Background notes

 

Gender: Gender diversity

 

Overview

Just as Australia is made up of people from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds, so there is diversity in the range and variation of people's gender orientation.

Gender

When someone has a baby, the first question most people ask is “Is it a boy or a girl?” In the majority of situations, the baby is assigned to be either male or female in accordance with the outward attributes and appearance of the baby’s genitalia. It is then presumed that the child will grow and develop in accordance with their assigned sex.

Mostly a child’s gender identity and how they express it will be in accordance with their biological sex. Our society regards sex and gender in a binary way – people are either boys or girls, men or women, or males or females. However, there are many factors which impact on a person’s gender identity and expression which means that sex and gender are actually on a continuum and can be fluid over time.

The 3 different aspects of sex and gender to consider:

Biological sex - refers to our biology, including our chromosomes, genes, hormones and reproductive organs. The sex that is assigned to a baby is based on the external anatomical appearance of their genitals. One out of every two thousand babies has genitalia which is ambiguous where the sex of the child is neither male nor female. Other children are born with genitalia that is of a male of female appearance, but their hormones or internal organs are inconsistent with the outward appearance (refer to intersex conditions below).

Gender identity - is our own internal sense of our gender and can be anywhere on the continuum between male and female. Our identity determines our gender roles, gender expression and out internal notions of masculinity and femininity.

Gender expression or role – is how we present our gender identity to the world. This is mostly expressed through our physical presentation such as clothing choices and hairstyle as well as how we act and behave including physical mannerisms, speech patterns and the way we interact in social situations.

Transgender, transsexual, trans

male with pink toenail polishA person whose sense of gender identity is opposite to their biological sex (e.g. a person who feels that they are male but who is biologically female; or vice versa) can be described as transsexual. Many will seek hormone therapy and surgery so that their body and its appearance more closely matches their inner sense of self.

A person who sees themselves as being neither exclusively male nor exclusively female in terms of their gender identity can be described as transgendered. If children and/or adults have a gender identity which is different to, or doesn't conform exactly to, their biological sex, it may result in feelings and beliefs of ‘being in the wrong body'.

There is a growing number of young people who are transgender in Australia and throughout the world. Whilst some will seek some form of medical and/or surgical therapy, others will express their gender in a personal, unique and diverse manner which may change over time.

It should be noted that transsexual and transgender are sometimes used interchangeably. People in the transgendered and transsexual community often identify as being ‘trans'.

Intersex

There are some children who are born with a biological mix of both male and female genitals and/or reproductive organs.  A person may be born looking female on the outside but be mostly male on the inside, or may be born with genitals that appear to be in-between or a mix of male and female.

Intersexuality is usually manifested as a result of hormonal factors in prenatal development that affect the reproductive organs. An intersex person will develop a gender identity that best reflects how they feel. Some will think of themselves as predominately male or female and some will adopt a transgender identity.

Gender role stereotyping

Gender role stereotyping is when fixed and specific roles for males and females are designated by the society in which one lives. Stereotyping certain aspects means specific qualities are seen to be more appropriate to a particular gender and starts from an early age.

The most obvious stereotyping behaviour is dressing baby girls in pink and baby boys in blue. It also includes the toys children are given, the sports which are encouraged, subjects studied in schools and what interests and hobbies are pursued. The rigid application of stereotyping can have detrimental effects, such as people having false assumptions about others, their behaviour and how they believe people ‘should’ behave. Their actions, such as using incorrect pronouns or names can be hurtful and restrict people's opportunities and lifestyle options.

This is reinforced to children who may develop fairly rigid ideas about what constitutes being a girl or a boy or anything in between and the ways in which they should behave. If some children do not conform to these socially influenced and constructed ideas it can result in bullying and teasing.

The period of adolescence is a powerful time for gender stereotyping. The peer group, in particular, has a powerful influence on persuading adolescents to behave in ways consistent with the roles and expectations of a particular gender.

Teaching tips

  • Remember that gender and sexual orientation are different concepts.

  • Be aware and respectful of the potential gender diversity within your students. This includes using their preferred name and pronouns.

  • Puberty is a particularly challenging time for transgender young people as their bodies will not be developing in accordance with their gender identity. Some young people will seek puberty blockers during this time. Events such as menstruation and developing breasts for female to male (FTM) or growing facial hair and a deepening voice for male to female (MTF) transgender young can cause significant distress and require support from families, peers and school environments.

  • Be aware that bullying, teasing and physical abuse for children and adolescents who express their gender in non-conforming ways can occur at schools. It is imperative that schools provide a supportive environment for these students and develop and implement policies and practices which do not tolerate teasing and bullying.

  • Educators should preview all videos prior to presenting them to students. The video Just Call me Kade is excellent, but should only be used by an experienced educator and followed up with a related activity as it may bring up issues for viewers who are struggling with the concept of identity.

Relevant resources

Guidelines

Guidelines for Supporting Sexual and Gender Diversity in Schools, Equal Opportunity Commission WA

Websites

Freedom Centre

Definitions for many terms related to diverse sexuality and gender can be found in the Glossary of the Freedom Centre website.

Inclusive Education WA

Fact sheets/booklets/videos

You're not alone - Info for lesbian, gay, bi, trans, intersex, queer and questioning young people, Freedom Centre

Gender identity, Sex and U (Canada)

Just call me Kade video, A teenager's experience of gender transition (USA)


This Background Note relates to the following Learning Activities: