Several years ago, I attended a training that was invaluable for my work with LGBTQ people. It helped clarify for my straight white man brain what some aspects of gender, orientation, and identity were…and I thought I would pass on.
There are four terms that we tend to use interchangeably and it is helpful to show how they are very different.
Sex refers to the biological characteristics of a person: to be specific, their genitalia. But more than just their visible sex organs, it includes internal organs and chromosomes, which are different between the sexes.
This is often what is on one’s birth certificate or driver’s license, and that entry on those documents is fine for most folks, but it causes headaches for folks who want to change/have changed their sex. Finally, intersex refers to folks with both genitalia or no genitalia.
2. Gender Identity
This is the most important one. Gender identity is the deeply-held belief of what gender a person believes they are. This means a person self-selects as to what gender they want to be referenced as. Do they want to be referred to as a man, a woman, or genderqueer (which can also mean “none of your business”)? This is the “pronouns” question that LGBTQ and informed allies ask at an initial conversation: “what pronouns do you want to be referred to by?”
Note that a person’s sex (which is about body parts) does not dictate their gender identity: it is self-chosen. So a person with male sex organs may identify as female or queer, which is what we call transgender (because the person’s identity doesn’t match their sex organs they were born with–more on that later).
3. Gender Expression
Gender Expression is how one exhibits their cultural definitions of gender. A woman may wear more culturally-defined feminine or masculine clothes. Or the person’s physical and style choices may be less weighted either way and thus “androgynous.” This can be defined either by the person (ie. “I’m femme”) or by onlookers (ie. “he’s more femme than she is.”)
Note that anyone can express as anywhere on the spectrum–it’s not contingent on gender or sex organs. So straight people can express this way as well.
4. Sexual Orientation (Attraction)
Sexual Orientation (in the chart, it says “attraction”) is what gender identity a person is attracted to. Sexual orientation is where we get most of the language used in the debate over human sexuality.
- Heterosexual refers to people who sit at one of the spectrum above or the other–in other words, women who are attracted to men, men who are attracted to women.
- Homosexual flips the last section with men attracted to other men, and women attracted to other women.
- Folks can also be bisexual/pansexual (attracted to any gender identity) or asexual (not attracted physically or romantically to any gender identity).
It’s unfortunate that the term “sexual orientation” has the term “sex” in it when it mostly refers to “gender identity.”
For straight white men like me, gender and sexuality can be really confusing, but breaking it down to the four main components helps spell it out a bit.
But how do you use this knowledge in everyday life? Here’s four examples.
- Name Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation separately. This is key: they are not the same thing! Orientation refers to attraction toward others; identity refers to self-concept regardless of societal, biological, or presentation factors.
- Rethink common expressions: One presenter at a conference I attended identified as genderqueer (“they” pronouns) and when they arrived at the door, I said “There she is!” which was immediately wrong as soon as it left my mouth. Saying “there they are” actually applies more easily to everyone, so I’ve tried to use that expression more universally. Also, as noted by a commenter on a previous post, using phrases like “brothers, sisters, and siblings” instead of “sisters and brothers” moves away from binary language, which is helpful.
- Ask people what pronouns they want. Because how a person presents themselves (gender presentation) doesn’t have to match their preferred pronouns (gender identity), it avoids any confusion to just ask. Asking “what gender identity are you?” is too formal–it’s easier to just ask “what pronouns do you prefer?” After you try it a few times, you’ll get the hang of it.
- Self-identify in new groups. As you can see, a person’s sexual/gender identity has at least four components. For me, my sex is male, my gender identity is man, my gender presentation is not extremely masculine but that end of the spectrum, and my orientation is towards women. That seems overwhelming, but you really only need to self-identify with the second one (gender identity) because that defines how a stranger can interact with you. So I can say “my name is Jeremy and my pronouns are he/him.” By inviting that sort of self-disclosure, it clears the air for everyone who is sensitive to the spectrum.
Bonus: CisHet? Trans*?
CisHet mean cisgender heterosexual. It’s when one is both straight and has a gender identity consistent with the one assigned at birth. On the chart, it basically means you sit firmly on one side or the other.
Transgender is very different. For example, my trans friend’s sex is female, his gender identity is masculine, his gender presentation is more androgynous, and his orientation is towards women. So instead of a classic “all one side is straight” line, they are in a variety of places on those four spectrums. Finally, most people prefer to not be referred to as “transgendered” as that implies they are just recipients of an action, rather than bearers of their own identity.
As the purple graphic above shows, the shorthand trans* (note the asterisk) covers a wide range of people, so it’s helpful to be open to the spectrum.
As noted, I’m a straight white male, so I’m trying to write so that other straight people can better understand sexuality and gender. There’s a ridiculous amount of better writers on this subject that I drew from, so this post is putting their wisdom into a format that folks might not otherwise see.
Corrections or clarifications are welcome in the comments. Otherwise: thoughts?