Puberty is a period of rapid growth where many physical, emotional, and social changes happen. Being well informed about puberty is key to taking care of ourselves. For more info on what to expect, visit our section on Puberty.
Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE)
Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Expression (or SOGIE) are central to who we are – everyone has a gender and everyone has a sexual orientation. Thinking about it, talking about it, and getting support to be our authentic selves is very important. Receiving affirming and non-judgmental support is also an important part of staying healthy.
Sexual orientation is separate from gender identity and expression. Sexual orientation is about attraction, specifically who we are romantically and physically attracted to. Gender identity is our internal sense of our gender and something that cannot be seen. Gender expression, on the other hand, is how we choose to express our gender on the outside and the two are not necessarily related.
Most of us will have a good sense of our gender identity and who we are attracted to (sexual orientation) from an early age (2-3 years old for gender and 4-10 years old for attraction). That said, how we identify ourselves can change throughout our lives. Most of us will go through periods of questioning and experimentation when our bodies and brains start to transition from kid to adult. As we grow, we will have access to more information and more life experiences that can shape how we see ourselves and the world. We are also exposed to more people and see how diverse our friends and peers really are. We may also become more self-confident and feel ready to be our full selves.
Everyone deserves respect when it comes to figuring out who we truly are and how we wish to express it
Language can help us in exploring who we are by providing words to name our experiences. Language can also help us find and develop community with those who have similar experiences. While there are various words we can use to understand both our attractions and gender, there may not be one word that perfectly captures who we are at this moment in time. But language is responsive and as more people talk openly about their experiences of attraction and gender, the more language will grow.
Just as language is responsive, we must be responsive too. The evolution of language to describe attractions and gender deserves our continued attention and commitment to learning.
Some common language used today to describe sexual orientations
- Lesbian: someone who is attracted to the same gender, most often women who are attracted to other women.
- Gay: someone who is attracted to the same gender, most often men who are attracted to other men, but sometimes used by women who are attracted to other women.
- Bisexual: someone who is attracted to people of more than one gender.
- Pansexual: someone who is attracted to people regardless of gender identity and expression.
- Queer: an umbrella term to describe sexual orientations, practices, and preferences other than straight. Queer has been reclaimed as a way of self-identifying and as a political statement against oppression. “Queer” means different things to different people and sometimes can refer to someone’s gender identity – it’s important not to make assumptions about what a queer identity might mean.
- Two Spirit: is a term used by some Indigenous people to self-identify. It is an Indigenous specific term that can only be used by Indigenous people to identify themselves (for more info, see below)
- Questioning: the process of exploring and discovering their sexual orientation.
- Asexual: someone who generally does not feel sexual attraction or desire for any group of people, either within or outside of a relationship. Asexual is also an umbrella term to describe a spectrum of people with varying experiences of sexual and romantic attraction and desire.
- Straight or Heterosexual: someone who is attracted to a gender different than their own. For instance, a woman who is attracted to a man might identify as straight.
Like sexual orientation, words used to describe gender identity are constantly changing. It’s important to take people’s lead in terms of how they identify and what names/pronouns they use. You have the right to have the pronouns and names that match your gender identity respected. Some common words people use to describe their gender identity include:
- Transgender: a person whose gender identity and assigned sex at birth are different (for more information on the differences between gender and assigned sex see section below).
- Trans: an umbrella term to describe people whose gender identity and assigned sex are different. It can be used for a range of identities and experiences; every community and individual may define trans differently.
- Cisgender (or cis): a person whose gender identity and assigned sex are the same.
- Gender non-binary (or non-binary or NB): someone whose gender identity and/or expression does not fall into the socially constructed gender binary. People who identify as non-binary may or may not also identify as trans.
- Gender fluid (or gender queer): someone who moves between binary constructions of gender and whose gender identity and expressions vary over time. People who identify as gender fluid/queer may or may not also identify as trans.
- Agender: someone who identifies as not having a gender or being genderless. People who identify as agender may or may not also identify as trans.
