Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation
Gender identity is the personal and deeply felt sense of being male, female, neither one nor the other, or both. This feeling appears very early in childhood, sometimes even from the age of two.
Everybody has a gender identity. The gender identity of most people corresponds to the sex that was assigned to them at birth; they are said to be cisgender. Other people, however, have a gender identity that differs from the one they were assigned at birth; these people are said to be transgender.
For transgender people, transitioning can take place in three ways: legal, medical and social. A legal transition means having one’s name and gender changed on one’s identity papers. A medical transition involves various medical interventions that can be surgical, hormonal, etc. Social transitioning takes place within a person’s circles of family, friends and business acquaintances and is expressed by a change in their preferred personal pronoun. Social transitioning can also pertain to the person’s gender expression, that is, to the way they express their gender, which is specific to each individual. It may relate to various aspects of a person’s appearance (clothing, hairstyle, gestures, etc.).
A non-binary person is one whose gender identity lies outside the man/woman binary. Non-binary people may identify as transgender.
Sexual orientation is defined as physical or emotional attraction for a person of the same sex (homosexuality), the opposite sex (heterosexuality) or without a preference for one over the other (bisexuality or pansexuality).
The concepts of gender identity and sexual orientation come under the acronym LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer). Gender identity, however, has nothing to do with a person’s sexual orientation; these are two completely different concepts.
If people from the LGBTQ community band together to fight discrimination, this is not because they all define themselves in the same way. They do not.
Importance of an education free of stereotypes
Some adults mistakenly believe that girls and boys should be raised differently to ensure that they develop a gender identity that corresponds to their biological sex. In actual fact, gender identity and sexual orientation cannot be influenced by education because they are innate. That being said, the more we educate all children in the same way regardless of sex, the better they will be at expressing how they really feel.
The deep-seated feeling that one is a girl, a boy or neither is not directly related to such things as a person’s interest in certain types of games or clothing. We should therefore not conclude that a boy who takes an interest in a “girl’s activity” perceives himself as a girl or will become gay. In fact, exhibiting behaviours usually attributed to the opposite sex is quite common among children and has nothing to do with the gender they personally identify with. Worrying because a boy behaves in ways said to be “girly,” or vice versa, is proof that we, too, subscribe to these stereotypes!
Gender identity is often formed very early in life. During childhood and adolescence, young people tend to use gender stereotypes in their behaviours, attitudes and dress in order to consolidate their gender identity. These often unconscious behaviours are influenced by society’s expectations.
In short, encouraging children to act as they wish regardless of whether their behaviours are considered “female” or “male” enables them to acquire all the skills they need for their development. If they are allowed to take part only in activities generally associated with their sex, they will not have an opportunity to acquire these skills.
Homophobia and transphobia
Young people who do not match the stereotypes associated with their sex may feel different, sidelined and even excluded. They are often victims of discrimination, harassment and even physical violence, which is why it is critical to raise public awareness of the importance of accepting differences. For example, a young boy who would like to take dance classes could repress this passion, because it does not correspond to what society expects of him. And this in turn could lead to feelings of uncertainty, reduced self-esteem and bullying.
For these reasons, children must have access to role models in whom they can recognize themselves. This will enable them to be happy and to grow.
Tips for supporting young people
Providing young people with an upbringing free of stereotypes promotes diversity and thereby the value of equality between women and men.
Here are a few tips to help young people to express themselves freely:
- Allow children to express their creativity and explore the activities that pique their curiosity. Parental support fosters high self-esteem and bolsters self-confidence.
- Diversify activities so that children can cultivate all the skills they need to develop their full potential.
- Encourage children to pick activities that are not typically associated with their sex. For example, at home you could ask your son to take charge of family responsibilities related to the care of his brothers and sisters, and have your daughter move boxes in the courtyard or garden.
- Remind your children frequently that there are no activities reserved exclusively for girls or boys.
- Consider your own values and ask yourself whether you subscribe to any stereotypes. Would you think that a boy who puts on nail polish is gay?
- Always promote the value of equality between women and men to young people.
- Be open-minded with respect to diversity. If you are aware of young people who have made discriminatory remarks or behaved in a discriminatory way toward people who are sexually or gender diverse, ask these young people to reflect on their conduct. Is it related to misunderstanding, to fear of the unknown? There are many resources available to them, such as:
Guide sur les mesures d’ouverture et de soutien envers les jeunes trans et les jeunes non binaires (available in French only)
Sexes, genres et orientations sexuelles – comprendre la diversité (guide de l’INSPQ) (PDF 10.54 Mb) (available in French only)
Vers des milieux inclusifs et sécuritaires pour la diversité sexuelle et de genre (PDF 340 Kb) (available in French only)