Gender Identity & Expression

The information on this page is provided as additional learning and background knowledge for educators.  Gender identity and expression are not included in any bolded and italicized outcomes in the Alberta curricula that require parental notification under Section 58.1(1) of the Education Act.

Everyone has a gender identity. Gender identity is a person’s internal, deeply held sense of their identity as woman/girl, man/boy, fluid among genders or no gender. It is not determined by sex, and is not defined by sexual orientation. For many people, their gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth; this is called cisgender. For others, their gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. They may use terms like transgender, trans, agender, non-binary, gender fluid, gender queer, or others, to describe their gender identity. The umbrella term ‘trans’ is mainly used here, to describe people whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.  While this umbrella term does not fit everyone, the intention is to be as inclusive as possible.

Gender expression is about how someone presents themselves to the world around them. It includes the way they dress, their hairstyle, their makeup, and other aspects of their appearance. It also includes their name and pronouns a person uses. Some men wear makeup, some women have facial hair. 

To learn about how gender identity and expression relate to sexual orientation and sex assigned at birth, see the Every Body Tool.

Gender identity and expression is a personal matter.  People chose pronouns and other labels to describe their identity in ways that best align with their experiences. You can’t assume someone’s gender identity by looking at them. 

The examples below show the overlapping and nuanced ways that gender identity and expression, sexual orientation and sex work together to shape someone’s identity. You can find definitions of these and other related words here.


Many people use words that assume everyone is cisgender. This is called cisnormative language.  For example, addressing a new group of students as ‘boys and girls’ assumes that everyone identifies as either a boy or a girl.  Providing menstrual supplies only in the girls’ washroom assumes that there are no trans boys who might need to access those supplies. A form that only has two checkboxes for gender, male and female, is another example of cisnormative language. This kind of language reinforces stereotypes and assumptions about who people are and how they identify. When we make assumptions about people’s identities or relationships, we may be telling them that anyone who does not fit such an expectation is ‘abnormal’, ‘different’, or just not part of the ‘typical human experience’.  Using inclusive language that does not make assumptions is a way of showing respect and honouring diversity as a strength.  

2SLGBTQI+, LGBTQ*, LGBTQ +, GLBT, LGBTTQ,  LGBTQ2, LGBTQI2SNA+ and others are acronyms that refer to the spectrum of sexual and gender identities that are not cisgender or heterosexual.  They include two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, non-binary and agender. The asterisk (*) or plus sign (+) shows there are other identities included that aren’t in the acronym. Another term used to refer to this community is ‘gender and sexual minorities’.

Human Rights

All people have the right to be free from discrimination because of sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. This right is protected by Article 2 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Human Rights Acts and the Alberta Human Rights Act. Legislative protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation has been in place for some time. As of 2017, gender identity or gender expression has been explicitly protected in all provincial, territorial, and federal human rights legislation.

All teachers, counsellors and administrators have legal, ethical and professional responsibilities to ensure that all students – including those who are, or are perceived as being, a sexual or gender minority – are provided with safe, caring, welcoming and respectful learning environments that respect and affirm their individual identities and experiences. Intervening whenever sexist, homo/bi/trans-phobic, racist or derogatory comments are made is one crucial part of that responsibility.

It may also be helpful to become familiar with the Alberta Education guidelines and your school/district policy on creating learning environments that respect people of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions.

Lived Experiences of Trans Youth

Many trans youth face challenges throughout their lives. Fear about how family and friends may react as well as fear of bullying, harassment, discrimination and prejudice may stop young people from publicly identifying as a gender minority.  Supportive families, schools and communities have a vital role in helping 2SLGBTQI+ children and teens do well in school and life.

Coming out can pose serious safety risks, particularly for young people who are not financially independent. Youth may face abuse and harassment if they come out. Some may be forced to leave home after coming out, which leads to much higher risks of homelessness, substance use, self-harm, and suicide.

Research also shows that trans students are frequently not safe at school. Students report verbal and physical harassment and abuse from other people at school.

For example, in a recent survey of Canadian students (2021):

  • 63% of trans students reported being harassed about their gender expression.
  • 76% of trans students felt unsafe at school.
  • 16% of trans students had been physically harassed or assaulted at school.
  • 62% of trans students reported being excluded or left out due to their identity.
  • 29% of trans student heard transphobic comments daily or weekly.

