Posted Nov 19

Gender identity 101: understanding gender identity and sexual orientation

by James Egan
Gender identity 101: understanding gender identity and sexual orientation by James Egan

To help you get a better understanding of what this really means and help to guide you moving forward, we’ve put together a three-part gender identity 101 guide that touches on some of the key areas encompassing gender identity today.


For this first part, we look at the broader definitions of gender identity and sexual orientation.


What is gender identity? 

Gender identity is “the personal sense of one's own gender”.


Throughout human history, people have primarily recognised only two gender identities: man and woman. It’s common to think that these are the only possible gender identities. The notion of there only being two genders and that every person must ascribe to one or the other is called gender binary. But, as the LEGATO European Association for LGBTQ+ Choirs has pointed out, “we know that many societies have seen, and continue to see, gender as a spectrum, and not limited to just two possibilities. In addition to these two identities, other identities are now commonplace.”


The Human Rights Campaign, a major advocacy organisation for the rights of the LGBTQ community, summarised gender identity as “one’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither – it’s about how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves.”


What crucial to note is that it’s possible for a person’s gender identity to be the same or different from the sex they were assigned at birth.


Gender Identity is fundamentally different from a person's sexual orientation. 

American NGO GLAAD, which advocates for cultural change and accelerating the acceptance of the LGBTQ community, characterised sexual orientation as “a person’s enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to another person (for example: straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual).” While gender identity has more to do with “a person’s, internal, personal sense of being male or female, or someone outside of the gender binary.”


“Sexual orientation is about who you are attracted to and fall in love with; gender identity is about who you are,” according to GLAAD.

Gender Spectrum, an organisation that promotes gender sensitivity and more inclusive environments for young people, highlights the importance of understanding the distinction between the two concepts:

Gender is personal (how we see ourselves), while sexual orientation is interpersonal (who we are physically, emotionally and/or romantically attracted to). 

Why is it so critical to distinguish between these two concepts? When we confuse gender with sexual orientation, we are likely to make assumptions about a person that have nothing to do with who they are. For example, when someone’s gender expression is inconsistent with others’ expectations, assumptions are frequently made about that person’s sexual orientation.

The boy who loves to play princess is assumed to be gay, and the girl who buys clothes in the “boys’” section and favors a short haircut may be assumed to be a lesbian. These could be faulty conclusions. What someone wears and how they act is about gender expression. You cannot tell what a person’s sexual orientation is by what they have on (for that matter, you can’t know what their gender identity is either, unless they tell you).

Our society’s conflation of gender and sexual orientation can also interfere with a person’s ability to understand and articulate aspects of their own gender. For example, it’s not uncommon for a transgender or non-binary person to wonder if they are gay or lesbian (or any sexual orientation other than heterosexual) before coming to a fuller realization of their gender identity. How we come to understand our gender and our sexual orientation – and the choices we make to disclose and express these parts of ourselves – are distinct paths.

Watch out for the next part of our feature on gender identity as we discuss pronouns. - 

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