Gender Identity

Learning Objectives–At the end of this module, you will be able to:

  1. understand the key terms connected to gender identity.
  2. understand how gender identity is different from sexual orientation.
  3. learn about microaggressions experienced based on sexual orientation.
  4. understand the intersectionality of gender identity and race.
  5. explain why it is important to understand the issues surrounding gender identity to better support youth who identify as transgender, two-spirit, gender non-conforming etc.

We have established that sexual orientation is different from gender identity. We also need to acknowledge that sex assigned at birth and gender identity are very different concepts and they are not interchangeable.

We define sex as the biological attributes and legal categories used to classify humans as male, female, intersex or other categories, primarily associated with physical and physiological features including chromosomes, genetic expression, hormone levels and function, and reproductive/sexual anatomy (Vancouver Coastal Health, 2015).

Gender refers to socially and culturally constructed roles, behaviours, expressions and identities of girls, women, boys, men, and trans* people  (Vancouver Coastal Health, 2015).

Here is a refresher on some key terms connected to gender:

Gender Identity is the internal perception of an individual’s gender, and how they label themselves

Genderqueer/Gender non-conforming is an umbrella term used proudly by some people to defy gender restrictions and/or to deconstruct gender norms. Gender neutral pronouns include: Ze, Hir, Hirs, They, and Them.

Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. Please note that transgendered is not acceptable term to use as it implies that something happened to the person to make them transgender.

Transitioning is a term used to describe the process of moving from one sex/gender to another, sometimes this is done by hormone or surgical treatments

Transgender man  A person who was assigned female at birth, but identifies as male. Also, transman, trans-man. Some people may also use FTM, an abbreviation for female-to-male. Some may prefer to simply be called men, without any modifier. It is best to ask which term an individual prefers.

Transgender woman A person who was assigned male at birth, but identifies as female. Also, transwoman, trans-woman. Some people may also use MTF, an abbreviation for male-to-female. Some may prefer to simply be called women, without any modifier. It is best to ask which term an individual prefers.

Two-Spirit is a cultural identity used by some indigenous people who have both masculine and feminine spirits.

You will remember the Gender Unicorn from the Key Concepts and the Sexual Orientation modules. Here is a refresher.

Trans Student Educational Resources
Trans Student Educational Resources

Gender Identity: One’s internal sense of being male, female, neither of these, both, or another gender. Everyone has a gender identity, including you. For transgender people, their sex assigned at birth and their own internal sense of gender identity are not the same. Female, woman, and girl and male, man, and boy are also NOT necessarily linked to each other but are just six common gender identities.

Gender Expression/Presentation: The physical manifestation of one’s gender identity through clothing, hairstyle, voice, body shape, etc. Most transgender people seek to make their gender expression (how they look) match their gender identity (who they are), rather than their sex assigned at birth.

Sex Assigned at Birth: The assignment and classification of people as male, female, intersex, or another gender based on a combination of anatomy, hormones, chromosomes. It is important we don’t simply use “sex” because of the vagueness of the definition of sex and its place in transphobia.

Sexually Attracted To: Sexual Orientation. It is important to note that sexual and romantic/emotional attraction can be from a variety of factors including but not limited to gender identity, gender expression/presentation, and sex assigned at birth.

Romantically/Emotionally Attracted To: Romantic/emotional orientation. It is important to note that sexual and romantic/emotional attraction can be from a variety of factors including but not limited to gender identity, gender expression/presentation, and sex assigned at birth (Trans Student Educational Resources, n.d.).

In most situations, after making sure the newborn is breathing and healthy, the medical professional will make an announcement about the sex of the newborn. This is the sex assigned at birth. It is important to make the distinction between biological sex and sex assigned at birth. Sex assigned at birth is a term that has adopted by many transgender folks. The term biological sex gives the incorrect impression that gender is an inherent truth.

Gender is a social construct, and as such our definition and understanding of gender has changed over time. In many cultures there was an acceptance of trans* members of their community. Two-Spirit is a term traditionally used by some aboriginal cultures to recognize individuals who possess qualities or fulfill roles of both genders. Until colonialism trans* individuals were often respected and held in high social esteem (Khaleeli, 2014; McCarthy, 2014; Laframboise, 2008; and Singer, n.d.). Please read “Native Americans talk gender identity at a ‘two-spirit’ powwow” by Jorge Rivas in Fusion to learn how some folks feel about being two-spirit.

