Heterosexual people are sexually or romantically attracted to people of the opposite sex. Lesbian and gay people are sexually or romantically attracted to people of the same sex. Bisexual people might be attracted to either. Who a person is sexually attracted to determines their sexual orientation.
Gender identity is quite different from sexual orientation. It refers to the gender that a person feels themselves to be. Most people feel themselves to be the gender that matches their physical characteristics. So most people who physically look like men will also feel and act like men. In rare cases, there is a mismatch between physical characteristics and the brain. In such a case, a person who looks like a man may actually feel more like a woman, or a person who looks like a woman may actually feel and behave more like a man. This can be something that affects a person for a period of time, or for life.
Sexual orientation and gender identity are sometimes confused, leading to stereotypical assumptions that all lesbians are butch or that all gay men are effeminate, when this is only the case for a small minority.
'Transgender' is an umbrella term which covers a range of situations where there is a mismatch between assigned gender and the way a person expresses their gender. A transvestite, for example, will at times take comfort or pleasure from wearing the clothes of the opposite sex. A transsexual person has made the transition from the gender they were assigned at birth to the gender they feel themselves to be, in some cases involving hormone treatment or surgery.
Having issues of gender identity is not an indicator of sexual orientation. Trans people may identify themselves as heterosexual, lesbian, gay or bisexual.
Heterosexuality is the main expression of sexual orientation in all human societies. Where there is a belief that this is the only sexual orientation, this is called heterosexism.
Some trans people, such as transvestites, will identify as heterosexual.
Why a mermaid? Mermaids is a support group and website for
children and parents of children with gender identity issues
Where this non-conforming behaviour is very marked for periods of time, then we could describe the child as having gender identity issues. Gender identity issues are often apparent from an early age. A boy may choose to the wear the stereotypically ‘girliest’ dress, to almost ‘outgirl’ the girls, whilst a girl might want to wear boys' trunks in the swimming pool. This type of behaviour can disappear as a child gets older; it may take different forms, or it may persist.
Children with gender identity issues are often perfectly happy and may express their chosen gender identity with some relish. There is nothing wrong - this is simply part of the normal range of human diversity.
Pepople sometimes assume that a child who shows gender identitiy issues will be lesbian or gay. However, it is totally inappropriate to make assumptions about a child's sexual orientation. A five-year-old boy who plays exclusively with girls might be teased for being 'gay', but he is actually being singled out because of his gender expression and is too young yet to know anything about his sexual preference in adult life.
Parents often wonder how to deal with this behaviour. When a child is young, it makes sense to simply let them be who they are. Let them choose to play as they want and encourage their friendships, just as you would with any child. Trying to make them change is pointless and can only make a child feel unhappy.
Having interests that are more typical of the opposite sex (such as a girl liking racing cars or a boy liking ballet) can impact on a young person’s social life and friendships from the very start of school life. These young people need support in finding like-minded friends and, like many others, need their nursery or school to create a diversity-friendly environment in which they can thrive.
The important thing is for parents to discuss any problems with their child and their child's nursery or school. See Education.
Some lesbians and gay men will have experienced gender identity issues in early life, but many have not.
Children who do not conform to gender stereotpyes do not necessarily become lesbians or gay adults (Wilson and Rahman, 2005). Some will grow up to be straight, some will be lesbian or gay, some will be bisexual and a very small number will be transgender (what is sometimes referred to as ‘gender dysphoric’).
Jon was assigned female at birth.
At 16, he changed his name by deed poll.
Image kindly supplied by Venture Photography, Knightsbridge
'Gender dysphoria' is a term used to describe children who are desperately unhappy with the gender they were assigned at birth. Some, like Jon, 'transition' to their chosen gender after counselling. At first, this may mean no more than a change of name and clothes, but medical intervention is possible once a young person is old enough. Gender dysphoria is very rare. About 100 young people are diagnosed every year. More males make the transition to being female (MTF), about five times as many females who make the transition to being male (FTM).
Jon and his mother Luisa
Image kindly supplied by Venture Photography, Knightsbridge
If you have a child who is experiencing distress about their gender identity, perhaps at puberty, then there are sources of help. The first step would be to take your child to your GP. (Please note, though, that most children who do not conform to a gender stereotype do not need to go down the medical route at all).
Parents of children with gender identity issues, regardless of the child's age, are welcome to contact Families Together London.
Gendered Intelligence - www.genderedintelligence.co.uk - go to 'Trans youth', then 'Supporting parents'
Gender Identity Research and Education Society - www.gires.org.uk
Mermaids, support group for children and teenagers with gender identity issues - www.mermaidsuk.org.uk
Brill and Pepper (2008) The Transgender Child: A handbook for families and professionals.San Francisco: Cleis Press Inc.
Wilson, G. and Rahman, Q. (2005) Born Gay: The psychobiology of sex orientation. London, UK. Peter Owen.
Medical Care for Gender Variant Children and Young People: Answering families' questions.' This booklet, developed by GIRES for the Department of Health, answers the questions that the parents of gender variant young people typically ask.
This Directory of Services for trans people - www.TranzWiki.net, will enable trans people, especially the victims of crime, to contact those who can help them. It will also be of value to family members and professionals.
The Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES) has also set up a system to enable trans people to report the crimes they experience - www.TCrime.net
Beaumont Society, for adult men who who dress or live as women - www.beaumontsociety.org.uk
Beaumont Trust assists those who care for those with gender dysphoria - www.beaumonttrust.org.uk
Depend, support for family members of transsexual people - www.depend.org.uk
FTM Network, supporting female-to-male transexuals and their families -www.ftm.org.uk
Gender Trust advice and support for transsexual and transgender people, their partners, families and carers - www.gendertrust.org.uk
Gendys Network, for those who encounter gender problems and those who care for them - www.gender.org.uk/gendys
Press for Change, civil rights for trans people - www.pfc.org.uk
The Transgender Zone - support and information - www.transgenderzone.com
Women of the Beaumont Society, for wives, partners, family and friends of those who cross-dress - www.gender.org/wobsmatters
Department of Health, for information on trans issues - www.dh.gov.uk
Intersex people are born with the sexual characteristics of more than one gender. This is generally understood to be congenital and may be linked to chromosome differences.
Naturally, this makes gender assignment at birth difficult. At one time, operations were performed on intersex babies in order to make gender assigment easier. However, this took no account of the child's gender identity, which is likely to be determined by the brain.
Campaigners now advise no surgery until a child is old enough to make their own gender choice, should they choose to make one.
Many LGBT organisations now include intersex people. Families Together London does not currently include the parents of any intersex children, but, since we face many similar issues, would welcome contact.