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Gender and Sexual Orientation: Fostering Inclusivity Among Children

Guest Blog Author!

Written by Ally Andrew-Persaud

In the time we live in, there is so much to learn and know about gender and sexual orientation. This can get overwhelming at times, especially when we are trying to make environments as inclusive as possible for people. Even as a queer woman myself writing this, I find myself always learning new things about gender and sexual orientation. As occupational therapists, a goal of ours is to help create and advocate for inclusive environments for everyone. Teaching kids about sexual orientation and gender is one part of creating an inclusive environment for all starting at a young age.

While many people probably started learning about gender and sexual orientation at a later age (personally I didn’t start learning about it until high school), kids now start being exposed to the concepts of gender and sexual orientation at a much younger age. Not only is it through the media, but families are starting to look different than they did before. Kids are becoming exposed to many different types of families at a younger age. With this earlier exposure to concepts of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, it is almost unavoidable that kids will be asking questions and wanting to learn more. Kids are inherently curious.

The first thing we should get comfortable with before we try to teach our kids about these topics or to answer their questions about it is that we will never know everything there is to know about gender and sexual orientation. We should start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. We should start getting comfortable with saying “I don’t know” when we truly don’t have an answer. Gender and sexuality often have unique meanings to each person, so there will always be unknowns. That being said, kids should be given some level of an introduction to what they are being exposed to in regards to gender and sexual orientation.

Currently, the Ontario school curriculum starts discussing sexual orientation in grade 5 and gender in grade 6. While this is beneficial, talking to your kids outside of the classroom before hearing about it in the classroom may benefit their learning. Even just giving your kids a brief introduction to the topics can be beneficial for them. Research shows that even as early as kindergarten, kids are becoming aware of gender norms and gender expression. Kids know how they experience their own gender starting at a young age and are also aware of what the expectations may be for their gender expression. Kids who do not conform to the gender binary may even be bullied starting as early as kindergarten.

There is research to suggest that by starting to educate kids at a young age about what gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation is can change their gender scripts earlier. These gender scripts are what we have that tell us how to understand gender and how to treat people based on their gender. If kids learn about the spectrum of gender and sexuality at a young age, research shows kids will be more accepting of others. Kids will have more flexibility in their gender scripts starting at a young age, creating more inclusive environments for kids. They will also have a better understanding of the feelings others or themselves may be feeling. Having both the knowledge and the safe space to explore these concepts can help kids become more accepting of themselves and others.

Definitions to Know:

  • Gender identity is the perception a person has of their own gender. People can identify as male, female, gender fluid, or non-binary, just to name a few. Everyone has a gender identity and it falls somewhere on the spectrum of gender, as shown by these many different gender identities. For example, I identify as female and use she/her pronouns.

  • Gender expression is how people display their gender. This can often be done through an individual's physical appearance. The clothes someone wears, their hair, and a number of other things can be a part of someone’s gender expression. It is important to remember that someone's gender expression does not tell you what their gender identity is.

  • Sexual orientation is an individual's inherent romantic, emotional, or sexual attraction to other people. This, again, does not represent someone's gender identity.

  • Cisgender is a term used to describe people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. For example, I am a cisgendered woman because I was assigned female at birth and identify as a woman.

  • Nonbinary is to not identify with either gender in the gender binary. This term, however, can mean different things to each person who identifies with it. Often times people who identify as non-binary use they/them pronouns (in the singular sense), but this is not always the case.

  • Transgender individuals are those who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth and identify with the opposite one. The difference between transgender and non-binary is that individuals who identify as transgender usually identify with a gender in the binary. Non-binary people do not. People who identify as transgender, however, each still experience this gender identity differently.

Ways to Support Your Kids Learning:

  1. An easy way to start introducing your kids to the concept of gender and sexual orientation is to introduce transgender, queer, and gender non-conforming characters into the stories and songs you share with your kids. For example, the book I am Jazz by Jazz Jennings and Jennifer Harding, Jacob’s New Dress by Ian & Sarah Hoffman, and My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis are all great books to start discussions with kids or varying ages about gender non-conformity and sexual orientation. This can be used to teach your kids without making it a lesson. For example, if you read your kids bedtime stories, just pick up one of these books and start reading! It doesn't have to be an intentional lecture moment and discussion may still come out of it. Even without discussions, it has been shown that normalizing variations in gender and sexual orientation leads to more inclusivity from kids regarding these topics.

  2. The use of well known famous people and characters can also be used to discuss gender nonconformity and gender expression. Using characters and famous people kids know from popular culture as examples of gender expression, gender identity, and varying sexual orientations is an effective way to normalize these concepts. It is important when using people for these examples to show women, men, and those who identify with other gender identities in non-stereotypical jobs. For example, showing someone like Scott Moir who is in a stereotypically female sport, or someone like Harry Styles in a dress on the cover of Vogue magazine.

  3. Be an ally! An ally is someone who is working to end oppression by supporting and advocating for the LGBTQ+ community in their personal and professional life. Showing your kids how to be an ally and what allyship means is important in creating an inclusive environment. As it relates to kids, the easiest way to teach them about allyship is in regards to bullying. If they witness someone being bullied, an ally would intervene however possible. Bullying is something that is talked about in the school system regularly, so it is a concept kids are familiar with. Relating this back to being an ally can help reinforce this idea in a way that is easy for your kids to understand. Labeling types of bullying and discrimination is also important. Explaining what homophobia is, for example, is important in learning about being an ally.

  4. Use your own knowledge and personal experiences with gender and sexual orientation to educate kids on these topics. Talking about your own experiences or the experiences of people you know can help normalize the topics and improve discussions. When it is the experiences of others, ensure you have that person’s consent to share or keep the story anonymous. Again, sharing these experiences and stories are important in normalizing these concepts and creating an inclusive environment. If you identify as cisgender and/or heterosexual, this is your gender identity and sexual orientation. By labeling them as such, it is again normalizing people having gender identities and sexual orientations that are outside the binary and heteronormativity we often see.

While teaching these topics, it is important to recognize any privilege you may have. For example, if I was to teach kids about these topics I would be sure to identify that my understanding and experiences are from that of a cisgender queer woman. I am coming from a place of privilege in that I am cisgender and that should be recognized. Acknowledging your privilege is important for kids to learn about the discrimination that comes with a lack of privilege.

In the end, it is important to remember that while teaching your kids about gender and sexuality you should remain open minded and honest. If you don’t know an answer, say you don't know and reach out to external resources through the Kingston community to seek guidance. At Queen’s university, EQuIP and the Levana Gender Advocacy Centre are resources available for anyone in the Kingston community. Within Kingston TransFamily Kingston, PFLAG Kingston, and Together we Conquer Mountains are all reputable and reliable resources through the Kingston community.

Teaching your kids about gender and sexual orientation has been proven to create more inclusive classrooms. The biggest lesson through this is to normalize varying gender identities, gender expression, and sexual orientations. Teaching your kids about gender and sexual orientation will create an environment that both themselves and others feel safe in.

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