Bi, straight, lesbian: These topics are now often taken for granted among young people. But how do you deal with it when your own underage child says it would rather be of the opposite sex?
BRIGITTE: Love life is becoming more colorful and colorfulness more normal – that’s my impression when I listen to my teenage daughter. Transgender models become stars in casting shows, gay protagonists in the cinema. A real change?
DR. VICTORIA MARKER: It’s true, in western societies today young people are much more allowed to try things out. If you no longer have to fear discrimination, you can also look for your way with an open mind. And something else has changed: Desires, fantasies, and lived sexuality are much more flexible today. Not just during puberty, but throughout life. This applies even more to women and girls than to men and boys.
Sexual orientation is a process, not a state.
It may have something to do with the fact that society perceives female lust as less threatening, or simply not that important – even when homosexuality was still a criminal offence, it only applied to men. So girls and women have more freedom to listen to themselves: What is happening in my life, how does that fit in with my fantasies and my development – whether they fall in love with a classmate at 13, leave their husband for a woman at 40, or vice versa. Sexual orientation, sexual desire is a process and not a state that I can put a label on. But it is quite possible that men will follow suit. Their role is also changing, they admit weakness, have more contact with their softer sides…
Researchers also use the term “sexual fluidity” for this – but doesn’t that apply more to certain big city and social bubbles?
Of course there are differences – very religious families find it harder to deal with the difference in their children than secular ones, the population in rural areas usually has a harder time than parents in liberal metropolises such as Hamburg or Berlin. In Russia, where I come from, there is a widespread notion that men become gay because they were abused by elders when they were young. For fear of discrimination, many young people there hide their true feelings, marry and start families to keep up appearances.
Which is sure to cause a lot of suffering. Can it be the other way around, that young people in more open milieus want to be part of the rainbow community because it’s “in” at the moment? Even though it’s just a temporary phase in the search for identity?
No, I rather think the sensitivity to it has simply grown. Even though there are still many parents who find it difficult to accept when their child is not mainstream. Especially when it comes to trans people. That’s another dimension: if my child feels that it belongs to the opposite sex, then I have to live with the fact that a fundamental assumption about this person was wrong. Yes, in practical work it is very different how well mothers and fathers cope with it – some are very supportive, others find it difficult. Also, because there may be opposite-sex or same-sex parts of your own that repress you more and that frighten you when confronted with it in this way.
When children are at odds with their biological sex: What should parents do best?
stay curious. Don’t push too hard, but ask questions, for example if the daughter prefers to look for clothes in the boys’ department: What do you like about it, how do you feel when you wear it, what does it mean to you? As long as the child is doing well, as long as it is socially well integrated, there is no reason to go to the doctor or seek psychological advice. Even trans identity is no longer a stigma today, since 2019 it has no longer been officially classified as a disorder in diagnostics, but as a variant of sexual development.
But at some point there is psychological strain, at the latest when puberty really sets in. What do you do when a child like that sits in front of you and says: I’m in the wrong body?
First, the colleagues in child and adolescent psychiatry make a comprehensive diagnosis, which we then check again at our institute. We accompany the young people with psychotherapeutic talks, help them come out to their parents, grandparents and friends. That takes a lot of time. Only when we are absolutely sure that it is transgender do we consult other specialists and advise on medical measures – especially the question of whether drugs to stop puberty are available. Because that facilitates further steps such as gender reassignment operations, which are then undertaken at the earliest when the child comes of age.
Is that standard everywhere in Germany?
No, there are different approaches. The diagnosis is the same, but experts disagree on the question of whether the onset of puberty should be hormonally delayed or whether sexual development should take its course. The research on this is inconsistent, many study results are controversial.
Since the beginning of 2019 there has officially been a third gender in Germany. Has this helped people in this process?
Yes, and it also makes our work easier. We and our clients are no longer forced to think in these categories – male or female – it opens the possibility of an identity beyond these categories. This makes it easier to find out together what people feel comfortable with. For some, it’s enough to simply have a new ID card with the gender “diverse”, others leave it at hormone treatment and realize: I’m fine the way I am, I don’t need the full program including surgery. From then on things usually improve again in other areas of life. Young people, for example, have new energy for school or training because they no longer constantly struggle with the question: Who am I and where do I fit in?
For gay, lesbian and trans youth there are more role models today, in films, books, fashion, show business. What role does the internet play in this, especially social media?
A big, mostly positive one. I keep observing how important digital peer groups are: people who understand exactly what the young person is going through and who are sometimes a few steps further down the road. However, some parents fear that this could have a bad influence on their children, as if such tendencies were contagious.
Children are receptive, but also resilient.
In the right-wing populist spectrum, groups such as the so-called “Concerned Parents” speak out against the alleged “early sexualization” of children. What do you say to them?
It worries me more when adults infect their children with their prejudices and fantasies! Children are receptive, but most are also resilient. The best thing we can do as parents is to convey that you are good the way you are and we will support you as best we can.
dr Viktoria Märker is a specialist in psychiatry and psychotherapy and works at the Institute for Sex Research, Sexual Medicine and Forensic Psychiatry at the Hamburg UKE, one of the leading sexological institutions in Europe and the oldest of its kind in Germany. Märker’s daily work also includes advising young people from the LGBTIQ spectrum and their families.
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