- Gender creative/independent: 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 identify as trans.
- Two Spirit: a term used by some Indigenous people to self-identify. It is an Indigenous specific term that can only be used by Indigenous people to identify themselves. While the term itself is Anishinaabe based, it has been taken up by different Indigenous nations to describe complex experiences and identities as well as cultural roles and responsibilities. Two Spirit can sometimes refer to sexual orientation and at other times to gender identity, depending on the individual and/or their nation. It can also describe roles and responsibilities specific to different Indigenous nations that may or may not be tied to sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
For all these words, there is not one single unchanging definition. Every community and every person may define and use them differently. For instance, sometimes trans is used as an umbrella term including identities that may range from non-binary to agender to transgender, and other times trans is used as a short form of transgender.
Trans (like other language used to describe gender or attraction) is an identity that someone chooses for themselves, and not something you can tell or determine in others. Some trans people choose to change their names, pronouns, and bodies (through hormones or gender affirming surgeries), and some do not.
Never assume someone’s gender identity, sexual orientation, or the language people might use to describe themselves. For example, just because someone is Indigenous and identifies somewhere along the LGBTQ+ spectrum does not mean that they will use the term Two Spirit to identify themselves
What’s the Difference Between Gender Identity and Assigned Sex?
Assigned sex and gender identity are not the same. Assigned sex is a label (i.e., male, female, and intersex) that is given at birth based on someone's chromosomes, genitals, and hormonal profile. Gender identity is an internal awareness about our gender that we develop between the ages of 2 and 4. For some of us, our gender identity is consistent with our sex assigned at birth, and for others, it’s different. This means that some of us who were assigned male or female at birth may express different gender identities later in life.
Someone assigned male at birth may or may not later identify as a boy or a man and someone assigned female at birth may or may not later identify as a girl or a woman. People whose gender and assigned sex at birth are the same (i.e. someone who was male at birth and identifies as a man) are cisgender (cis is borrowed from chemistry, meaning same). People whose assigned sex at birth and gender are different are transgender (trans is borrowed from chemistry, meaning different).
The term assigned sex at birth is used instead of just sex or biological sex because doctors will usually determine a baby to be either male or female, even though not all of us fit neatly into these categories. The reality is that intersex babies are born at the same rate as those of us with red hair. But doctors will often assign intersex babies as either female or male and perform non-consensual surgeries so that they will “fit” into one of these categories.
People who have chromosomes, hormonal profiles, or genitals that do not typically fit into binary medical and social constructions of male and female might identify themselves as intersex.
Non-consensual infant surgeries are a violation of one’s human (sexual) rights. These surgeries are different from gender affirming surgeries that might be chosen later in life by those of us who identify as transgender.
Identifying as trans or non-binary is not the same thing as identifying as intersex. Sometimes intersex is included in the acronym 2SLGBTQIA+, but this doesn’t mean that someone who identifies as intersex includes themselves within the queer spectrum of identities.
Are Gender Expression and Identity the Same Thing?
In one word, no – gender expression is not the same thing as identity. Gender expression does not always tell us what someone’s gender identity is. While often they can be related, it’s not always the case. Gender identity is not something that can be read off the body – it is internal. Gender expression, on the other hand, is how we present our gender outwardly.
Gender expression includes behaviours and appearance such as how we dress, wear our hair, makeup, our body language, and our voice. We all express our gender in different ways; it’s healthy, normal, and important to think about this part of ourselves.
Gender expression can also change – sometimes day to day, and other times over longer periods of time. Someone may identify as a woman and dress in a traditionally feminine way most days. Someone else may identify as a woman and dress in a traditionally masculine way most days. Another may identify as neither a man nor a woman and playfully incorporate masculine and feminine elements in how they present, changing it up day to day. Someone else might dress in a gender-neutral fashion. Definitions of femininity, masculinity, and gender-neutrality also depend on the cultures you live in. What is feminine, masculine, and gender-neutral in one culture might not be so in another culture.
