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Gender Identity

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

grandad hugs grandson while both smile. both have silver hair

Your wonderful privilege as a parent is to help your child become a self-confident, self-loving, respectful, compassionate, and empathetic member of our SLO community. Creating an open dialogue with your child about their experiences, identity, and beliefs about the world helps them become healthy and happy adults. How you approach your children and others in regards to gender identity sends messages to your child about how they should view themselves and others. A 2019 study by QCARES assessed the mental health experiences and needs of transgender and nonbinary indivduals in SLO County. Of the transgender, nonbinary, and gender questioning participatns, 65% reported high psychological distress and 74% of “transgender, nonbinary, and gender questioning particpants identified that their distress was due to their sexual orientation and/or gender idenity” (QCARES, 2019). Additionally, 85% of transgender, nonbinary, and gender questioning particpants reported having thought about killing themselves at some point in their lives (QCARES, 2019). When it came to experiences of discrimination, 32% of transgender, nonbinary, and gender questioning participants reported being harassed in public because of their gender expression and 78% reported being misunderstood by others because of their gender expression (QCARES. 2019). A culture that does not challenge or try to change these experiences lays the foundation for violence. A culture that minimizes, dismisses or remains silent when such atrocities occur is complicit in paving the road for violence to continue to occur. Psychological and emotional abuse and transphobia are among the factors that contribute to the power and control used by abusers in intimate partner relationships (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs [NCAVP], 2017). As members of the SLO County community, we must work to combat the behaviors and beliefs that reinforce violence in our community. Knowing about and talking about gender identity with your child can have life-long effects on your child’s future health and wellbeing as well as their place in our community and the world.

Gender identity is a person’s inner concept of themselves as a man/male, a woman/female, a blend of both, or neither. It can be the same or different from a person’s sex assigned at birth. Cisgender is a term used to describe those whose gender identity is in line with their assigned sex. For example, a person who was assigned female at birth and who identifies as a woman would be described as a ciswoman. Transgender is a term used to desribe those whose gender identity is different from their assigned sex. Being transgender does not signify or imply any particular sexual orientation. Here are some important terms to keep in mind when discussing gender identity:

  • Gender expression: how someone expresses their identity through their behavior, clothing, voice, and style

  • Assigned sex: the sex assigned at birth (typically by a doctor) usually based on the observation of external genitalia

  • Sexual orientation: an individual’s enduring patterns of attraction to other people

  • Genderqueer: a term used to describe those whose gender identity and/or expression is different from the societal norms and expectations based on their assigned sex

  • Intesex: a term used to describe those who develop primary or secondary sex characteristics that fall outside the societal expectations for assigning male or female sex

  • Nonbinary: a term used to describe those whose gender identity is outside or beyond the traditional binary gender expectation

  • Queer: a term that can be applied to sexual orietnation, gender identity, or both and can include LGBTQIA+ individuals

Children begin to develop feelings about their gender identity as early as ages 2 or 3. Their gender identity is often cemented for them around early elementary school. Prior to this, children are exposed to messages about gender from the day they are born. How your child is dressed, how they’re told to act, what toys they’re given, and how they observe each of these in other people all inform your child’s concept of what gender is. Still, at a young age, children reach a point where they are consistent with the gender they identify as, they are insistent that that is their gender identity, and the way they identity is persistent. Many children are raised under the assumption that their gender identity will match their assigned sex. This is not always the case and assuming this can have life-long consequences for your child’s mental health and wellbeing. Additionally, don’t assume your child’s gender identity is a phase or a mental health condition. Talking openly with your child with respect and compassion- and without assumption- about gender identity helps them feel more confident in themselves and and it contributes to dismantling the violence and discrimination that transgender and gender nonconforming individuals face.

When approaching conversations about gender identity with your child, consider your views on gender identity and what kinds of messages you want to send to your child. Don’t try to steer or force your child toward a certain gender identity. This can lead to feelings of shame and rejection and can lead to riskier behavior later in life. Support how your child wants to express themselves and support their gender identity. If your child shares with you that they are transgender or gender nonconforming, it can be hard. You may be confronted by your own beliefs, emotions, and values. You may have concern about what this means for your child’s health and wellbeing. Find support and communities for you and your child to connect to other children and parents going through similar things. The most important thing is to make sure your child knows that you love and support them and trust their choices. Below are some tips for talking about gender identity with children of all ages.

Preschool-Aged Children

  • Be mindful of the books, toys, clothes, and other things you give to you child and surround them with. All of these can send messages to your child about what gender means.