While there has been an increase in the visibility of transgender individuals in popular culture, this has not translated into general acceptance. In the clip below Dr. Jama Shelton defines transphobia.

Here is a talk by Geena Rocero as she describes why it was important for her to come out as a trans woman.

Laverne Cox has risen to prominence due to her role on the film Orange is the New Black on Netflix. She was the first out trans woman to be on the cover of Time magazine and the the first trans woman to be nominated for an Emmy in an acting awards. In this video from a talk, Cox said “Our lives are often in danger, simply for being who we are, when we are trans women” (Cox, 2014).

A troubling example of how trans* men and women are treated in our systems can be seen in the story of Jane Doe in Connecticut. Jane Doe is a 16 year old trans woman of colour, who has a history of sexual abuse and assault and has spent most of life in the care of Department of Children and Family (DCF). Jane Doe has not been charged with any crimes. Authorities claim Jane has been placed in an adult facility in solitary confinement for her own protection (Bauer, 2014).

Jane wrote a letter to the Governor of Connecticut. Here are some of her words to describe her experiences:

”I have been sitting in this prison for a month now and there is no plan to get me out. I am suffering in here. I’m having trouble sleeping and I’m not eating much. I cry in bed every night.   I can’t be myself in this place. I feel forgotten and thrownaway. As you probably know, these feeling are not new for me. This is the way my life has been going since I was a little kid” (Doe, 2014).

Here are some responses to Jane Doe’s situation:

We share the story of Jane Doe to remind us that although as a society we have reached a level of awareness of trans* people (Laverne Cox being on the cover of Time magazine is used as “look how far we have come”), there are still numerous reports of violence and transphobia. “… in the first four months of 2014, 102 acts of violence against transgender people have been logged [in 14 countries]. Such reports are sent in to the portal voluntarily, meaning that there have definitely been many more unreported acts of violence as well” (Walkley, 2014).

So far in 2015 there have been reports of the murder of 6 trans women in the United States. Janet Mock points out that compared there were none at this time last year (Mock, 2014).

The names of our sisters shouldn’t only make headlines when we walk a red carpet or lay in a casket. Our visibility shouldn’t be subject to such extreme circumstances. We’ve grown too accustomed, in the past year, to speaking the names of Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, and giving ourselves social justice cred for doing so. This is dangerously tokenizing and speaks to the hypervisibility of women of color who are expected to not only carry their dreams but the dreams of an entire race and people with them (Mock, 2014).

Why is it important you know this

Relative to other homeless youth, nearly six in ten respondents (58%) report that transgender homeless youth have worse physical and mental overall health. Nearly a quarter of respondents thought that the overall health of their transgender clients was “much worse” than other, non-LGBT homeless youth (Durso, 2012: 9).

Here are some statistics from “Safe & Respected: Policy, Best Practices & Guidance for Serving Transgender & Gender Non-Conforming Children and Youth Involved in the Child Welfare, Detention, and Juvenile Justice Systems” (Perry, 2014: 3-4).

TGNC people and TGNC children and youth in particular are an especially vulnerable group. TGNC youth have been identified as an especially vulnerable population within the already high-risk population of youth in foster care and juvenile justice settings. Limited research has been conducted on the specific experiences of TGNC youth in foster care; however, the overall vulnerabilities of TGNC people are well documented:

  • TGNC young people may experience rejection from their families of origin and be kicked out of their homes. 57% of TGNC people who were out to their families reported experiencing family rejection.
  • Verbal harassment was very common, and 87% of TGNC young people report facing it often or frequently.
  • Over 53% of TGNC people had been verbally harassed or disrespected, and 44% had been denied service because they were TGNC. 76.6% of TGNC people reported feeling physically unsafe in public on a regular basis.
  • A total of 42% of the TGNC young people reported that they had been physically harassed in their school by peers because of their gender identity. 44% of those reported that they had been punched, kicked, or attacked with a weapon, and 17% reported that they were physically harassed often or frequently. Of the youth who reported being harassed by peers, only a third indicated that there had been an effective response by teachers or the administration.
  • TGNC young people reported being subject to vicious rumors, cyber bullying, destruction of their personal property, and being generally ostracized and excluded by their peers.
  • TGNC people face high rates of physical attack (16%) and sexual assault (15%) while incarcerated.