For more statistics and information, see the Additional Resources page.

What Teachers Can Do

Teachers play an important role in helping students develop and show respect for gender diversity. Here are some things you can do to support your 2SLGBTQI+ students, families and colleagues:

  • Reflect on your practices and beliefs. Look at your own actions and behaviour. It may help to think about your personal values, beliefs and biases before talking about sexual and gender diversity with your students (see the Your Values page).
  • Educate yourself and others. Educate yourself about sexual and gender diversity. There are some great online resources (see Additional Resources). Think about what you can do to challenge the norm that only heterosexual and cisgender identities are normal.
  • Be a role model and set a positive example for those around you. Don’t use anti-2SLGBTQI+ language and slurs. Don’t laugh at jokes that make fun of person’s gender identity or gender expression. Use inclusive language and don’t make assumptions about a person’s gender identity.
  • Identify and address inappropriate behaviour such as teasing, bullying and harassment. Students notice if you do not respond to these behaviours. When you fail to address harmful language, you are telling your students that you are not an ally to the vulnerable.
  • Create a positive environment. Use inclusive graphics, posters and images such as safe space materials. Make sure that documents, forms and processes are respectful and inclusive of diversity.
  • Provide appropriate facilities. Ensure single-stall, private washrooms and change rooms are available for use by anyone.
  • Be supportive. Be respectful, open and non-judgemental. Use the names and pronouns students choose to go by. Listen to people who come out to or confide in you. Keep your conversations confidential—you never want to out a person. If you make a mistake, say sorry.
  • Support GSAs/QSAs, and inclusion initiatives and events.
  • Get support. Be familiar with resources and supports that may help students, colleagues and staff. Engage in professional development about gender identity and expression.  
  • Integrate 2SLGBTQI+ literature into your school or class library, assignments or reading lists.
  • Be an ally. An ally is a person who advocates for the human, civil and sexual rights of sexual and gender minorities. The above steps are all things you can do to be an ally for your 2SLGBTQI+ students and colleagues. Remember, even the smallest actions can bring about important changes. There is much evidence that having even one supportive adult can make all the difference in the lives of sexual and gender-diverse youth.  

Words You May Hear

Below is a list of common terms and definitions you may hear related to sexual and gender diversity. These terms are NOT labels. When speaking with people, it is important to listen to and use the terms they use to describe themselves, and not impose terms on other people.

  • Ally: A person who advocates for the human rights of sexual and gender minority people by challenging discrimination and heterosexism.
  • Agender: Someone who does not identify with a specific gender or have a recognizable gender expression.
  • Cisgender/Cis: A person whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth.
  • Cisnormativity: The assumption that everyone’s gender aligns with cultural expectations of sex assigned at birth (cisgender) and that this is the norm, e.g., only women wear dresses and make-up.
  • Coming Out:  Telling people about one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Also known as ‘coming out of the closet’.
  • Gender Binary: The classification of sex and gender into two distinct and separate states of masculine and feminine. It’s a social boundary that discourages people from crossing or mixing gender roles.
  • Gender Expression: How a person expresses their gender to the world. This can include how they look, the name they use, the pronoun they use (e.g., they, them, she, her, he, him, zie, zim) and their social behaviour.
  • Gender Fluid: A person who does not identify with a single fixed gender and whose gender identity or expression may change over time.
  • Gender Identity: A person’s internal sense of identity as woman, man, both, fluid among genders or no gender,  regardless of their sex.
  • Gender Queer: A person who may identify and express themselves outside what is typically associated with their sex/gender assigned at birth. People who are gender queer may not identify as trans. 
  • GSA/QSA (Gay-Straight/Queer-Straight Alliance): Student groups found in some K-12 schools. These groups create supportive and safe environments for sexual and gender minorities and their supporters.
  • Inclusive Language: Language that’s not specific to gender (e.g., ‘partner’ instead of ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’, ‘parent’ instead of ‘mom’ or ‘dad’, the pronoun  ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’).
  • Intersex: An umbrella term used when the reproductive, sexual or genetic biology of a person is unclear, not exclusively male or female or otherwise does not fit within traditional definitions of male or female.
  • Non-binary: A person whose gender identity is not man or woman, but outside of the gender binary. Related terms include genderqueer and agender.
  • Outing: Making another person’s sexual orientation or gender identity public without that person’s permission or knowledge. This can be harmful to a child or teen if they come from a non-supportive home environment.
  • Queer: A reclaimed term used by some people who identify as a sexual and/or gender minority. It’s also used as a positive, inclusive term to describe communities and social movements.
  • Questioning: A person who is exploring, or is unsure of, their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • Sex: Categories (male, female) to which people are typically assigned at birth based on physical characteristics. Some people may be assigned intersex, when their reproductive, sexual or genetic biology doesn’t fit the traditional definitions of male or female.
  • Sexual Orientation: A person’s emotional, physical and sexual attraction to others. It can change and may or may not be the same as a person’s sexual behaviour.
  • Transgender/trans: 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. Some people may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms.
  • Transmasculine: an umbrella term that refers to people who were assigned female at birth but identify with masculinity. It’s often abbreviated as “transmasc.”  You can be masculine but not identify as a male.
  • Transfeminine: an umbrella term that refers to people who were assigned male at birth but identify with femininity. It’s often abbreviated as “transfemme.”  You can be feminine but not identify as a female.
  • Transition: The process of changing a person’s gender presentation in society. Trans people may choose from a range of changes to express their gender such as:
    • social transition that may include change of name, pronouns and express (e.g. clothing, mannerisms, voice etc.)
    • medical or surgical transition that may include hormones or gender affirming surgery.
    • The journey of transition is unique to each individual. Not everyone who considers themselves trans will undergo all or any of these changes,
  • Transphobia: Fear and/or hatred of people who are trans. Often shown through prejudice, discrimination, bullying, intimidation or acts of violence.
  • Two-Spirit: A cultural term used by some Indigenous people to mean a person has both a male and female spirit. It may include concepts of spirituality, sexual orientation and gender identity.

