The concepts of sex, sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity are commonly confused, but there are important distinctions between these ideas that can be vital parts of a person’s identity.
Sexual Identity vs. Sexual Orientation
Sex is a term used to describe the biological status of a person. Sex is determined by one’s anatomy, including but not limited to their genitals, sex chromosomes, and internal reproductive organs. Typically, a person’s sex is either male, female, or intersex.1
Sexual orientation describes a person’s preferences for who they find emotionally, romantically, and sexually attractive. A person’s sexual orientation is separate from their gender identity. Some examples of sexual orientations are heterosexual (attracted to people of the other sex), homosexual (attracted to people of the same sex), and bisexual (attracted to people of the same sex and another sex). Some people are asexual, meaning that they do not feel sexually attracted to anyone.3 For more information on sexual orientations, click here.
Typically, heterosexual individuals have more privilege in society than homosexuals or bisexuals. This privilege is because heterosexuality is socialized as the “correct” sexual orientation as it matches up with currently established gender norms. For this reason, many homosexual and bisexual individuals may feel as though there is something wrong with them and may begin to internalize homophobic attitudes. They may feel intense shame over their sexual orientation and identity and may have a hard time coming to terms with their sexuality. There are many support groups and organizations designed to help homosexuals and bisexuals overcome the challenges associated with their sexual identity, such as feeling different, feeling unable to talk about their sexual preferences, and experiencing difficulty finding a community.
Gender vs. Gender Identity
Gender refers to the socially constructed ideas and expectations that a culture has about a certain sex. It includes society’s expectations about specific roles and behaviors associated with each sex.1 Traditionally, gender statuses have reflected one’s biological sex and have been considered either male or female; however, the notion that a person might be neither male nor female or a mix of the two is becoming more readily accepted in some parts of the world, like the United States.
The traditional notion of gender inaccurately suggests that a person’s behavior, thoughts, personality, and attitudes are dependent upon their given genitals and that there are a set of norms for each gender that must be followed in order to be considered “normal”. The idea of gender also suggests that the various genders behave differently from one another.
Gender is a person’s perception of their gender. It is independent of their biological sex; rather, it is how a person feels and how they want to present themselves.2 It is not uncommon for a person’s sex and gender identity to be different. A person whose gender and biological sex correlate is considered cisgender. A person whose gender does not align with their biological sex (i.e., an anatomical female identifying with the male gender) is considered to be transgender.1 People who identify as being between genders or a mix of male and female may refer to themselves as genderqueer or gender fluid.3 Individuals who feel they are neither a man nor a woman often refer to themselves as third gender.
Cisgender individuals are traditionally seen as having more privilege in today’s society because their gender identity matches the one that society expects of them. These individuals are typically seen as “normal”. This belief that cisgender is the “normal” or “correct” form of gender identification has led to cissexism or transphobia. Cissexism and transphobia can be used almost interchangeably and generally mean adhering to the belief that cisgender is normal and that transgender is deviant or abnormal. There are many examples of cissexism and transphobia in today’s society, but they typically all fall under the general idea of promoting the gender binary: the idea that there are two distinct genders defined solely by anatomy. This ideology can be very harmful to transgender individuals because it may make them feel as though they are deviant or that something is wrong with them; however, this is not the case whatsoever. Identifying as transgender is perfectly natural and healthy.
The notions of sex, sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity are all important facets of a person’s identity. Recognizing the differences between these concepts is necessary to understand a person’s sexual, romantic, and personal identities. In summation, sex refers to biological sex. Sexual orientation refers to who a person finds sexually, romantically, and emotionally attractive as a partner. Gender is a set of societal ideas about a person’s sex, whereas gender identity is a set of personal ideas about one’s own gender and can be completely distinct from societal perceptions. Regardless of whether or not a person’s gender identity matches up with their sex or with society’s expectations of them, every sexual identity is valid and every person should feel able to express their true selves.
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1. “Definition of Terms: Sex, Gender, Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation.” American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association, 2011. Web. 29 January 2015.
2. “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Definitions.” Human Rights Campaign. Human Rights Campaign, n.d. Web. 29 January 2015.
3. “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity 101.” UUA. Unitarian Universalist Association, 29 October 2014. Web. 29 January 2015.
Last updated: 2 February 2017.