Starting Conversations with Your Kids about Gender Identity and Sexuality

What are the basic terms that can help us have conversations about gender identity?

Gender: A socially constructed system of classification that ascribes qualities of masculinity and femininity to people. Gender expectations and norms can change over time and are different from culture to culture. The word “gender” is often used synonymously—and incorrectly—with “sex.”

Sex: The physical structure of a person’s genitalia used to assign gender at birth. In addition, biological sex includes chromosomes, hormones, internal organs, and other structures related to reproduction. Given the potential variation in all of these things, biological sex must be seen as a spectrum or a range of possibilities rather than a binary set of only two options.

Gender identity: One’s innermost core concept of self, which can include identification as a man, a woman, a blend of both or neither, and more ways individuals perceive themselves, as well as what they call themselves. Many people become conscious of a discrepancy between their gender and their sex between the ages of eighteen months and three years. Some of these people socially, hormonally, and/or surgically change their physical appearance to more fully match their gender identity, and some do not.

Cisgender: Describes a person whose gender identity is congruent with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Transgender: Sometimes used as an umbrella term to describe anyone whose identity or behavior falls outside of stereotypical gender norms. More narrowly defined, it refers to an individual whose gender identity does not match their assigned birth sex.

Sexuality (sexual orientation): Refers to being romantically or sexually attracted to people of a specific gender or genders and/or sex or sexes. Our sexual orientation and our gender identity are separate, distinct parts of our overall identity. Although a child may not yet be aware of their sexual orientation, they usually have a strong sense of their gender identity.

Gender identity and sexual orientation are independent of each other: Being transgender or cisgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation. Therefore, people may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, etc., regardless of what their gender identity is.