See Sexual Orientation for more related terms.  

Terms to Avoid & Alternatives

Tranny, She-Male, Shim, He/She, It, and other similar words: These are defamatory words which dehumanize people and should never be used. Discrimination and harassment are not defined by the intent of the behaviour or word but the impact they have on the individual.


Term to Avoid



Use Instead


Biologically Female/Male

Genetically Male/Female 

Born a Woman

Born a Man

These terms over simplify a very complex subject. A person’s sex and gender identity are determined by a variety of factors, not simply genetics.



On the rare occasion that it’s necessary to refer to an individual’s gender history, many transgender people prefer a phrase similar to “… assigned male/female at birth, but is a woman/man”.

Sex Change

Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS)



Pre-op, Post-op



Referring to a “sex-change operation” or using terms such as “pre-operative” or “post-operative” inaccurately suggests that one must have surgery in order to transition. Many transgender people do not undergo surgery for a variety of very personal reasons. It is considered extremely inappropriate to ask a transgender person about what surgical or other medical procedures they may or may not have undergone. Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS), is an older term which refers to doctor-supervised surgical interventions, and is only one small part of transition for some people.


Gender confirming/
affirming/reaffirming surgery 


Transgendered (Verb)



Using transgender as a verb (e.g. transgendered) suggests that being transgender is something that happened to a person rather than reflecting who they actually are. For example, we don’t say “Kalin is a gayed man”; therefore, we wouldn’t say “Joanne is a transgendered woman”.


Transgender as an adjective: “Joanne is a transgender woman” 

Transgender (Noun)


We wouldn’t say “we have many transgenders who work here” nor would we use “she is a transgender”. The word transgender should only be used as an adjective.



Transgender as an adjective: “Mosi is a transgender man” 



This term should not be used as it is often a term used by anti-transgender activists to dehumanize transgender people and reduce who they are to a “condition”.


Refer to being transgender, the trans or transgender community, or the movement for transgender rights, as the context requires



Hermaphrodite is a stigmatizing, inaccurate word with a negative history. Intersex is the accurate term when the reproductive, sexual or genetic biology of a person is unclear, not exclusively male or female or otherwise does not fit within traditional definitions of male or female.  Intersex people are not all trans, and not all trans people are intersex.



Transgender people and normal people


The use of “normal people” in this phrase indicates a belief that transgender people are not normal.


Transgender people and cisgender people

Both genders


This reinforces the false idea of a gender binary, that there can be only two genders.


All genders




For more resources on interrupting problematic language, see the ATA’s PRISM Guides for elementary and secondary schools.


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