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    • Reflect on your experiences and perceptions to better understand the experiences of gender–expansive and LGBTQ individuals.
    • Define and describe some experiences of gender-expansive children and their families and terminology that is relevant to gender and sexual identity.
    • Explain acknowledgment, affirmation, and advocacy strategies for strengthening an inclusive program.




    An individual’s identity is made up of many components. For example, a person's religion, where they were born, where they went to school, their cultural belief system and personal experiences together help to form who that person is. The ability to share one’s identity without fear of discrimination or retribution is an important aspect of a respectful and diverse culture. It is also critically important for a person’s positive sense of self. 

    At some point in our lives, all of us have likely had an experience where we were not able to be our full selves, or when we felt anxiety about sharing aspects of our identities in particular settings or with particular groups of people. Perhaps you heard someone make a joke or derogatory statement about a group with which you identify. Perhaps the people, space, or materials made it clear that you were very different from others in the setting. Take a moment to reflect on these experiences.

    • How did you feel about yourself during this experience?
    • Did you want to form relationships with these people?
    • Did you want to learn from this person or group?
    • Did you want to come back to this setting?
    • How did you handle these feelings?

    Children and adults who identify as gender-expansive or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer – what we refer to with the acronym LGBTQ—are often pressured by society to hide or be careful when deciding how to express their identity. It is likely that programs serving children and youth have at least one gender-expansive or LGBTQ child or a child with a gender-expansive or LGBTQ family member. The estimates of the size of the adult gender-expansive and LGBTQ population vary, with a common estimate being 10 percent of the population identifying as LGBTQ (AAP, 2016). More recent Gallup surveys show closer to 5 percent. Between 700,000 and 1.4 million adults in the United States identify as transgender specifically (Flores, 2016).

    As you read this course, some of you may be very comfortable with individuals who are gender-expansive or LGBTQ, however, we realize that others may hold strong personal or religious beliefs that it is not okay to be gender-expansive or LGBTQ. This course is designed to make you more knowledgeable about individuals who are gender-expansive or LGBTQ and the practices that allow all children and families in your programs to feel safe and worthy. Many of the strategies we present are actually best practices for all children or can be used to ensure that all the populations served within your program are appropriately supported. Regardless of your beliefs, all individuals in your program deserve respect and dignity. You do not need to change your beliefs to treat gender-expansive or LGBTQ children or families in your program with respect. As you’ve learned in other VLS courses, inclusion is about ensuring all children, families, and staff members in your program receive the respect and support they deserve. This course helps you know what it means to treat gender–expansive or LGBTQ children respectfully.

    Gender Expansive and LGBTQ Children

    What does it mean to be gender expansive, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ)?

    Gender expansive – Individuals who express their gender or describe their gender identity as "outside" of, or counter to, the binary constructs of “male/female, boy/girl, man/woman.” The binary construct of gender presents only two options: boy or girl. However, children who are gender expansive may say they are a boy at one time and girl at another time, may reject gender labels all together, or identify with a gender other than male or female. There are various terms to describe individuals whose gender expression or identity is more fluid. For example, gender-expansive individuals or parents of gender-expansive children may describe themselves or their children as gender creative, gender fluid, gender variant, gender non-conforming, or gender queer. It is important to note that gender–expansive and transgender are not interchangeable terms; gender-expansive children can be, but are not necessarily, transgender. “Gender-expansive individuals include those with transgender and non-binary identities, as well as those whose gender in some way is seen to be stretching society’s notions of gender” (Gender Spectrum, n.d.).

    Lesbian – Individuals who identify as female and are attracted to other females.

    Gay – This term applies to individuals who identify as male and are attracted to other males. Historically, gay has been used to describe anyone who is attracted to someone of the ‘same sex’, but in the spirit if being more inclusive, that is not as common today. 

    Bisexual or pansexual – Individuals who are attracted to more than one gender.

    Transgender – An umbrella term for people whose gender identity or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth; similar terms are gender-expansive, gender creative, gender variant, or gender nonconforming. It is best to avoid the term transgendered, which implies that something happened to a person, like calling paper yellowed instead of yellow. Individuals who are transgender may define themselves as male or female (boy or girl), both, or neither.

    Queer – Everyone on the LGBTQ spectrum. Generationally, younger people often feel more comfortable with this term as older generations may consider it offensive. Some groups feel the umbrella term is one that erases their unique identities, for example as lesbians or gays, though others may embrace and “reclaim” the term as reflective of their experiences and identities as individuals whose sexual identity is something other than heterosexual or “straight.”

