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Before You Teach: A Note on Gender, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation

Rights, Respect, Responsibility is designed to be inclusive of all genders, gender identities, gender expressions and sexual orientations.  To that end, the language used and examples provided within lessons recognize the spectrum of gender, gender identities and expressions and sexual orientations.  Teachers are strongly encouraged to model this inclusivity in their teaching. The information included here is intended to aid teachers in their efforts to support all students across these spectrums.  Defining some key concepts is a useful place to start.  There are many good sources for defining gender- and sexual orientation-related terms.  The ones provided below are either directly quoted or adapted from various definitions in order to provide the clearest guidance for teachers using this curriculum.

Biological Sex: A person’s combination of genitals, chromosomes and hormones, usually (but not necessarily accurately) categorized as “male” or “female” based on looking at an infant’s genitals during an ultrasound or at birth. This categorization tends to assume that a person’s gender identity will be congruent with the sex assignment. Everyone has a biological sex, which can also include “intersex” or someone who has chromosomes and body parts different from an XY or XX chromosomes. This can also be termed as someone having a “difference in sexual development” (DSD). (Teaching Transgender Toolkit, Green and Maurer, 2015)

Gender: The set of meanings assigned by a culture or society to someone’s perceived biological sex. Gender has three components; gender identity, physical markers and gender expression. (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.)

Gender Identity: A person’s deep-seated, internal sense of who they are as a gendered being – specifically, the gender as which they identify. All people have a gender identity. An adjective used to describe a person whose gender identity is incongruent with (or does not “match”) the biological sex they were assigned at birth is “transgender.” An adjective used to describe a person whose gender identity is congruent (or “matches”) the biological sex they were assigned at birth is “cisgender.” Other gender identities may include non-binary, agender, bigender, genderfluid and genderqueer. Lessons in Rights, Respect, Responsibility explore this concept throughout grade levels in ways that are age- and developmentally-appropriate.  (Teaching Transgender Toolkit, Green and Maurer, 2015)

Gender Expression: A person’s outward gender presentation, usually comprised of personal style, clothing, hairstyle, makeup, jewelry, vocal inflection and body language. Gender expression is typically categorized as masculine, feminine or androgynous, and there are many shades in between all of these. You will notice in Rights, Respect, Responsibility that the authors intentionally give examples of students who express their gender in a variety of ways. (Teaching Transgender Toolkit, Green and Maurer, 2015)

Sexual Orientation: The gender or genders of people one is attracted to sexually and/or romantically.  Sexual orientation falls along a spectrum from being attracted solely to people of one’s own gender (gay or lesbian), solely to people of a different gender (heterosexual or “straight”), as well as to people of numerous genders (bisexual, pansexual). Some people identify as “asexual,” which means they have feelings of romantic attraction for others without feelings of sexual attraction. Everyone has a sexual orientation.  It is not necessary to engage in sexual behaviors to know what your sexual orientation is.

Note to the Teacher: Language and definitions often evolve, so it is important to stay as up-to-date as possible.  While biological sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation are related, they are independent of one another. Good resources for further information on these and related concepts include the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Welcoming Schools program and the Teaching Transgender Toolkit by Eli Green and Luca Maurer, 2015.