Originally published: April 2022

Updated: February 2024

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Teens have a big vocabulary around sexual and gender diversity that continues to change and evolve. If you’re a parent or caregiver of a young person, chances are you’ve heard them use words like bisexual or cisgender, acronyms like 2SLGBTQI+, or pronouns like they/them. This is the language of sexual and gender diversity. While these words might feel new or awkward to you, they’re respectful, kind, inclusive, and safe.

Take pride in your words—get to know terms and phrases related to gender and sexual diversity, and practice using them. Inclusive vocabulary can help you feel more comfortable and confident talking with your teen, and may lead to more open and honest conversations. 

Start by learning some key differences between sex, gender identy and gender expression, and sexual orientation:

Sex is the category people are assigned to when they’re born, usually based on the physical appearance of their genitals. Most people are assigned male or female.

Gender identity is how someone feels on the inside. It’s their internal sense of identity as boy/man, girl/woman, both, fluid among genders, or no genders (regardless of what sex they were assigned at birth).

Gender expression is how someone shows their gender for others to see. It includes the way they look, their social behaviour, and, their chosen name and  pronouns (he/him, she/her, or they/them, and more).

Gender identity and gender expression can be the same as or different than sex assigned at birth:

  • Cisgender (or cis) is a person whose gender identity and expression matches their assigned sex.
  • Transgender (or trans) is a person whose gender identity and expression is different than their assigned sex.
  • Genderqueer is a person who feels that their gender identity is beyond what is typically associated with their assigned sex.
  • Two-Spirit is sometimes used by Indigenous Peoples to identify with both a male and female spirit and may include concepts of spirituality, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Sexual orientation describes someone’s emotional, romantic, and sexual attraction to others. It’s about who a person is drawn to, or who they want to have relationships with.

  • Lesbian is a term for women who are attracted to women.
  • Gay is a term to describe someone who is attraced to people of the same gender. It’s most often used to describe men who are attracted to men.
  • Straight (or heterosexual) are terms for people who are attracted to the opposite sex or gender of their own.
  • Asexual is a term for people who don’t feel sexual attraction to others.
  • Bisexual, pansexual, and queer are terms for people whose sexual attractions span different gender identities.
  • Two-Spirit is sometimes used by Indigenous Peoples to identify with both a male and female spirit, and may include concepts of spirituality, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Next, get familiar with these acronyms commonly used in gender and sexual diversity:

2SLGBTQI+ is an umbrella term for sexual orientations and gender identities that are not hetersexual or cisgender. It can have different variations (like LGBTQ), but is meant to include all sexual and gender minorities. 2SLGBTQI+ stands for Two-spirit (2S), Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning*, and Intersex, and all identities not included in the acronym (+).

SOGIE is an inclusive abbreviation that means Sexual Orientation Gender Identity and Expression. It is often used in the context of human rights.

GSAs (Gay-Straight Alliances) and QSAs (Queer-Straight Alliances) are peer-support networks in Alberta schools, run by students and supported by staff. GSAs empower sexual and gender minority students and improve their sense of belonging. These groups are protected under the Education Act—all students can start them and name them, and all principals must help them take shape.

Armed with the right vocabulary, you should feel more confident talking about sexual and gender diversity topics with your teen when they come up. Still, it can take courage to have these conversations. Here are some tips that can help:

  • It’s never too early (or too late) to get started. Try asking your teen what they know or what they’ve heard—they may be familiar with even more terms, or they may not understand things they’ve heard. Reassure them that it’s common to have questions about gender and sexual diversity, and help them find trustworthy sources of information.
  • Respect that talking about sexual and gender diversity can be confusing or embarrasing for some people. Listen with compassion and without judgment. Remind your teen that you’re there for them, always.
  • Read books or watch movies that involve gender and sexually diverse themes or topics. Help your teen spot these themes in music, advertising, or on the news. Use these opportunities to prompt new conversations or keep them open.
  • Set a positive example. Avoid making jokes, using slurs, or making assumptions about sexual orientation or gender identity. If you’re not sure which words to use—ask! It’s acceptable—and often encouraged—to ask people about the language they prefer. If you make a mistake, apologize for your words and try to do better next time.

Using the right words and phrases in sexual and gender diversity shows your teen that you embrace and celebrate all people and their unique differences. It also positions you as an ally—someone who tries to make the world a better place for sexual and gender minorities. Even the smallest actions can bring about positive change.

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*Questioning refers to someone who is exploring or curious about their sexual orientation or gender identity.  

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