To the uninitiated, the alphabet soup of the LGBTQ community can be a little daunting. I’m here to break it down for you a bit and answer some frequently asked questions. Let’s start by separating out the concepts of gender and sexuality. As has been quoted often since Caitlyn Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer, gender identity is whom you go to bed as and sexuality is whom you go to bed with. When we’re talking about children, this is a bit more complex because sexual and gender identity are just beginning to develop. So for kids you might say, gender identity is whom you go to the playground as and sexuality is whom you want to sneak behind the bushes with to kiss on the cheek.
The other important thing to understand is that for many people, children and adults, the concepts of gender and sexuality are fluid and evolving across the lifespan. Let’s save sexuality for another day and focus on gender identity for now. Assigned gender is given to a person at birth when someone looks between the baby’s legs and says, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” (There are also babies born with anatomy that doesn’t seem obviously male or female. Intersex is a term used to describe a variety of conditions sometimes called “disorders of sexual development.”) Affirmed gender is the internal sense of gender identity that develops as the child grows up. While some kids come out of the womb feeling very certain about their gender identity, others try on different gender expressions (how you express your internal sense of gender identity to the world), or they feel discomfort with their assigned gender (aka gender dysphoria). Gender dysphoria in children often increases as the child reaches puberty. Sometimes assigned gender and affirmed gender match up, and we call those folks cisgender. Other times assigned gender and affirmed gender are not aligned, and we have several words to describe these folks’ identities: transgender, gender creative, genderfluid, genderqueer, non-binary, bigender, and the list goes on.
Transgender is often used as an umbrella term for people whose assigned gender and affirmed gender are not aligned. Gender creative is a term used to describe people, usually children, who color outside the lines of assigned gender boxes of boy and girl. This might mean preferring toys or clothes typically associated with another gender. Genderfluid and genderqueer usually refer to an experience of gender that moves between or beyond masculine and feminine identities. Similarly, non-binary gender identity is defined as outside of or in opposition to the two boxes of male and female traditionally available to choose from. Bigender individuals identify as both male and female or go between the two.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is to do your best to respect the way that a person identifies and expresses their gender, regardless of their age. You can do this by creating spaces for them to express their gender in ways that they feel good about; by using language, names, and pronouns that they request; and by speaking up when those around you act in a disrespectful way.