TGNC people of color consistently face higher levels of discrimination and prejudice. Negative outcomes as a result of this widespread prejudice and discrimination against TGNC people has also been well documented:

  • TGNC youth, 24 years of age and under, are at particularly high risk for homelessness, with reports indicating that 20% of the homeless youth identify as transgender.

  • TGNC people who were rejected by their families of origin, partners, or children are more likely to have greater negative outcomes. Rates of suicidality doubled, as did sex work, and homelessness tripled.

  • TGNC people who are physically assaulted by a family member as a result of coming out (19%), have double the rate of HIV infection and suicide attempts, and four times the amount of sex work and homelessness.

  • TGNC youth who reported high levels of harassment averaged a 2.2 grade point average (GPA), while TGNC youth who faced less harassment had an average GPA of 3.0.

  • As a result of going to school in an unsafe environment, 47% of the TGNC youth reported skipping at least one class in the last month, and 46% reported missing a full day of school at least once in the past month because of the harassment that they faced.

  • Pervasive negative experiences can have a significant impact on TGNC young people’s mental health and emotional well-being.

In this module we have attempted to share with you the extent of the transphobia experienced by trans* men and women. Our objective is for you to understand the importance of creating trans* inclusive spaces. If you are already aware we hope to have given you additional reasons to share with your colleagues. family and friends.

If our goal is to create spaces where homeless youth can access services and programs that enable them to transition into adulthood in healthy ways, we need to ensure that our spaces are inclusive. In the Sexual Orientation module we discussed microaggressions that LGBTQ2S people encounter.  Here are two articles we shared earlier as a quick reminder “The Many Faces of Homophobia: Microaggressions and the LGBTQIA+ Community” and “19 LGBT Microaggressions You Hear On A Daily Basis”.

Here is a refresher from the What to Say and What Not to Say module:

  • Tranny – Often used in an insulting way towards trans people, specifically trans women.
  • He-She – Insinuates that the trans woman is not a woman, but something between male and female.
  • Hermaphrodite – This is an outdated term that has been replaced with Intersex.
  • She-male –  Insinuates that the trans woman is not a woman, but something between male and female.
  • Transvestite – Often used to refer to trans women in an insulting manner, despite having a true definition which is a person who dresses as the binary opposite gender expression (“cross-dresses”) for sexual gratification; often confused with “transsexual”.

Gender and your work

“Most shelters are segregated by birth sex, which increases the risk for gender discrimination and gender violence to occur within shelters. Shelter staff members tend to have minimal training around transgender-related issues, needs, and terminology. (Abramovich, 2012: 43)

Staff may not have an understanding of the importance of asking youth what pronoun they prefer, how they wish to be addressed, or that transgender people can also identify as heterosexual and do not always fit into the category of LGB” (Abramovich, 2012: 43).

Youth told us in our focus groups that they  need staff to respect their identities. This means using the chosen name of youth and the preferred pronoun. Staff should ask youth for their chosen name and preferred pronoun during the intake process. This should be part of the process for all youth. This will help youth begin to understand that we are working towards creating welcoming and safe-enough spaces for LGBTQ2S youth.

It is recommended that organizations introduce gender inclusive forms for intake and case management forms. In some communities there may be official systems that organizations have to participate in. In Toronto all shelters use SMIS (Shelter Management Information System) and Calgary uses a similar system called HMIS (Homeless Management Information System). These type of databases may not have the capacity for including inclusive questions, so staff will need to find a work around to ensure that the identity of youths are respected. It is also important that organizations using these systems inform the software providers that the system are not adequate and need refinement to ensure the system is inclusive and doesn’t further marginalize already very marginalized young people.

We cannot emphasis enough that organizations and staff have to work hard to make spaces LGBTQ2S inclusive. Physical space can be an indicator of inclusive spaces, but training and policies are needed for organizations to be inclusive. Public/shared washrooms can be very stressful for trans and gender non-conforming individuals as they are often harassed in gendered washrooms. When possible washrooms should be single use non-gendered. This ideal situation is not possible in all spaces. A compromise some organizations have adopted is to have a third washroom available that is non-gendered and is usually the accessibility washroom. The problem here is that by using the third washroom, a youth could be outed being trans.

Photo Credit:



Courtesy of George Brown College Student Association
Photo Credit: George Brown College Student Association

Exiting a program generally involves referrals to other programs or supports. It is important during this stage that referrals are made with the youth in mind, specifically around their sexual orientation and gender identity, as some programs will be a better fit for the youth. It is important to youth that staff care where they are going and if it will be a good fit for them. This means proper referrals to other programs that respect the youth’s sexuality and/or gender identity. For example staff should not refer a trans woman to a men’s only shelter. Youth want to be respected enough to have an input into where they were going, and as to what they would need to make that work. Youth would like to see more flexibility and ability to have input on the exiting process.

