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Discussing changing conceptions of gender identity and how to talk about it

Psychologist Wes Crenshaw joined St. Louis on the Air to discuss how to talk about gender identity with a new generation and vocabulary in hand.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Psychologist Wes Crenshaw joined St. Louis on the Air to discuss how to talk about gender identity with a new generation and vocabulary in hand.

Kansas-based psychologist Wes Crenshaw works with young adults on a variety of issues, but in the past years he’s been focusing specifically on young people’s evolving attitudes on gender identity.

Crenshaw is a psychologist, author and certified sex therapist with Family Psychological Services, LCC.

He’s about to finish a book, “Consent-Based Sex Education: Parenting Teens in the Internet Age,” which deals specifically with how to talk to kids about gender identity when the kids seem better versed in the subject matter than parents do.

“The top thing I’ve found is how much young people are about this than anyone else,” Crenshaw told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh. “Regular kids are knowledgeable about gender identity and sexual attraction. I’ve found, the more educated they’ve become, the less they are going out and engaging in sexual practices. They’re more interested in talking about it and learning about it. From my standpoint as a sex educator, they are becoming better educated about gender identity, sex roles and sexuality than ever before.”

Crenshaw said this fluency is consistent in urban, suburban and rural areas he is practiced in.

“Twenty years ago, this wasn’t a question people wanted or felt comfortable to ask” Crenshaw said. “Now that the question is open and kids talk about it, they begin to say ‘How am I? Who am I?’ I wouldn’t presume someone is cisgender, experiencing your gender as assigned at birth, because these are now things we talk about early on.”

Crenshaw makes the important distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation. He describes gender identity as how you see yourself, male, female, gender-fluid, non-gendered, regardless of the gender you were assigned at birth. He says he prefers to define sexual orientation as “sexual attraction,” to which everyone has a specific attraction profile, which extends to people of different genders and people of the same gender.

He said that children nowadays more rarely identify as gay or straight, but rather think about who they are attracted to and who draws their interest.

In his book, Crenshaw addresses the process of transitioning from the gender assigned at birth, which he says can be a difficult process for parents and that they struggle understanding the gender identity of the child rather than sexual attraction.

“It is not who you love, it is who you are,” Crenshaw said. “Parents are very sure they know their kids. This is the kid saying ‘you don’t know me.’ This is painful, but I’ve also seen it turn it into an amazing experience.”

Crenshaw also discussed changing views on vocabulary when it comes to LGBTQIA issues. For example, referring to someone as “a transgender” or as “transgendered” is no longer considered appropriate.

“It is valuable to talk to people as they want to be spoken to,” Crenshaw said. “We did use the term ‘transgendered,’ and we just don’t do that anymore. Likewise, you don’t say someone is ‘a transgender.’ People are still trying to adapt to this. Even more difficult, when I’ve known a person as a Jill and that person begins to identify as John, or as gender neutral, pronouns shift to they. My experience has been for young people, they are forgiving of their parents. I ask them to be, this is a complicated change, the language is hard to catch up to. There’s a balance of need for that good language and an importance for forgiveness as they are learning.”

For more resources on language and terminology, GLAAD has provided an insightful resource here.  

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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