    Throughout this course, we will use the term gender-expansive to refer to children or individuals who have or express more fluid gender identities. In this course, when we refer collectively to gender or sexual minority groups we will say “gender-expansive and LGBTQ.” As outlined in the definitions above and in the Terminology resource provided at the end of the Learn section, a person can describe their sexual orientation or gender identity using a variety of words. It is important to note this language continues to evolve over time, as we discover new words to respectfully describe the identities and experiences of gender-expansive and LGBTQ individuals. Hence, it is good practice to listen to how individuals in your program describe and define themselves, so that you can use the language that feels most respectful to them.

    Some caregivers may ask, “why explore this topic when young children do not yet know they are transgender or gay?” Although to some, young children may not yet seem to identify as a boy or a girl, children are actually aware of this aspect of their identity earlier than many people realize. Children often understand their gender identity around age 2 or 3 and their sexual orientation by the age of 12 (AAP, 2015). The age that transgender children vocalize they have been misgendered  is often young-- with toddler-aged children reporting to parents that they are certain they are one gender though they were identified as another at birth. We will provide more details in Lesson Two. In summary, children typically understand gender and their own gender identity relatively early in their development, before preschool age. 

    One Way to Understand Gender Identity, Attraction and Expression

    The genderbread visual is a way to further understand the terms relating to sex, gender, and sexuality. Program managers or training and curriculum specialists may find it useful to use in a training session with caregivers. Talking about the genderbread visual creates an opportunity to use the language terms introduced in this lesson. It also encourages caregivers to ask questions and share experiences about gender identify.

    There are many versions of the genderbread person. When children are born, they are given a gender based most often on their genital appearance. They are typically assigned male at birth (AMAB) or assigned female at birth (AFAB). If an individual is born intersex (i.e., their body does not fit the typical definitions for male or females), they are usually still assigned a gender, with many individuals having multiple surgeries to make genitals appear consistent with the assigned gender. It was previously believed by some that gender could be altered by socializing a child as a girl or a boy. Research suggests that gender identity is more complicated than socialization alone.

    Gender identity is experienced in the brain. Gender identity may also change over time. However, many teens and adults who identify as transgender also express that they knew from a young age they are a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth.

    Gender is also a social construct, meaning that each of us builds an understanding of what gender is, what options are available (e.g., male or female), and what characteristics or qualities are generally associated with each option by interacting with and observing others. This includes the concepts of gender we are exposed to in different forms of media. In most cultures, there are two commonly recognized genders: male and female. This is referred to as a binary gender construct; there are only two options and these two options are often portrayed as opposite. But some cultures recognize multiple genders. Modern Native American cultures use the term two-spirit to describe individuals who are both genders or a nonbinary gender (Beemyn, 2017). Throughout history, two-spirit people were affirmed or celebrated in many cultures.

    Unlike gender identity, sexual orientation is about romantic or sexual attraction. Sexual orientation, according to the genderbread visual, is therefore placed at the heart, where emotion is said to reside. As outlined in the definitions above and in the Terminology resource provided at the end of the Learn section, people can describe their sexual orientation using a variety of words. Some women who are attracted to women prefer the term lesbian, some prefer queer, and some might prefer something else. Bisexual or pansexual people, even in long-term same-sex relationships, often do not like to have others refer to them as gay or lesbian or straight because it is an inaccurate description of their identities. It is important to allow individuals to define themselves with language of their choosing in regard to gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.

    One Part of Identity

    In thinking about language, it is important to note that one aspect of a person’s identity does not supersede, or "override" another. We each belong to multiple groups, or define ourselves in multiple ways (e.g., Hispanic, Christian, sister, mother, teacher, lesbian, republican, etc.). Different elements of human experience create multiple roles and identities. Individuals, and children, have the right to define their own experiences and explain the importance of various parts of their identity. A transgender person may also be a lesbian or a straight person. People of color who are gender-expansive LGBTQ may have different experiences than those who are white.

    Intersectionality is the term used to describe how these multiple identities and experiences work together. When you work with children or family members who identify as gender-expansive or LGBTQ, listen to how they wish to be addressed, listen to what they share about themselves. Each person’s experience and collection or assembly of identities is unique.

    The Broader Experiences of LGBTQ or Gender Fluid Individuals

    Take a moment to consider times in your life when your actions, intentions, or character were misinterpreted.

    • What were the consequences to your sense of self and your relationships?
    • How were you able to reconcile your own self-concept with the views and definitions others had for you?
    • What support did you need to continue being effective in the environment where you experienced the misperception?

    Like other minority groups, gender-expansive and LGBTQ individuals can benefit from the acknowledgment and support of others. Caregivers can show support by gathering information about the experiences of diverse populations, including gender–expansive and LGBTQ individuals and using better listening skills. In addition, caregivers show support when they display a willingness to question the stereotypes and negative attitudes of the larger culture.

    Gender-expansive and LGBTQ children and families are at increased risk for discrimination and its accompanying life stressors. Health care, jobs, and housing are just a few of the areas where gender-expansive and LGBTQ persons report discrimination. As young people, gender-expansive and LGBTQ persons are bullied, sexually and verbally harassed, and rejected by their support networks at much greater rates than the general population. These negative circumstances affect mental health and sense of well-being, with many individuals exhibiting signs of depression and considering suicide.

    The national suicide rate is at a 30-year high in the United States, having increased over all age groups with the exception of those over 75 (Curtin et. al., 2016). Suicide attempts are between eight and 10 times more common among the gender-expansive and LGBTQ population, with 40 percent of transgender individuals attempting suicide (Haas, et. al. 2014). Caregivers and health care providers who are knowledgeable about gender-expansive and LGBTQ experiences can reduce suicide. When caregivers acknowledge, affirm or advocate (see these strategies below) for gender-expansive or LGBTQ individuals and their experiences they can reduce the risk of suicide. Individuals with support from their families and communities are also significantly less likely to consider suicide.

    Child-development centers, school-age and youth programs, and family child care homes are given the task of providing a nurturing environment that fosters diversity and encourages children to develop a strong sense of self. A nurturing environment with a sensitivity to gender expansive children can benefit all children by providing another layer of respect for diversity.

    People often choose to be supportive of the gender-expansive or LGBTQ population because they have a loved one who identifies as gender-expansive or LGBTQ. We called these people allies or say they take part in ally behaviors. This process can be a journey for some families. Some families still reject gender-expansive or LGBTQ members. This rejection contributes to gender-expansive and LGBTQ teens making up 40 percent of homeless teens despite gender-expansive and LGBTQ youths being perhaps 7 percent of the teen population (Durso, 2010).

    Acknowledgment, Affirmation, Advocacy

    You may have colleagues who tell you that it is difficult for them to advocate for gender-expansive or LGBTQ individuals, or you yourself may feel this way. Some caregivers may state that they do not know anyone in the gender-expansive or LGBTQ population. This is unlikely. Statistically, most programs already include gender-expansive or LGBTQ individuals. What is more likely is that individuals are not sharing their identities because they do not feel safe and have not felt acknowledged in multiple environments. Child-development centers and school-age and youth programs have an obligation to create a safe and accepting space for all individuals, including gender-expansive and LGBTQ individuals. This aligns with the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s (NAEYC’s) position statements on anti-discrimination, diversity, and ethical conduct:

    Remind caregivers who are reluctant to address the issue of diversity in the program that the law mandates inclusion and that discrimination cannot be tolerated. At the same time, acknowledge that this may be new information for many of your colleagues, or even yourself. Becoming comfortable talking about and addressing issues of gender and sexual orientation can be challenging, and may take time.

    Acknowledgement, affirmation and advocacy are three levels or approaches to responding to any diverse population. Understanding these different approaches can help caregivers and program staff know the kinds of responses they can provide.  These different responses both create and maintain a supportive and inclusive environment for all children, families and program staff, and also provide flexibility for the caregiver to respond in a way that feels most comfortable. Using these responses is part of what helps to create a safe space for all children and families, especially those from diverse populations. To understand the different levels of response, let’s look at a particular scenario:

    A parent approaches a caregiver about allowing James, their gender-expansive child, to wear the pink Power Ranger costume even though James was identified at birth as a boy.

    After listening reflectively, a caregiver can say to the parent or to James, “It’s important to you (your child) to have a turn wearing that costume.”

    At this point, the child or family member may or may not share additional information with the caregiver. James might say, “Yes, I like girl things because I’m really a girl.”

    The caregiver has the option through acknowledgment to say something like, “I hear that you are really a girl.”

