Session 3—Gender Identity: Exploring Emotions Around Gender

Parents and caregivers help to shape a child’s healthy understanding of both their own gender and the gender diversity out in the world. This session calls participants to explore their ideas and feelings about gender and the values about gender they are teaching their children, explicitly or implicitly. The session introduces cultural and biological issues at play in gender identity and gender expression. Participants will find spiritual grounding for becoming comfortable with gender topics and integrating gender into conversations with their children.

Expect the group to have a range of experience with gender diversity. Some may understand gender as a simple dichotomy (i.e., a person can be either male or female). Others may be aware of a range of gender identities. Some may have family members, possibly their children, engaged with questions about gender; some participants may themselves be nonbinary, genderfluid, or transgender. Handout 3.1, The Gender Unicorn, clarifies distinctions among sex, gender, gender expression, and sexual orientation. Before the session, take the time to explore the handout so that you will be comfortable helping others understand this model of sexuality-related identities.

Two words that arise in the Spotlight discussion are particularly important:

  • Transgender: (adjective) describes a person whose gender identity is not the same as the sex they were assigned at birth
  • Cisgender: ​(adjective) describes a person whose gender identity is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth

These concepts can be confusing to people learning about them for the first time. Be prepared to spend some time talking about them if participants have questions.


  • Chalice, candle, and lighter or LED candle
  • Newsprint, markers, and tape
  • Computer with Internet access and a projector
  • Covenant on newsprint sheet, from Session 1
  • Journals or paper, and pencils or pens
  • Handout 3.1, The Gender Unicorn
  • Handout 3.2, Gender Unicorn Questions
  • Handout 3.3, Recommended Multimedia Resources
  • Handout 3.4, Scarleteen Reading


  • Explore the Recommended Multimedia Resources handout for this session. Update any links as needed. Expand the handout to include local resources. You may email the handout to participants prior to the session, plan to visit recommended websites during the session (this will extend your meeting time), or copy the handout to distribute in the session.
  • Preview the video of Lee Mokobe’s TED Talk, A Powerful Poem about What It Feels Like to Be Transgender (4:22).
  • Download from the UUA website, print, and copy for all participants:
  • Copy Handout 3.1, The Gender Unicorn, and Handout 3.2, Gender Unicorn Questions, for all participants. Review the Gender Unicorn model so that you will be comfortable helping others understand it.
  • Make four copies of Handout 3.4, Scarleteen Reading.
  • Set up the computer, test the Internet connection in your meeting space, and cue up the video.
  • Write these definitions on separate sheets of newsprint and post them. Add a second blank sheet of newsprint adjacent to or below each one, for brainstorming.
  • Gender: a person’s sense of themselves as a man, a woman, another gender, or no gender (agender). Gender is often shaped by societal expectations of gender expression.
  • Sex: the biological aspects of a person’s body, including sexual and reproductive anatomy, chromosomes, and hormonal balances. These are typically used to categorize a person at birth as male, female, or intersex.
  • Post the group covenant.
  • Write the Spotlight questions on newsprint and set them aside.
  • Write the Reflection questions on newsprint and set them aside.
  • Write the first three Taking It Home questions on newsprint and set them aside.

Session Plan

Opening (5 minutes)

Welcome participants. If any participants are new, briefly review the posted covenant, answer any questions about it, and invite a quick round of name introductions.

Say that this session’s topic is gender identity. Say that gender is an aspect of self that everyone has, no matter what gender they identify as, including agender.

Invite a participant to light the chalice while you read the following poem, “[Undefined]—(A poem about gender identity),” published on Reddit by RexxieCat and used with permission:

Mister or Misses is not me
Will not answer to He or She
Do not address me as Sir or Ma’am
Even if I ask you don’t give a damn

Pink and Blue I cannot stand
Do not define me I don’t need a brand
Boy or Girl its all the same
The corrupt world’s mind game

Judge me for what I am inside
Do not expect me to swallow my pride
I am not sorry for who I am
Not a Sir nor a Ma’am

Focused Check-In (5 minutes)

Tell participants you will ask them to say their name and then complete the following sentence: “I identify my gender as _____, and I use the pronouns _____.” Go first to model this introduction, then invite someone else. Continue until everyone has answered.

Spotlight (15 minutes)

Say that this session invites parents and caregivers to expand their understanding of gender identity. More knowledge will help participants be open to what a child may show or tell them as their sense of gender emerges. Suggest that a starting point is to clarify the difference between gender and biological sex.