  • Expose your child to books, toys, clothes, and activities that fall outside traditional gender stereotypes.

  • Pay attention to what they like, rather than what you think they should like.

  • If you hear them talking about gender or saying things like, “Only girls* have long hair,” or “Boys* can’t wear pink,” use it as an opportunity to start a conversation about gender and gender identity.

  • Ask your child directly about their gender identity and have a conversation about what this means for them.

Gender unicorn chart explains gender and sexuality

Elementary School-Aged Children

  • Encourage them to explore their interests and avoid pushing them towards gender stereotypes. It’s ok if your child likes gendered things, but let them explore and decide that for themselves.

  • Let your child express all of their emotions

  • Be clear that you will not tolerate transphobic language and avoid phrases like “hit like a girl*” or “man* up” that enforce gender stereotypes.

  • Use representations of gender stereotypes in their TV shows, movies, books, and toys (think “princesses” and “superheroes”) to start conversations about gender stereotypes and the messages you want them to take away.

  • Apply the same rules and expectations to all children, regardless of their gender identity.

  • If they bring up gender or say stereotypic things about boys* and girls*, use it as an opportunity to talk about how people of all genders can express themselves how they’d like and do the things that make them happy.

  • Let them wear the clothes they want.

  • Expose them to TV shows, movies, books, and other media that include representation of a broad range of gender identities.

Middle School and High School-Aged Children

  • Educate yourself about gender identity so that you can provide your child with accurate and inclusive answers to any questions they may start to ask.

  • Lead by example. Respect all kinds of people no matter their gender and stand up for others.

  • Expose your child to role models of diverse gender identities and role models who defy stereotypes.

  • Encourage them to explore all of their interest. Let them know that there is nothing that only individuals of a certain gender identity can do.

  • Don’t push them to express gender stereotypes.

  • Talk to them about their feelings.

  • Discuss gender stereotypes that come up in the media they consume.

  • Encourage friendships and relationships based on what people have in common, rather than on what their gender identity is.

  • Use the pronouns and name that they want to use.

  • Learn the appropriate words and language for discussing transgender and gender nonconforming individuals.

  • Puberty can be especially challenging for children who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming. Learn about and discuss health care options like puberty blockers with your child.

  • Ask about their friends, crushes, and relationships and get to know the people in their lives.

  • Talk with them about safe sex and birth control and include information that’s inclusive and mindful of the experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming individuals.

  • Let them wear the clothes they want to wear.

  • Expose them to books, movies, and TV shows that include LGBTQ+ individuals

An important element of gender identity is pronouns. Pronouns are words used to refer to yourself (think “I”) or someone else (think “she,” “them,” “ze,” etc.). Common gendered pronouns include she/her/hers and he/him/his. They/them/theirs and ze/hir/hir are commonly used as gender-neutral pronoun options. Asking your child for their preferred pronouns is a basic way of showing them that you respect their gender identity. Being referred to by the wrong pronoun can make your child feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, alienated, and/or dysphoric. Never refer to your child or anyone else as an “it” or a “he-she.” This is disrespectful and offensive. If you get someone’s pronouns wrong, simply say you’re sorry. Thank them if they’re the one correcting you. Don’t go on about feeling bad as this just makes the other person feel awkward and like they should be comforting you. Correct others if you hear them using the wrong pronouns to refer to your child or someone else.

chart explaining gender specific and neutral pronouns

Remember- it is never too late to start these conversations. Try starting with small check-ins and little talks. Doing this regularly is a great way to start an open dialogue with your child. Stress that you’re someone they can come to for support and you’re there to talk to if they have any questions. Utilize teachable moments such as seeing LGBTQ+ representation on TV or meeting a gender nonconforming child at school to start conversations about what your child knows and how they feel about gender identity. Doing so allows your children to have more confidence in themselves and contributes to a SLO County culture of inclusivity, respect, compassion, and empathy.

*in this article, the term girl is inclusive to all youth female identified persons

*in this article the term girl woman is inclusive to all adult female identified persons

*in this article, the term boy is inclusive to all youth male identified persons

in this article, the term man used to refer to all adult male identified persons

Additional Resources

Support Groups Available in SLO County:


Further Learning and Relearning:

“Helping Families Support Their Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Children”

“Community Action Toolkit For Addressing Intimate Partner Violence Against Transgender People”

“San Luis Obispo County LGBTQ+ Mental Health Needs Assessment”

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