Figuring out your sexual orientation and gender identity can sometimes feel anything but simple. At Pride Palace, we sincerely believe that knowledge and understanding will lead to greater acceptance in our communities. While this article does not cover all of the nuances within the gender identity and sexual orientation spectrums, it will hopefully provide a basic understanding of the differences between the two subjects.
It is a common misconception that gender identity and sexual orientation are connected. Gender identity is internal, your innermost concept of self. This can be male, female, both, or neither. It has nothing to do with sexual orientation. For example, someone can identify as transgender and identify as gay, straight, bisexual, asexual, or many other sexual orientations that exist.
Sexual attraction is romantic or sexual feelings you have towards others. Sexual behavior is who you have sex with and what kinds of sex you like to have. Sexual orientation is inherent and undeniable enduring emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction to another person or other people. It is who you are interested in being intimate with.
Gender identity is psychological and social. Sexual orientation describes sexual feelings felt towards and other people. Both of these identities can be fluid, and both are deeply personal. Gender identity and sexual orientation are an inherent part of who you are. Sometimes, all of these things can be aligned.
A person can be assigned female at birth, identify as female, and be a lesbian. But these factors do not always line up like that. For example, someone might identify as straight but engage in same-gender sexual behavior. That is why it is hard to determine the total number of LGBTQ+ people. Not everyone feels comfortable or safe coming out, and it is complicated and complex. How people think, feel, or act is not always the same as how they identify themselves.
Let’s Talk About Sex(ual Orientation), Baby!
There are many ways to talk about sexual orientation because it varies so greatly in the LGBTQ+ community (and those who haven’t joined the community just yet). For example:
- People who are attracted to a different gender often identify themselves as straight or heterosexual.
- People who are attracted to multiple genders identify themselves as bisexual. Those who are attracted to the same gender might identify as homosexual, or gay.
- Women who are attracted to other women might call themselves lesbian.
- Those whose sexuality spans across multiple gender identities might call themselves pansexual or sexually fluid.
- Those who are unsure of how they identify can refer to themselves as questioning.
- People who identify as asexual do not experience sexual attraction for anyone.
There are a variety of sexual orientations and gender identities that are anything other than straight or cisgender, which refers to having the same gender identity that you were assigned at birth.
The word “queer” can be used as both sexual orientation and also gender identity. It is important to remember that the word has historically been used as a slur, intended to hurt and shame people for being who they are. Some have reclaimed this term, but it is always best to ask someone how they identify before using labels to describe someone else. It is an encouraged practice to extend this consideration to those around you!
Assigned Sex (Also Sometimes Known As Biological Sex)
Sex is a label that you are assigned at birth, often by a doctor. This is what the phrase “assigned at birth” refers to. It may or may not align with that person’s gender identity or sexual orientation. It is determined through the labeling and identification of body parts, hormones, and chromosomes. Sex is what is used to categorize a person on their license, passport, and birth certificate.
The majority of people are assigned the labels of “male” or “female” at birth. There is a percentage of people who are intersex, which means their sexual and reproductive anatomy doesn’t fit the typical definition of ‘male’ or ‘female’ as dictated by a heteronormative, binary society. Having only two options might not accurately describe the authentic experience of what is going on inside someone’s body. That is why some people will refer to their “biological sex” as either “male assigned at birth” or “female assigned at birth.” This phrasing acknowledges that this is a label and decision made for someone else, by someone else.
Doctors will almost always assign a newborn baby the label of “male” or “female.” There are also instances where they will perform surgery to make their bodies fit the binary of societal body norms. These surgeries do not impact how a person’s gender identity, just like someone who is non-intersex. There is more and more burgeoning controversy regarding these medical procedures.
The assignment of sex may not match up with how someone feels or identifies on the inside. The factors that determine assigned sex begin as early as fertilization. Each sperm has either an X or Y chromosome inside of it. All eggs have an X chromosome. An XX chromosomal combination is usually assigned the label of female sex and reproductive organs. An XY chromosomal combination is traditionally assigned the label of male sex and reproductive organs.
Exploring Gender Identity
Gender is a more abstract subject. Gender identity is how you feel inside. Gender expression is the physical embodiment of gender identity. This can be shown through clothing, behavior, and personal appearances. Gender identity is often something that is felt early in life. It also includes the expectations society has on gender roles regarding behavior, thoughts, and characteristics that go along with their assigned sex. Gender roles influence legal and social statuses in society as well.
Gender identity can be more than male or female. Someone can be a feminine man or a masculine woman. Someone can identify as neither binary gender or outside the gender binary entirely. Some are fluid, and their gender identity shifts along a spectrum of experience and feeling. This can be called genderfluid. Trans is an umbrella term for describing someone whose gender identity is other than their assigned sex at birth.
Gender Roles And Stereotypes
Gender roles are how we are expected to act, speak, groom, dress, and behave based on the sex we were assigned at birth. Every society, ethnic group, and culture has gender role expectations that vary from group to group. For example, women are commonly expected to act demure, polite, and nurturing. On the other hand, men are commonly expected to act assertive, bold, and strong.
There are four basic gender stereotypes. First, there are personality traits, like how women are expected to be accommodating and emotionally expressive, and men are expected to be stoic and self-confident. Domestic behaviors, like when women are expected to juggle the majority of housekeeping responsibilities and men are expected to take care of finances, repairs, and cars.
There are occupational stereotypes, like assuming a man is a doctor and a woman is a nurse. Lastly, there is appearance and physicality, like the stereotype that women should be slight and graceful and men should be muscular and physically imposing.
If a label does not feel right to you, or you are not sure how you would like to identify, it is more than okay to go without. Labels are fluid and changeable throughout your lifetime. They can stay the same or evolve; either is a valid experience. That is what the “Q” in LGBTQ+ is for -- questioning. Only you can decide what feels right for you. Changing a label as you change does not mean you are lost or confused. It means you are accepting the fluidity of your identity and communicating that to those around you. Many people experience changes in gender identity and sexual orientation at all stages of life.
Sexual orientation and gender identity have been conflated together for so long, but understanding the differences between the two has become more mainstream. It is not an uncommon experience for people to experience other’s preoccupation with their gender identity or sexual orientation.
There can be a pressure to categorize, but how you choose to think of yourself and express your sexuality is your choice and yours alone. As these topics can come to the forefront in the dating world, many dating apps exhibit their inclusion by offering multiple gender identities and sexual orientations to present and disclose to others.
No matter what a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation is, everyone wants to feel valid and recognized for being themselves. This is something that should be respected at home, in school, in the office, in the dating scene, and everywhere we go about living our lives. Gender identity and sexual orientation are vital components to who we each are and profoundly impact how we live our lives. That being said, the two are not the same.