Supporting Gender Identity: A Beginner’s Guide for Friends, Family, and University Staff

By Amber Hager, M.A., 2014

Gender What?

Gender identity: the internal sense that you have of your own gender, which is not as simple as it may seem to some.  Perhaps you know someone who is transgender, gender-nonconforming, gender nonbinary, or gender fluid, or maybe you have read about or seen someone on TV who identifies this way. However, perhaps you do not know (or don't think you know) anyone personally who identifies as anything but cisgender (when one’s gender identity and gender assigned at birth are congruent). You may be confused by all the different terms listed here or others you've seen. That is okay, because this is exactly what this article addresses—so read on!

Gender identity is not as simple as a doctor labeling someone a girl or a boy at birth. We know this because not everyone who is assigned boy or girl at birth grows up to identify as male or female, respectively.  Although we may intellectually understand this, we may still face challenges, judgments, or biases in understanding and celebrating gender fluidity in our friends, family, students, and colleagues. 

One thing that is important to understand is that transgender people face considerable discrimination, risk of poverty, risk of suicide and suicide attempts, and employment discrimination, and these risks are increased for transgender people of color.1 Because of these risks and because more transgender and gender nonconforming students are visible on college campuses, it is vital to provide support and campus resources for these students.2

Where to Begin?

A complete explanation of terms and list of recommendations is not possible in a short article, but the following is a good starting point, with a list of suggestions and resources.

Do Your Research

There is growing recognition that gender is not a simple binary (male and female), but rather a spectrum. Also, gender is different from sex: Gender is the sense of and expression of where one lies on the gender spectrum, whereas sex relates to biological anatomy.

As noted earlier, there are a variety of terms that are associated with gender identity (as well as with sexual orientation, which will is not covered here but is often lumped together with gender identity). Instead of expecting someone to educate you on their identity, try seeking out your own information.  There are some websites that can help:

  • Gender Spectrum: Creates gender-sensitive and -inclusive environments for children and teens through education, resources, and programs; offers a support group in Emeryville monthly
  • The Gender Unicorn: Helpful graphic showing the spectrum of gender and how it intersects with sex and relationships; provides definitions of a variety of terms
  • National Center for Transgender Equality: Provides transgender advocacy in Washington, D.C.; website provides education and advocacy around a variety of topics
  • Transgender Law Center: The largest national trans-led organization advocating for a world in which all people are free to define themselves and their futures through strategic litigation, policy advocacy, educational efforts, movement building, and programs
  • TransPulse: Provides a database of trans-friendly medical and mental health clinicians; forums for transgender folks, their families, their friends, and their allies; and a suicide crisis chat line

Show Respect

Be respectful of an individual’s affirmed gender identity, name, and pronouns. You may be afraid of making a mistake or offending someone when you don't know what name or pronouns to use. When in doubt, ask! Continuously misgendering someone (using the wrong gender pronouns or name) can be upsetting and is not supportive. It is as simple as asking, "What gender pronouns do you use?" "What name should I use?"

A term to avoid is preference, which is sometimes used to describe labels for sexual orientation and gender identity that differ from the majority identities of heterosexual and cisgender. Preference implies choice rather than inherent identity and applies to things like music, food, and TV shows; it's not an appropriate way to describe someone’s identity.

Be an ally and advocate

Whether you’re a family member, friend, or university staff or faculty member, you can help improve the life of transgender or gender nonconforming individuals by being open about your support of gender identity diversity and making yourself aware of the issues and services that serve the transgender community.2 Speak up when you hear someone saying something offensive, advocate for policies that improve the campus climate for gender nonconforming students, and listen to the voices of those students.2,3

Get support if needed

Learning about gender identity diversity may be new to you, and it may take time to incorporate new information into your way of understanding the world. To build your knowledge and awareness to best support a loved one who is transgender or gender nonconforming, seek out assistance by talking to a counselor or religious leader who is affirming of and has knowledge about gender identity diversity, finding a support group for those with a transgender loved one, or finding an online community for support. Below are some resources at USF. Also, PFLAG is a great resource for the loved ones of LGBTQI individuals that provides education, advocacy, and support.

  • Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS): Provides counseling to students and consultation to loved ones, staff, and faculty around various topics, including gender identity; CAPS can also provide trainings on LGBTQ concerns and workshops on becoming an ally to the LGBTQ community
  • Gender and Sexuality Center: As a part of USF’s Cultural Centers, the Gender and Sexuality Center is both a physical lounge space for students and a center for student-run programs related to gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexuality, healthy relationships, and sexual violence prevention; the Gender and Sexuality Center provides a number of LGBTQ Support and Educational Services
  • The Intercultural Center: As a part of USF’s Cultural Centers, the Intercultural Center is both a physical lounge space for students and a center for student-run programs around race, ethnicity, class, and culture-based topics
  • University Ministry: Religious and spiritual support for USF students, staff, and faculty


  1. Grant , J. M. , Mottet , L. A. , Tanis , J. , Harrison , J. , Herman , J. L. , & Keisling , M. (2011). Injustice at every turn: A report of the national transgender discrimination survey. Washington, D.C. : National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
  2. Beemyn, B. (2003). Serving the needs of transgender college students. Journal of gay & lesbian issues in education, 1(1), 33–50.
  3. McKinney, J. S. (2005). On the margins: A study of the experiences of transgender college students. Journal of gay & lesbian issues in education, 3(1), 63–76.