The names and pronouns (they/she/he/zi/hir) that most accurately reflect our gender identity might also be part of the ways we publicly express our gender (and these can change often too). Pronouns can be one way that we outwardly express our gender but it is important not to assume pronouns based on how someone dresses or wears their hair. One way to not assume pronouns is asking people in our lives: “what pronouns do you use?” It’s important to get into this habit with everyone, not only those who have come out as non-binary and/or trans. We all get pronouns wrong sometimes; it’s okay so long as we apologize to the person most impacted and learn from our mistakes. We can offer a simple apology right away and move on.
It’s important to remember that gender identity and gender expression are not necessarily related and that we cannot assume someone’s gender identity based on appearance or even pronoun use. The only way to know someone’s gender identity is if they decide to come out to you
Those of us who identify as straight and/or cisgender don’t have to think about our sexual orientation and gender identity too much since our experience is seen as the norm (and not questioned). If we identify as anything other than cisgender or straight, we usually must “come out.” For instance, if we’ve been socialized as a girl, we might get asked by family members or friends “do you have a boyfriend yet?” The assumption is that we are cis and attracted to cis boys. The assumption that we are straight and/or cisgender until proven otherwise can be harmful and doesn’t feel good.
Coming out is not a one-time event. Finding the language to describe ourselves is often just one part of coming out. It is a process that starts with coming out to ourselves and from there, we can choose how or if we come out more publicly. We also get to choose who we tell and when. We need to decide this for ourselves and there is no “right,” “wrong” or “should” order of things. Coming out is not straightforward (excuse the pun) and can come with hurdles.
If a friend has come out to you, they have placed a lot of trust in you and your friendship. This responsibility should not be taken lightly. Be supportive by taking their lead and making sure you’re not pressuring them to speed up their coming out timeline.
Those of us who have come out to ourselves might feel pressure to come out to others but sometimes choosing not to come out is a survival tactic. We make strategic assessments about what, who, when, and how much to tell. This means that at one point or another we may choose to hide parts of ourselves, big and small. Learning how to recognize this as strategic and resilient instead of cowardly is an important part of building our self-esteem. Whether you decide to come out or not does not invalidate your gender and/or sexual identities.
Coming out can be joyful and bring wonderful new people and experiences into our lives (like new friends, community belonging, partners, and a sense of confidence). It can also feel fraught with risks and roadblocks. Sometimes, publicly coming out as queer or trans can bring different social consequences, especially in schools, and should always be our own decision.
If someone “outs” you without your permission, this is not okay. If someone else has outed you, this might be the sign of an unhealthy relationship. You have the right to come out to whoever you want and at your own pace. Naming your sexual orientation or gender identity is only something that you can do.
Homophobia and Transphobia, Bullying and Harassment
Many of us who are (or perceived to be) queer or trans experience bullying and harassment more than our cis straight peers. This is because homophobia (queerphobia), transphobia, biphobia, and sexism (including misogyny, femmephobia, transmisogyny) often drive what has been coined generally as “bullying.”
If you have ever experienced bullying (and most of us have), the experience may leave you feeling completely alone, like you are the only one in the world who has gone through this. The truth is you are not alone and many others (even the bullies themselves) have been bullied. Knowing that there are others who have been bullied for the same reasons (like not fitting into binary expectations of gender) can help us feel less isolated and find community support. It also gives us a system to fight against instead of individuals to seek revenge on.
It can be very difficult if our gender identity, expression and/or sexual orientation don’t match with our family or community’s expectations. We all deserve respect, dignity, and love. We deserve to be safe in our homes, at school, and in our larger community. These are part of our basic human rights.
Your gender identity, expression, and sexual orientation are part of what makes you uniquely you. Know that you, just as you are, deserve love, care, and kindness. Connecting with sexual health centres near you, supportive online groups, and trusted adults can provide guidance and community. Here are some useful resources: