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 that their experienced gender identity does not match their biological sex (they are transgender).
For youth who are transgender, their experienced gender identity does not match their biological sex. Transgender 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 the child grows up, the child may describe feeling as though he was meant to be a girl. The child will want to dress and style physical appearance like a girl, and will want to do stereotypical "girly" activities. The child may even ask to be called by a girl's name. Thus, although the child's sex is male, the 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, transgender youth may experience extreme confusion or conflict during adolescence because gender identity forms and solidifies during this time. Although transgender youth may experience a high degree of distress during the adolescent period, it is important to note that the experience of being transgender 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.
Transgender people are a minority group for the simple fact that most people are not transgender. And like other minority groups people who are transgender may experience many types of mistreatment, and may feel alienated from others. Since many people do not understand what it means to be transgender, 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 transgender youth can be extremely challenging, not only for the 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 transgender?" and may even wonder if there was something they did, or did not do, to cause their child to become transgender. Unfortunately, these questions are not easily answered because the research is not yet nearly complete and 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 transgender 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 transgender 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, transgender youth may be heterosexual (straight), homosexual (gay or lesbian), bisexual, or questioning. The next section will discuss sexual orientation in greater detail.