    It is worth noting here that not all boys who wear dresses are gender-expansive or transgender. Sometimes people, especially children, just like to wear a variety of clothes.

    Acknowledgment is an easy step to take toward inclusion. Acknowledgment involves the ability to say that you have heard someone’s story and know it is true for them. It is often as simple as restating a person's statement back to them, like the example above demonstrates. Individuals crave acknowledgment of their life experiences. Because children and families from the gender-expansive or LGBTQ population have experienced a lack of acknowledgment of their experiences, they will likely be especially receptive to words and acts of acknowledgement.

    Affirmation looks slightly different. In this same scenario, a staff member who chooses affirmation, might say, “Of course you can wear the pink Power Ranger costume. Anyone can try on any costumes they want!” Affirmation can offer support to a child or family that needs validation or encouragement. Caregivers who respond to children with affirmation encourage the full expression of their sense of self. In fact, it can be useful to think of creative gender expression in the same way we think of other creative expression in young children—not something to be discouraged or redirected, but rather something to be affirmed.

    Children change their play and self-concept over time based on developmental stages. Providing the framework for children to explore and define themselves is strengthened by affirming their identity. Acknowledgment and affirmation differ from advocacy because advocacy is a more active position.

    Advocacy involves gathering further information. An advocate might ask what an individual or group needs to feel more supported or combat discrimination. An advocate childcare provider would offer their support and ask for ideas about how to best support gender-expansive or LGBTQ individuals. An advocate staff member might have a safer spaces poster (see below) in their program. They might study about gender-expansive play and decide to provide additional options in the form of play centers or toys. For the child assigned male at birth who wishes to wear the pink Power Ranger costume, a staff member might put the child’s name on a list of "who's next" for that costume to ensure this opportunity happens. The caregiver might ask what it is about the costume the child most likes and whether their dramatic play center needs more varied toys. An advocate childcare provider would say to co-workers and children that it is OK for the child to express their gender in a way that is true for them.

    Many organizations provide additional materials, including Safe (or Safer) Space posters. See or as some examples.



    Throughout the lessons in this course, you will watch videos where parents share their journeys in acknowledging their child’s identity, and experiences affirming and advocating on behalf of their child. In addition, we have incorporated advice from experts in the field of early childhood on creating inclusive environments for all children and families, including those who are gender-expansive or LGBTQ. In Lesson Four, you will learn more about supporting families.

    As you watch the videos, especially if the information and experiences of transgender individuals is new to you, the switch of pronouns may seem confusing at first. As we’ll discuss in some of the following lessons, using a pronoun that aligns with a child’s stated identity validates and acknowledges the child’s autonomy over their own identity and supports their positive sense of self.

    These two videos offer an example of different families' experiences.

    A Family Introduction: Example 1

    A parent shares their family's journey in understanding their child's gender identity.

    A Family Introduction: Example 2

    Another family shares their story in understanding their child's gender identity.


    Take a few moments to think about your own program and reflect on your experiences with children’s interests and identity expression.

    • In what gender expansive or gender creative ways have children behaved?
    • What was the response of the other children?
    • What was your response and the response of other staff members?
    • Based on what you read in this lesson, what response feels most comfortable to you: acknowledgment, affirmation, or advocacy?
    • What effect would these responses have on children's sense of identity and well-being?

    Completing this Course

    For more information on what to expect in this course, and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore, and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Focused Topics Creating Gender Safe Spaces Course Guide

    Please note the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources to find additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.



    In this lesson, you were introduced to different approaches to responding to statements, behaviors or requests from diverse populations, and specifically individuals who are gender-expansive or LGBTQ. As noted, the responses that caregivers give is one way to create a safer space for all children and families in your program. The handout Acknowledge, Affirm, Advocate Examples offers some scenarios to consider. See if you can identify in the scenarios which actions seem like acknowledgment, affirmation, or advocacy. State the reasons why you selected each choice.

    Discuss your responses with a trusted colleague, trainer, coach, or supervisor. Think about which responses felt more comfortable to you. What support would help you respond in one of these ways?



    To understand gender identity and expression within others, it can be helpful to think about one’s own gender identity and expression. Learn more about this topic as you reflect on the results of a short, online assessment.


