To have conversations on gender and sexuality with our children, it is important we have some basic definitions.
Traditionally, this is the classification of a person as male or female. At birth, infants are assigned a sex, usually based on the appearance of their external anatomy and this is the information that goes on their birth certificate. A person’s sex however is a combination of bodily characteristics including: chromosomes, hormones, internal and external reproductive organs, and secondary sex characteristics.
- A person with XX chromosome usually has genitals and sex traits that we consider to be female.
- A person with XY chromosomes usually has genitals and sex traits that we consider to be male.
- People with other chromosome arrangements (e.g., XXY, XYY, XXXY, X0, etc.), hormonal profiles or genitals that do not typically fit into binary medical and social constructions of male and female are intersex. There are hundreds of variations of intersexuality.
It is estimated that between 1.7% and 4% of all babies born are intersex. Increasingly, the rights of intersex people are being recognized and there is a strong movement opposing non-consensual surgeries on intersex infants. The reality of intersexuality highlights the problem of considering sex simply as binary (with just two possibilities). Rigid binary also feeds rigid ideas about gender identity and gender expression (e.g., the idea that if nature created only two sexes, that would mean that there can only be two gender identities). The reality is that there are more than two rigid sex categories and that sex is not inherently linked to gender identity.
Our gender identity is the internal, deeply held sense of our own gender. Most people have a gender identity of man or woman (or boy or girl) but for some, their gender identity does not fall neatly into one of those two categories or can fall totally outside of them. These people can choose to identify as genderqueer, gender fluid or non-binary (NB), or with other terms of their choosing. Our personal feelings about our gender identity begin as early as 2 or 3 years old. Most people won’t notice because their assumed gender matches their actual gender identity.
Cisgender: The people for whom assigned sex and gender identity line up are called cisgender (cis is a Latin prefix meaning “on the same side”).
Trans: People for whom their assigned gender and gender identity do not align, for example, if the assigned sex is male but their gender identity is that of a woman, may identify as transgender or trans. In this example, the person would be a trans woman (instead of a cisgender woman) because while she was assigned male at birth, she identifies as a woman. The term trans is an umbrella term because there are multiple variations of gender identities that are not cisgender. Many transgender people decide to undergo hormone treatment to bring their bodies into alignment with their gender identity. Some undergo surgery as well. But not all transgender people can or will take those steps and a transgender identity is not dependent upon physical appearance or medical procedures.
It is important to note that everyone has a gender identity, not just trans people. Cisgender people think about it less or do not notice the moment when they determine their gender identity because our environment presents it as “inevitable” and “normal.” Unlike gender expression, gender identity is not visible to others.
Our gender expression is the external manifestation of gender. It can be expressed through our name, the pronouns we use, the clothing we choose to wear, our haircut, our behaviour, the tone of our voice, and/or body characteristics. Society identifies these cues as masculine and feminine, although what is considered masculine or feminine changes over time and varies by culture.
When people’s gender expression is different from conventional expectations of masculinity and femininity, we say they are gender non-conforming. Both cis and trans people can have gender expressions that are not entirely conventional and both cis and trans men and women can have gender expressions that are conventionally masculine or feminine.
These are terms often used to describe children who do not conform to binary constructions of gender. Children who are gender creative or gender independent may or may not grow up to identify as transgender.
Gender normativity refers to the social constructs that define the gender binary of woman/man as normal and anything that exists outside of this binary as “abnormal,” unnatural and/or deviant. Gender norms are the mostly unwritten rules, scripts, and roles prescribed by socially constructed binary ideas of masculinity and femininity that are reinforced by the dominant culture.
We reinforce these norms or rules constantly, consciously or not. For example, many of us react strongly or negatively if we see a man wearing a dress or crying, or a woman in a leadership position or who is angry and expresses herself assertively. We reward a typical behaviour either by our lack of reaction or with encouragement, subtle or not. We punish those who do not conform to gender norms by expressing surprise, questioning people, or showing disgust, fascination, or even aggression.
Sexism is both gender-based discrimination and the attitudes, stereotypes, and cultural elements that promote this discrimination. So-called oppositional sexism is the idea that the categories of masculine and feminine are two completely opposite and distinct poles and traditional sexism is the idea that the masculine is superior to the feminine. Sexism affects people of all genders by limiting their genuine gender expressions and exposing them to discrimination on the basis of gender.
Our sexual orientation is our physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to people of one specific or multiple genders. Gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same.
Generally, especially as awareness grows regarding the diversity in sexual orientation, people know their sexual orientation from an early age, even if it is not immediately related to the idea of sex.