Gender identities at the elementary level


Helping teachers to support children questioning their gender identity, two-spirit children, trans children or gender nonconforming children ;
Understanding gender identities at the elementary level to feel comfortable answering students’ questions on the topic.
Gender identities at the elementary level

Brief description of the issue

Stereotypically, we consider gender as a binary, meaning that gender is either masculine or feminine. Therefore, we categorize our students as boys or girls. However, some children don’t identify with one of these two genders or can be questioning when these stereotypes don’t seem to apply to them. In order to break down those gender stereotypes, it is important to understand the various gender identities not only to be a better guide for children questioning their identity or asking questions about the topic, but also to interact in an inclusive way with our students.

A bit of vocabulary

The vocabulary used to describe various gender identities is continually evolving and it can be difficult to keep yourself up-to-date (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2010). Many lexicons have been developed over time to define and clarify the vocabulary used when talking about gender and sexual diversity.

In the acronym “2SLGBTQIA+”, standing for Two Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer (or Questioning), Intersex, Asexual (or sometimes Ally), the placement of Two Spirit (2S) first is to recognize that Indigenous people are the first peoples of this land and their understanding of gender and sexuality precedes colonization. The “+” is for all the new and growing ways we become aware of sexual orientations and gender diversity (Equity and Inclusion Office, n.d.).

The Genderbread Person infographic is a teaching tool for breaking the big concept of gender down into bite-sized, digestible pieces. It clearly illustrates concepts of gender identity (i.e. if we identify as a man, a woman or another gender), of gender expression (to which gender our clothes and gestures are associated), of biological sex (the physical traits you’re born with or develop that we think of as “sex characteristics” as well as the sex you’re assigned at birth) and of sexual and romantic attraction (often called “sexual orientation,” it is how you’re feeling drawn [or not drawn] to some other people).

The Intersection of Sexual Orientation and Race

Before looking at how to interact with two spirit students, it is important to understand that indigenous students experiencing a gender variance or questioning their gender identity not only experience homophobia or transphobia, but also racism and colonialism at the same time (van der Meide, 2001). In a guide on two-spirited people for First Nations communities, Gilbert Deschamps (1998, p. 10), a Two-Spirited man from Opwaaganisining (Red Rock) Ojibwe First Nation, writes:

We have come to believe that two-spirited First Nations people are disgusting and perverse. We learned that before colonization to be “two-spirited” was a gift which had promise and potential. Two-spirited people were respected and honoured, and were visionaries and healers in our communities. We have rediscovered that we continue to have a spiritual place in our world. […]

Today, modern Euro-Western society views us as dykes, fags, perverts and queers. In the Aboriginal community, many of our people have adopted these negative attitudes and many two-spirited people have been ostracized from their own communities. However, we as two-spirited people are determined to reclaim our rightful place within the circle of all Aboriginal people. […]

Through the decolonization process, we as two-spirited people are striving to reclaim our traditional positions within our Nations and are taking our rightful place.

It is therefore important to keep in mind that Indigenous two spirit students can be struggling with their gender identity within contemporary society as well as within sometimes lost cultural traditions.

How to interact with two spirit students?

If it may seem delicate or stressful for some teachers to interact with two spirit students, it is important to keep in mind that they need, just as other children, to be heard, reassured, respected and not to feel judged. Here are a few tips to foster interactions and teaching practices inclusive of all children:

  1. Ask children which pronouns and name they prefer and try to use them every time you talk to or about them. It is more respectful to admit you don’t know which gender a child identifies to than to presume knowing it.
  2. Don’t ask the child questions about his or her genitals (operation, hormone therapy, etc.): the only thing that matters is that the child feels safe and respected. If the child wishes to talk about it with you, he or she will do it and you will be ready to listen and help find answers to his or her questions.
  3. When a child reveals his or her gender identity, ask him or her whom else he or she revealed it to, who was supportive and who isn’t, and to whom he or she wants to reveal his or her gender identity with your help. Don’t talk about the student’s identity with people to whom he or she hasn’t revealed it yet, including his or her parents and other people in charge of the child.
  4. Make sure you create a safe space for the student and do not tolerate any homophobic or transphobic insult. Have a look at this document to help you react appropriately to children’s homophobic words and actions.
  5. Use a gender-neutral and inclusive language when talking in front of the class. For example, avoid categorizing your students in a binary way by using terms such as “boys” and “girls.”

The guide created by the LGBT Family Coalition called Best practices—Seven areas of intervention in the school community to better meet the needs of homoparental families is a great resource for school principals and all school staff members wanting to create an inclusive environment.

Finally, if you want to go further, the organization Égale Canada created an Equity and Inclusive Education Resource Kit for Ontario High Schools, but that could easily be used for a number of aspects in an elementary school. This guide offers many activities and advice for elementary-level teachers wanting to put this type of pedagogy in place.


Identités de genre au primaire
File size: 76 KB (application/pdf)


Deschamps G. (1998). We Are Part of a Tradition: A Guide on Two-Spirited People for First Nations Communities. 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations.

Dubuc, D. (2017). LGBTQI2SNBA+: Sex, gender and sexual orientation: Inclusion through vocabulary. fneeq-CSN.

ÉGALE Canada (n.d.). Equity and Inclusive Education Resource Kit for Ontario High Schools.

Equity and Inclusion Office (n.d.). Equity & Inclusion Glossary of Terms. The University of British Columbia.

Greenbaum, M. (2014). Seven areas of intervention in the school community to better meet the needs of homoparental families. LGBT Family Coalition

LGBT Family Coalition (2014). Reacting to children’s homophobic words and actions.

LGBT Family Coalition (2014). Vocabulary.

Public Health Agency of Canada (2010). Questions & Answers: Gender Identity in Schools, Minister of Health.

The Link Ottawa (2018). Sexuality and Gender Diversity Definitions, The LINK.–gender-diversity-definitions.aspx

van der Meide, W. (2001). The Intersection of Sexual Orientation & Race: Considering the Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered (“GLBT”) People of Colour & Two-Spirited People. EGALE Canada.