People ask me questions about gender almost everyday. Kids want to know “How does the doctor know if it’s a boy or a girl?” and “What if a boy wants to be a girl?” Understandably, parents want to increase their understanding of gender so that they can answer their kids’ questions. The good news is that it’s never too early to talk to kids about gender, and they actually “get it” pretty quickly. Let me break it down for you.

Gender Identity refers to how you feel about yourself in terms of being a boy or a girl.More and more, we recognize that not all people fit the gender binaryas we call it, and may feel like they’re somewhere in between or are something else entirely. For example, they may identify as genderfluidnon-binary, or genderqueerTwo-spirit is a sacred term used only by Indigenous people to describe themselves, among other things. It’s also important to note that some people don’t feel like they are on the boy-girl spectrum at all and may identify as agender, third-gender or bigender among other termsI like the idea that our range of gender identities can be expressed as a kaleidoscope, with countless possibilities in a 3-D spectrum.

Fun fact: We know now that gender identity is formed and very difficult to change by the age of three. We also know that the formation of gender identity is affected by hormones and environment just as much as it is by biology.  All good except when someone is assigned a gender at birth based on their physical body that isn’t consistent with how they identify in the future. More on that in a bit.

Biological Sex* refers to your biology or anatomy.  That is, being female means having a vagina, uterus, ovaries, two X chromosomes and predominant estrogen. Being male, on the other hand, means having testicles, a penis, an XY chromosome configuration and predominant testosterone. Simple, right? Not so much.

Sexual organs may not be strictly male or female. For example, among many possibilities, someone can be born with the appearance of being male (penis, scrotum, etc.), but have a functional female reproductive system inside their body. And others have genital characteristics that may resemble both males and females in some way. We call this intersex.

You may have heard the term hermaphroditeused to describe a person who is intersex. This term is no longer appropriate because it’s a stigmatizing word that has been used to harm intersex people. Slang terms like he/she used to refer to people who are intersex are also disrespectful and inappropriate.

Still with me? Good, because here’s where things get even more beautifully complex. Remember earlier when I mentioned that someone can be assigned a gender at birth based on their physical body that doesn’t jive with their gender identity as they grow up? For example, they may feel like a girl but be perceived by others as a boy or vice versa. As I’m sure you know, these people often identify as transgender or trans. If they choose, people who are transgender can transition from being male to female or female to male. This process may or may not involve treatments, medication and surgery to change their body physically. A transgender person who has altered their body physically as part of this transition may (or may not) call themselves transsexual. 

Because we know that gender identity and one’s physical body at birth are not always in sync, we can’t assume, for example, that all girls get periods and all boys get wet dreams. Nor can we assume that all women have a uterus and ovaries and allmen have a penis and testicles.  The truth is, people who are born with a uterus and ovaries usually get periods and usually get assigned female at birth. People who are born with a penis and testicles usually get wet dreams and usually get assigned male at birth. Doctors and parents may still assign people who are born with ambiguous genitals with a gender that they may or may not identify with. This can be damaging and traumatizing, especially if the assignment includes surgery.

Out of respect and inclusion of people who are transgender and intersex, we need to reflect this scientific fact in our everyday language and in what we teach our children about sexual health. Although attitudes are slowly changing, transgender people have endured discrimination, harassment and inequality for years. Thankfully though, like with many other human rights issues, we’re making progress in terms of people understanding the importance of honoring how every person identifies sexually and celebrating our diversity in this way. But knowing what is appropriate language to use when referring to or communicating with transgender people can be tricky. I continue to learn from transgender people and their experience, and here’s what they tell me they appreciate:

  • Avoid using the phrase “sex change”, instead say “transition”.
  • Avoid using the terms “transgendered” or “transgenderism”. Instead, say “a transgender person” or “a person who is transgender”.
  • Avoid using the terms “biologically male”, “biologically female”, “born a man”, and “born a woman”. Preferred terms are “assigned male at birth”, “assigned female at birth”, “designated male at birth”, or “designated female at birth”.
  • Always use a transgender person’s chosen name. Even if they haven’t obtained a legal name change, call them what they wish to be called.
  • Whenever possible, ask transgender people which pronoun they would like you to use. If it isn’t appropriate to ask, use the pronoun that is consistent with the person’s appearance and gender expression. And use “they/their” instead of “he/his” or “she/her”.

We’ve still got lots to learn about gender and no one expects parents to be experts. But being aware and mindful is key to making sure that our kids grow up in a world that is inclusive, respectful and one that embraces diversity.

* Many people aren’t comfortable with the term “biological sex” to refer to one’s physical body. They argue sex is partly biological but also culturally constructed and, therefore, not “objectively measurable”. So the term is viewed by many to only represent a part of the full picture.