    Ally/alliesIndividuals who strive to understand the experiences of gender-expansive and LGBTQ individuals and work with people in the LGBTQ community to advocate for equal protection and opportunities for gender-expansive and LGBTQ individuals and their families
    Bisexual or pansexual Individuals who are attracted to more than one gender
    GayThis term applies to individuals who identify as male and are attracted to other males. Historically, gay has been used to describe anyone who is attracted to someone of the 'same sex', but in the spirit if being more inclusive, that is not as common today
    Gender-expansiveSometimes also called gender-creative or gender non-conforming. Individuals who are exploring gender expressions counter to binary constructs; they may say they are a boy at one time and girl at another time or reject gender labels
    Heterosexual/straightIndividuals who are attracted to the "opposite" or a different sex; women who are attracted to men, and men who are attracted to women
    IntersectionalityTerm coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, to highlight how different aspects of one's identity can influence the kinds of experiences and oppression different individuals face
    LesbianIndividuals who identify as female and are attracted to other females
    QueerEveryone on the LGBTQ spectrum. Generationally, younger people feel more comfortable with this term as older generations may consider it offensive. Some groups feel the umbrella term is one that erases their unique identities, for example as lesbians or gays, though others may embrace and "reclaim" the term as reflective of their experiences and identities as individuals whose sexual identity is something other than heterosexual or "straight"
    TransgenderAn umbrella term for people whose gender identity or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth; similar terms are gender-expansive, gender creative, gender variant, or gender nonconforming. Individuals who are transgender may define themselves as male or female (boy or girl), both, or neither




    Which of the following represents how individuals identify their sexual or romantic attraction to other people?


    True or false? "Transgendered" is an appropriate term to use in reference to an individual who identifies as transgender.


    During a Parents Night in Cailin's program, a couple discloses that their child has been questioning her gender at home. The child has made statements including "I feel more like a boy than a girl" and has asked to wear less feminine clothing more typical of boys. How would Cailin respond if she was trying to affirm the family's experience?

    References & Resources

    American Academy of Pediatrics (2016). Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Teens: Facts for Teens and Their Parents.

    American Academy of Pediatrics (2015). Section on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Health and Wellness.

    Beemyn, G. (2017). Gender. In Academic World Book.​

    Bureau of Census (2017). Opposite-Sex And Same-Sex Couple Households By Selected Characteristics: 2014 [By Sex, Age, Race, Educational Attainment, Employment Status, Children In The Household, Income, Marital Status, And Housing Tenure]. ProQuest Statistical Abstract of the U.S. 2017 online edition.

    Crenshaw, Kimberlé (September 24, 2015). Why intersectionality can’t wait. The Washington Post.

    Curtin, M.A.; Warner, M., and Hedegaard, H. (2016). Increase in Suicide in the United States, 1999-2014. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    Durso, L.E., & Gates, G.J. (2012). Serving Our Youth: Findings from a National Survey of Service Providers Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth who are Homeless or At Risk of Becoming Homeless. Los Angeles: The Williams Institute with True Colors Fund and The Palette Fund.

    Flores, A.R., Herman, J.L., Gates, G.J, & Brown, T.N.T. (2016). How Many Adults Identify as Transgender in the United States? Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute.

    Gender Creative Kids (2017).

    Gender Spectrum (n.d).

    Haas, Ann P; Rodgers, Philip L. and Herman, Jody L. (2014). Suicide Attempts among Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Adults: Findings of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. The Williams Institute.

    Hoffman, Jan. (2016, June 30). Estimate of U.S. Transgender Population Doubles to 1.4 Million Adults. The New York Times.

    Movement Advancement Project (2017). An Ally’s Guide to Terminology: Talking about LGBT People & Equality.

    National Center for Health Statistics (2017). Age-Adjusted Death Rates By Major Cause: 1960 To 2014. ProQuest Statistical Abstract of the U.S. 2017 online edition.

    National Symposium on Sexual Behavior of Youth. (2020). PowerPoint presentations from concurrent sessions. The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. 

    Oxford English Dictionary online (December 2016). Oxford University Press. [According to OED, GayNet Digest Volume 5 Issue 617 in bit.listserv.gaynet (Usenet newsgroup) cites use of LGBT August 11, 1992.]

    Pyne, J. (2012). Supporting Gender Independent Children and their Families. Rainbow Health Ontario. 

    The Safe Zone Project (2015).

    The Trevor Project. (2017).

    Temkin, D. and Vega, C. (2018). Research shows the risk of misgendering transgender youth. Child Trends Blog.

    University of Wisconsin (2017). Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center.

    Welcoming Schools.