger public’s understanding of sexual and gender identity has long been limited to straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual and, less often, transgender, Watson said. Now, it’s time for researchers and stakeholders to understand the wider expanse of identity.

“Young people — in particular — are understanding that gender and sexuality is complex,” Watson said. “Unfortunately, at the same time, state governments are limiting the rights and expressions of these identities. At a time in which youth are finally finding words to describe who they really are, politicians are limiting the rights of youth and their parents who just want to be happy and healthy.”

Other research in the field has found that while young people report that bullying, harassment and microaggressions are common in schools, they often go unaddressed by staff and administration.

To have a better experience with schools, doctors and other adults of authority in their lives, young people need to feel protected by them, and that can start with curiosity.

“When LGBTQ+ young people share about their experiences or their identities, and you don’t know the terms, take this as an opportunity to have an open conversation from a place of curiosity and compassion,” Gower said.

“Take the time and energy to do some research to self-educate. Then take the information that you’ve learned to be action-oriented to make change in institutions so that LGBTQ+ young people are treated with respect and dignity,” Rider agreed.

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