One of the issues that often comes up when discussing stories concerning the LGBTQ2+ community is confusion between gender identity and sexuality – two terms which refer to very different things but are commonly used interchangeably. In the last ten years, there has been growing awareness of the problems faced by transgender people. But the prevalence of negative responses to things like the coming out of Elliot Page highlight how far we still have to go.

What, then, is the difference? Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of self and the gender they feel like inside, which may or may not align with the gender they were assigned at birth. Sexuality, on the other hand, refers to the types of people someone is attracted to.

Doctors commonly assign infants one of two binary genders – male or female. But this overlooks the existence of intersex people (people whose biology is ambiguous) and erases the existence of people with genders outside the binary. Cultures around the world have included traditions of non-binary gender for thousands of years, of which Two-Spirit Indigenous Canadians are just one example.

For most people, the gender they identify as aligns with the gender they were assigned at birth and they experience attraction to members of the “opposite” binary gender. Because of the stigma against LGBTQ2+ in our society, this presumption of binary gender assigned at birth and heterosexuality is seen as the norm in our culture, while anyone who deviates from those norms of gender and sexuality is seen as deviant. The physical and emotional violence experienced by people with stigmatized genders and sexualities has long kept them silent, which only contributes to the illusion that such experiences are uncommon and abnormal.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible refute these assumptions with data. Governments are only just now beginning to consider the existence of LGBTQ2+ people in their data-gathering efforts. Statistics Canada recently concluded a consultation on the wording of a new question about gender identity and sexuality for the 2021 census, which would mark the very first time a Canadian census has gathered information about transgender, 2-Spirit, and non-binary people. But looking at smaller and more regional surveys of our region and Ontario as a whole shows that LGBTQ2+ people make up between 7% and 13% of the population.

And yet, many schools do not teach the difference between gender and sexuality until grade 8, well after the age in which most people have formed a firm sense of their gender identity and sexuality. And even then, parents have the ability to opt their children out of this curriculum, further contributing to the idea that even talking frankly about the existence of LGBTQ2+ is dangerous and an inappropriate conversation to have with children.

Sadly, the violence experienced by LGBTQ2+ people can never change as long as we continue to enforce ignorance of their experiences in our schools and community.

Basic resources to learn more about gender and sexuality:
Gender: More than just Pink and Blue
SPECTRUM’s LGBTQ2+ 101 Terminology and Reference Guide


For allies, gender, stigma

SPECTRUM offers a safe place where LGBTQ2+ individuals can be themselves and find community and supports.