Direct participants’ attention to the two posted definitions and read them aloud. Ask for examples of possible indicators of someone’s gender and write responses on the newsprint. Then ask for examples of biological sex indicators and write those responses.

Note: Gender indicators may include clothing, hairstyle, job, hobby, or the genders of a person’s friends; examples must be choices people make or actions they do. However, gender identity is an internal characteristic, not always outwardly expressed. Biological sex indicators may include chromosomes, genitalia, reproductive organs, hormonal balance, and secondary sexual characteristics such as breast development, hip width, facial and body hair, voice pitch, and musculature. If a participant offers an example that belongs in the other category, explain why it fits where it does and write the suggestion on the correct newsprint.

Make clear that, while these examples are possible indicators that may hold true for many or even most people, they are not invariable and they are not “proof” of anybody’s sex or gender. Male people may wear skirts, female people may have facial hair, people with clitorises and vaginas may have XY chromosomes, and so on.

Explain that a label of male or female is usually assigned at birth, based on the appearance of an infant’s genitals; however, those labels may later prove incorrect. Cisgender (an adjective) describes a person whose gender identity is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender (also an adjective; sometimes shortened to trans) describes a person whose gender identity is not the same as the sex they were assigned at birth. Some people are medically diagnosed, at birth or later, as intersex or as having differences of sexual development. These terms describe conditions affecting chromosomes and/or reproductive and genitourinary development in utero that challenge the associations we usually make between a person’s genitals and their biological sex. Note that biological sex can be understood as a continuum, with male, intersex, and female being only three of countless possible variations in physical makeup.

Ask for examples of transgender or intersex people in public life or the media.

Note: Examples at this writing include trans actress Laverne Cox, who played a trans woman on Orange Is the New Black (Netflix); trans actor Elliot Fletcher, who played trans men on The Fosters (Freeform) and Shameless (Showtime); trans woman Caitlyn Jenner, who was a 1976 Olympic gold medalist in men’s track; and Andrea Jenkins, a transgender woman elected to the Minneapolis City Council in 2017. An article on the website “them” lists more trans actors. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, is a contemporary novel with an intersex protagonist.

Say that there are many ways people might identify their gender. Say:

A majority of people identify as male or female. Someone who feels their gender doesn’t fit the sex assigned to them at birth might identify as transgender. Yet the poet of the opening reading doesn’t claim either a male or female gender. People who do not identify as transgender or cisgender might identify as gender nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid, or gender nonconforming.

Mention well-known people who have identified as gender nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid, or gender nonconforming. Examples include author Kate Bornstein, actor Asia Kate Dillon, rapper Angel Haze, country/pop singer Sam Smith, LGBTQ activist Jacob Tobia, Queer Eye host Jonathan Van Ness, actor Amandla Stenberg, and actor Lachlan Watson.

Say that you will show a video of a young transgender person speaking about his experience growing up. Post these Spotlight questions. Read them aloud and ask the group to consider them as they view the video:

  • What emotions arise for you?
  • How have you reacted, or might you react, to your child dressing and behaving outside of society’s norms for their sex?

Show the video of Lee Mokobe’s TED Talk. Then invite the group to journal, as they are moved, with any thoughts, feelings, or issues that have come up.

Perspectives (20 minutes)

Ask for four volunteers to read aloud so the group can witness a conversation that took place on a Scarleteen discussion board. Give copies of Handout 3.4, Scarleteen Reading, to volunteers for the roles of Narrator, Youth, Volunteer, and Mother. Explain that the discussion boards are moderated closely by adult volunteers and that this exchange took place over several days between a teenager and a series of volunteers whose responses are offered here as one voice, for simplicity. Note that at one point the youth posts a conversation they had by text with their mother.

After the reading, distribute Handout 3.1, The Gender Unicorn, and Handout 3.2, Gender Unicorn Questions. Say that a model like the Gender Unicorn can help people to explore their own gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and sexual attraction. Using Handout 3.1, The Gender Unicorn, name and explain the five categories listed on the graphic, inviting the group to quickly note two or three attributes that fall into each category. Explain that the discussion can go broader than is represented by the handout. Give examples of attributes as needed:

  • Gender identity (female, male, gender queer, agender, etc.)
  • Gender expression (feminine, masculine, androgynous, etc.)
  • Sex assigned at birth (female, male, intersex)
  • Physically attracted to (same gender, another gender, more than one gender, not experiencing sexual attraction)
  • Emotionally attracted to (same gender, another gender, more than one gender, not experiencing sexual attraction)

Each colored arrow indicates a range, from “not at all” at the left end (the empty circle) to “very much ”or “completely” at the right end (the arrowhead); the circles in the “Sex Assigned at Birth” category are like checkboxes. Ask participants to consider themselves as they were in middle school, as well as their memory allows, and to mark the arrows and check a circle in the ways that best describe how they felt then. For instance, if they usually wore dresses but sometimes liked to put on a suit jacket and tie, they might mark the “feminine” gender expression arrow at the far right end and the “masculine” arrow somewhat to the right of the left end. Tell them that they will have about five minutes to complete the Gender Unicorn Handout as their younger selves and to consider the questions on Handout 3.2, Gender Unicorn Questions.

Reflection (30 minutes)

Invite participants to reflect on the chalice lighting words, the Lee Mokobe video, the dialogue from Scarleteen, and the Gender Unicorn handouts. Say you will suggest some guiding questions, then offer five minutes of quiet for private reflection and journaling. After this, there will be a time for sharing.

Post the Reflection questions. Read all the questions aloud and invite participants to focus on the ones that speak most deeply to them.

  • How do you feel the mother handled the revelation in the Scarleteen reading?
  • What do think might be going through the mother’s mind when she asks questions about self-harm? What do you make of her choice to ask about that?
  • Suppose your child reveals to you that they have discovered something important about themselves. What would you hope your reaction would be? What would your actual reaction depend on?
  • Recall a time you may have crossed a gender-related boundary and an adult disapproved. How did that feel?
  • What was gender like for your 12-year-old self? What do you wish could have been different? What do you wish you could have told the adults who raised you?
  • Why is it important to discuss gender in a family, whether or not everyone appears to be cisgender?

Invite the group to hold silence for a few minutes while they reflect and respond in their journals. Then invite participants to share one at a time as they are moved, without interruption or discussion. As needed, remind participants of the agreed-upon norms listed on the covenant and of the amount of time each person may speak.

Taking It Home (10 minutes)

Say that Unitarian Universalism’s first Principle calls parents and caregivers to honor their children’s gender and support them toward a positive expression of whatever that gender is, because we honor the inherent worth and dignity of everyone. Invite the group to shape their learning, thoughts, and feelings from this session into one or more actions they will commit to trying at home.

Ask participants to form triads or pairs to consider the following questions together. Post the questions:

  • How will you establish a healthy and open atmosphere around gender in your family?
  • How can you come to better understand your own attitudes and behaviors regarding gender?
  • How can you begin to engage your children in conversations about gender?

Invite participants to answer this next question privately on paper:

  • What promise can you make now for something you will do, between now and our next meeting, to foster healthy, supportive communication about gender identity and gender expression with your child?

Closing (5 minutes)

Share the closing reading from Everybody’s In by Lori Walke:

Gracious God,

Is it the glitter? Some people think it’s the glitter that makes the Pride parade like heaven. Pearly gates and streets of gold—surely heaven has as much glitter as a Pride parade. There’s definitely enough glitter there to make a person believe that the Pride parade is like heaven.

Some people, of course, do not think the Pride parade is like heaven. After all, who would let all these people in? Surely there’s some kind of form to fill out, one must be given clearance, and at least abide by the dress code.

Speaking of, what is the dress code for heaven? What documentation is required? Of course, this is the strongest argument that the kingdom of heaven is like the Pride Parade: all are welcome. We don’t get to decide who is in and who is out. Everybody’s in. Everybody.

Invite a participant to extinguish the chalice. Thank the group for their participation. If you haven’t done so yet, distribute Handout 3.3, Recommended Multimedia Resources, for participants to take home. Remind the group of the day, time, and place of the next session.

Download the handouts for this session.

graphic of the gender unicorn that explains gender, sex, and attraction

Handout 3.1
The Gender Unicorn (PDF)

questions to use with gender unicorn graphic

Handout 3.2
Gender Unicorn Questions (PDF)

Recommended multimedia resources for session 3

Handout 3.3
Recommended Multimedia Resources (Word)

Scarleteen reading

Handout 3.4
Scarleteen Reading (PDF)