Gender identity is the feeling someone has inside about being male, female or something in between. Everyone has a gender identity. Sometimes people’s gender identity matches their bodies, and sometimes it does not. A person may be born with a penis and identify as a boy or born with a vagina and identify as a girl. This person may have a gender identity that is called “cisgender.” Or someone may be born with a penis and identify as a girl or born with a vagina and identify as a boy. This person may have a gender identity that is called “transgender.”
The term “genderqueer” is used to refer to anyone who identifies as neither male nor female, both male and female or a combination of different genders. “Genderfluid” is another identity that is similar to genderqueer. Some people experience their gender as fluid. This means they may feel like a mix of masculine and feminine qualities or feel more feminine sometimes and more masculine at other times. This is called gender fluidity, and it is not related to a person’s biological sex.
People express a sense of masculinity, femininity or something in between through their daily choices about appearance. This is called “gender expression,” and it can be influenced by how someone feels inside, family expectations, society’s expectations and other influences. Sometimes people’s gender expression matches their gender identity, and sometimes it does not. Gender expression can also change throughout people’s lives as they learn more about themselves and what masculinity and femininity mean to them and how they choose to express themselves on any given day.
Gender identity and expression don’t tell us anything about who a person is attracted to. “Sexual orientation” refers to what genders we are attracted to.
Gender roles are the societal norms that dictate the types of behaviors that are generally considered appropriate for people based on their actual or perceived gender. As parents, guardians and other trusted adults, it is important that we recognize how harmful gender roles can be if we force them on young people. For example, insisting that a boy not cry when he is hurt or sad limits his ability to express a full range of human emotions and empathize with others. Gender roles can limit young people’s ability to be who they truly are when, for example, a girl who wants to play sports is instead encouraged to be “ladylike.” When children are encouraged in subtle—and not-so subtle—ways to adhere to strict gender roles, it can cause significant anxiety, insecurity, stress and low self-esteem for both boys and girls.
With all this in mind, we can support children in shaping attitudes about gender that encourage respect for the many ways that people choose to identify and express themselves.
There are lots of terms for gender identity, and it’s not important that you or your child memorize definitions. It is more important for children to understand that gender identity and expression are spectrums, and they don’t need to be afraid if they see someone different or if they feel different in terms of how they identify or express their gender. These conversation starters are a way to make sure your child feels comfortable asking questions and talking with you about these topics.
You can also talk with your children about cultural differences in terms of gender. A great way to start talking about these issues is learning about gender expression and how masculinity and femininity are defined in different cultures (e.g., Scottish kilts).
You could also start a conversation with your child using some of the following: