Just as Canada welcomes ethnic diversity and multiculturalism, it also upholds gender diversity. This is an umbrella term that refers to a wide range of gender-related identities and ways of expression. It could include transgender, gender non-conforming, gender fluid, two-spirited, and intersex people, amongst others (Department of Justice, Government of Canada).
Recognizing gender diversity encompasses so much more. It extends to providing recognition, respect and equal opportunity for all, regardless of sex or gender identity.
At the core of all these issues is respect. Whatever your beliefs or understanding of gender/gender identity, who you are dealing with is a human person. Every person has human rights and deserves respect.
Human rights and gender identity
The Manitoba Human Rights Code lists 13 protected characteristics in the Manitoba Human Rights Code, among them gender identity (you can read about the other 11 protected characteristics in this article: What are human rights?).
To understand this concept better, it would help to define what gender and gender identity mean. Gender refers to “socially or culturally defined ideas about masculinity and femininity.” It deals with the roles, attributes or behaviours the we as a society usually attribute to males or females. It is not the same as sex, which is “the difference in biological characteristics of males and females determined by a person’s genes.” Simplified, “gender = what is between our ears while sex = what is between our legs” (Sex and gender, SERC).
Meanwhile, gender identity is “a person’s deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender. It is not restricted to classifying a person as ‘man’ or ‘woman’ and can include a broader spectrum of identities.” (Manitoba Human Rights Commission).
Gender identity is different from sexual orientation. “A person’s sexual orientation refers to the potential for emotional, intellectual, spiritual, intimate, romantic, and/or sexual interest in other people, often based on their sex and/or gender. This is also known as attraction and form the basis for aspects of one’s identity (e.g. gay, lesbian, queer, asexual, heterosexual, etc.), and/or behaviour.”
It can be confusing, I know. This video below will help you understand these important terms:
Sexual orientation? Gender identity? What’s the difference, Plan International
Why should you care?
Understanding the scope of gender identity or gender diversity can be complicated. For those of us who have lived in societies where the accepted ideas of sex and gender are strictly male and female – masculine and feminine, embracing these concepts can challenge our fundamental beliefs. If you are struggling to understand, keeping an open mind and practicing empathy will help.
Learning about gender issues is crucial for newcomers because it is part of integrating fully into the Canadian society. Just as we strive to be accepted, we also need to accept and be tolerant of others. Also, if you are not aware of such issues, you may inadvertently discriminate against others based on gender identity. This can happen in many areas of life, such as in employment, housing, public services, and others. For example, if you refuse to provide service to a transgender person, this constitutes discrimination. Likewise, using derogatory names or making inappropriate jokes makes you liable for harassment.
At the core of all these issues is respect. Whatever your beliefs or understanding of gender/gender identity, always remember that you are dealing with a human person. Every person has human rights and deserves respect.
Thanks to Muhammad Ahsan, Education Program Coordinator of Rainbow Resource Centre, for reviewing the article and providing a list of definitions of LGBTQ2SQ+ terminology. Thanks too to Mike Tuthill, Executive Director of Rainbow Resource, for additional assistance.
Article updated June 1, 2022.
Please note that English is a fluid language in which terms, definitions and meanings change over time, culture, political climate, and geography. The following serve as working definitions that provide an initial foundation of understanding.
Ally – A person who supports the civil and human rights and gender equality and equity of sexual and gender minorities. Allies proactively challenge homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, heterosexism and other forms of systemic and individual oppression.
Asexual – Considered as a sexual orientation whereby a person lacks sexual attraction or personal interest in engaging in sexual expressions. Asexuality is distinct from abstaining from sexual activity, celibacy or lower/lack of sexual desire due to stress, illness or injury. Some asexual people do, however, engage in sexual activity to please romantic partners or if they desire to have children. A 2004 study in the Journal of Sex Research indicated the prevalence of asexuality at 1%.
Biological sex – A person’s combination of chromosomes, hormones, and gonads. Most of the time, these combinations result in individuals being assigned female or male at birth. When combinations of chromosomes, hormones, and gonads are present outside of typical formations of male or female, the individual may be considered intersex.
Bisexual – An individual who is attracted to males and females. Other bisexual (or bi) people include other genders, including transgender individuals.
Cisgender – Cisgender means “not transgender”. The prefix cis- means “on this side of” or “not across.” Cisgender originated as a way to shift the focus off of a marginalized group by defining not only the minority group but also the majority. Before 1995, there was no standard term used to describe non-transgender people without the use of negative prefixes while still avoiding terms like “normal,” “real,” “born,” or “generic” (women or men).
“Coming out”/Disclosure – “Coming out” is a process of embracing and disclosing one’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity. This process generally occurs on three levels: personal (with oneself), private (family and friends), and public (at work or with the community at large).
Gay – A male-identified person who has an attraction to other male-identified individuals. This term may have originated around the 12th century in England from the Old French ‘gai’.
Gender – Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviour, activities and attributes that a particular society considers appropriate for men and women. Adapted from: The World Health Organization (2013). Gender may be seen as a fluid idea in that it shifts and changes rather than being something rigid.
Gender identity – The internal, deep-seated and psychological sense of being a gendered person. This includes: man, male, masculine, woman, female, feminine, transgender, pangender, genderqueer, Two-Spirit, third gender and all, none or a combination of these and others.
Gender expression – How a person expresses and communicates their gender to others: clothing and dress codes, hairstyles, mannerisms, way of speaking, roles we take in interactions, etc. Gender expression can be seen as a spectrum that includes femininity, masculinity and androgyny, with most individuals expressing a combination of masculine and feminine qualities simultaneously. Gender expression can vary for an individual from day to day or in different situations. Some people are comfortable with a wider range of gender expressions than others.
Gender non-conforming/Gender diverse – Refers to those identities and expressions of gender that do not conform to the dominant gender norms of a particular culture. The term is deliberately broad, encompassing such identities and expressions as butch, queen, sissy, travesty, hijra or tomboy.
Gender queer – An individual who does not prescribe to a particular gender or sexual orientation.
Heterosexism – A bias towards, and assumption of, heterosexuality. Often subtle but pervasive, heterosexism implies the expectation that we live heterosexually and operate within ingrained gender role stereotypes. Heterosexism is also the belief in the superiority of heterosexuality. Those that do not live or subscribe to this “norm” are viewed as deviant, radicals and threats to the very fabric of a community or society.
Homophobia/Biphobia/Lesbophobia/Transphobia – The negative attitudes and behaviours against or cultural and social aversions toward individuals who identify or are perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, Two-Spirit, or queer. Harassment, bullying, violence, discrimination, isolation are some forms of such phobias.
“Invisibly trans”/Stealth – Being “invisibly trans” or stealth, in regard to gender identity, refers to a person’s ability to be regarded as the sex or gender with which they identify, or with which they physically present. Typically, being invisibly trans or stealth involves a mixture of physical gender cues (for example, hairstyle or clothing) and certain behavioural attributes that tend to be culturally associated with a particular gender. Being invisibly trans comes with more privilege and safety than those who are visibly trans.
Lesbian – A female-identified person who has an attraction to other female-identified individuals. The term is derived from the name of the Greek island of Lesbos.
Oppression – “Oppression is the systematic, institutionalized, and socially condoned (elite sanctioned) mistreatment of a group in society by another group or by people acting as agents of the society as a whole.” DeAnza College. Political Science, 2006 (www.deanza.edu/faculty/yuen/poli1/handouts/oppression.htm).
Pansexual – Pansexual is described as the capacity of attraction irrespective of gender (male, female, transgender, etc.) in comparison to the term bisexual, which assumes attraction to men and women.
Pronouns – A personal pronoun refers to a specific person. Pronoun uses of her, she, him, he, they, are interwoven with sex identity. However, appropriate and respectful pronoun uses are aligned with gender identity. Example: A transwoman’s appropriate pronoun would be ‘she’ unless she indicates otherwise. A trans male’s appropriate pronoun would be ‘he’ unless he indicates otherwise.
Queer – Historically used as a negative, pejorative, homophobic slur meaning: ‘strange,’ ‘unusual,’ ‘something suspicious or not quite right,’ or ‘someone who exhibits socially inappropriate behaviour.’ Today queer has been reclaimed by many as an inclusive, unifying, a sociopolitical umbrella term for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, intersex, genderqueer and/or those whose sexual identity or activities are perceived outside the mainstream.
Questioning – Refers to people who are uncertain about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. They often seek information and support during this stage of their identity development.
Sexual orientation – Sexual orientation is a person’s emotional, physical, intimate, romantic and/or sexual attraction to others. Categories of sexual orientation include heterosexual/straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, and asexual.
Transgender/Trans– An umbrella term that represents many individuals that cross, challenge and transcend traditional definitions of male and female, including transmen (FTM/trans male – transitioning from female to male), transwomen (MTF/trans female – transitioning from male to female), genderqueer people, Two-Spirit individuals, and transsexuals. A transgender individual’s sexual orientation varies and is not dependent on gender identity.
Two-Spirit – An English term to describe the ancient teachings of First Nations people who embodied the spirits of males and females. Two-Spirit people were “looked upon as a third gender in many cases and almost all cultures they were honoured and revered. [Two-Spirit] people were often the visionaries, the healers and medicine people.” Colonization reinforced homophobia among many tribes and tarnished the honour of what it meant to be Two-Spirit. Today, the term Two-Spirit is being reclaimed as sacred; it also encompasses individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Adapted from: Two-Spirits flyer,2006 (www.2spirits.com).
Sources: Manitoba Human Rights Commission. Accessed Nov. 16, 2017. Rainbow Resource Centre, Feb. 2018.
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