It is clear that there are major gaps within our systems regarding shelter exits, in particular with the LGBTQ2S population. The youth in our focus groups were very vocal about how unsafe it is for them within the shelter system so when there is no concrete plan upon exiting, they are at an even higher risk for being victims of violence and exploitation.

It is important for youth, that staff assist with the transition process and refer them to appropriate resources where staff has an understanding of working with LGBTQ2S youth. Youth feel that “exiting” needs to be a process and not a “day” where they are no longer able to avail of services. For youth, an exit process from a shelter (or otherwise) needs to be at the pace of the youth and not based solely on a programs mandate.

Youth want to have groups and activities posted in the space. It is important that there is a variety of groups and activities be shared with youth. For youth who are not out in the shelter or drop-in, it is easy to scan a board with a variety of activities without drawing attention that they are looking for LGBTQ2S resources.

Youth also want to see trans inclusive living spaces. This includes how space is designed and the policies implemented and enforced.

Youth have identified physical space as perhaps the most significant area where emphasis needs to be placed when addressing the needs of/supporting LGBTQ2S youth. Feeling safe and accepted in a space needs to include much more than a “place” and perhaps where organizational policies need to begin (and grow!).


Abramovich, I.A. (2014, June 14). 1 in 3 transgender youth will be rejected by a shelter on account of their gender identity/expression. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Abramovich, I.A. (2014, November 20). Transgender Day of Remembrance 2014 #TDOR. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Bauer, S. (2014, May 23). Why is Connecticut holding a transgender teen in solitary? Retrieved February 9, 2015, Doe, J. (2014, May 8). Transgender teen Jane Doe letter to Gov. Malloy. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Cox, L. (2014, December 7). Laverne Cox Explains the Intersection of Transphobia, Racism, and Misogyny (And What to Do About It). Retrieved February 19, 2015, from

Doe, J. (2014, May 8). Transgender teen Jane Doe letter to Gov. Malloy. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Fierstein, H. (2014, May 16). What Is This Child Doing in Prison? Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Jaferi, T. (2014, October 8). Microaggressions: Trendy buzz-word or something to think about? Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Khaleeli, H. (2014, April 16). Hijra: India’s third gender claims its place in law. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Laframboise, S., & Anhorn, M. (2008). Links. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

McCarthy, J. (2014, April 18). A Journey Of Pain And Beauty: On Becoming Transgender In India. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

McClouskey, M. (2014, September 15). The Many Faces of Homophobia: Microaggressions and the LGBTQIA Community. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Mock, J. (2014, May 30). An Open Letter to Jane Doe the 16 year old Girl Who Smiles Dreams From Behind Bars. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Mock, J. (2015, February 16). Essays by Janet Mock. Retrieved February 19, 2015, from

Nigatu, H. (2014, February 19). 19 LGBT Microaggressions You Hear On A Daily Basis. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Ontario Human Rights Commission. (2014, June 4). Preventing discrimination because of gender identity and gender expression. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Perry, J.R. & Green, E.R. (2014). Safe & Respected: Policy, Best Practices & Guidance for Serving Transgender & Gender Non-Conforming Children and Youth Involved in the Child Welfare, Detention, and Juvenile Justice Systems. New York City, NY: New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services.

Rivas, J. (2015, February 9). Native Americans talk gender identity at a ‘two-spirit’ powwow. Retrieved February 19, 2015, from

Rocero, G. (2014, March 31). Geena Rocero: Why I must come out. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Singer, P. (n.d.). Colonialism, Two-Spirit Identity, and the Logics of White Supremacy. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Thornhill, N. (2015, February 10). He, She, Zhe: How to Talk to Your Kids About Gender :: Retrieved February 18, 2015, from

Trans Student Educational Resources. (n.d.). Trans Student Educational Resources. Retrieved February 18, 2015, from

Walkley, A. (2014, May 12). 2014 Transgender Violence Statistics Sobering Thus Far. Retrieved February 19, 2015, from

Vancouver Coastal Health. (n.d.). Gender 101. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from

Wiki How. (n.d.). How to Respect a Transgender Person. Retrieved February 9, 2015, from


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