I was facilitating a workshop for parents the other night, and there was some confusion over the difference between gender and sexual identity. So, I thought I’d do a quick post on some terminology, and share this helpful video that is really simplistic, yet clear, and suitable for most ages. Understanding the differences in gender, sexual orientation, biological sex, and sexual behavior can be legitimately confusing unless you happen to have had a course on gender or sexuality. For example, many people think of gender in a binary way, but it is more widely accepted as a spectrum (1). There is also the issue of intersectionality, where an individual’s gender identity meets their sexual identity (2), highlighting the importance of considering the nuances of identity and not trying to simply put people in clearly marked boxes. Then, there is the whole issue of sexual behavior. For example, some heterosexually-identified women kiss or engage in other sexual behavior with other women (3), and like the video suggests, some heterosexually-identified priests don’t engage in any sexual behavior. Therefore, sexual behavior does not determine sexual identity. In sum, not everyone agrees on the best terminology to use, but here are some terms that are pretty widely accepted with definitions mostly from GLAAD:
Sex: The biological classification of people as male or female. At birth, infants are typically assigned a sex based on a combination of internal and external genitalia and in some cases, chromosomes.
Gender: The state of being or identifying with male or female characteristics that are typically based on socially and culturally constructed norms. Side note: People are usually excited to find out the gender of their baby through an ultrasound. Technically, you are finding out the sex, not the gender. You really won’t know the gender of your baby until your baby can tell YOU.
Gender role: A social or behavioral norm that an individual practices in order to display their identified gender to others.
Transgender: An individual who feels that his/her birth-assigned sex and his/her own internal sense of gender do not match.
Transsexual: A person who, through experiencing an intense, long-term discomfort resulting from feeling the inappropriateness of their assigned gender at birth and discomfort of their body, adapts their gender role and body (either through dress, hormone therapy, sex-reassignment surgery, etc.) to reflect and be congruent with their true gender identity.
Sexual Orientation: An individual’s enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to people of a particular sex or gender. A transgender person may be straight, lesbian, gay or bisexual. For example, a woman who transitions from female to male and is attracted to other men would likely identify as a gay man.
Bisexual: An individual who is physically, romantically, and/or emotionally attracted to men and women.
Gay: The adjective used to describe people who have enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attractions to people of the same sex. Typically, lesbian (n. or adj.) is often a preferred term for women.
Lesbian: A woman who has an enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction is to other women. Some lesbians may prefer to identify as gay (adj.) or as gay women.
Heterosexual: An adjective used to describe an individual’s enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to people of the opposite sex. These people are also referred to as straight.
Sexual Minority: An individual who has adopted a sexual identity that is not exclusively heterosexual.
Homosexual: A very old clinical term that is considered derogatory and offensive by many gay and lesbian people. Don’t use this term.
Queer: Used as an umbrella identity term encompassing lesbian, questioning people, gay men, bisexuals, non-labeling people, transgender folks, and anyone else who does not strictly identify as heterosexual. “Queer” originated as a derogatory word. Currently, it is being reclaimed by some people and used as a statement of empowerment. Some people identify as “queer” to distance themselves from the rigid categorization of “straight” and “gay”. Some transgender, lesbian, gay, questioning, non-labeling, and bisexual people, however, reject the use of this term due to its connotations of deviance and its tendency to gloss over and sometimes deny the differences between these groups.
(1) Diamond, L. M., & Butterworth, M. (2008). Questioning gender and sexual identity: Dynamic links over time. Sex Roles, 59, 365-376.
(2) Morgan, E. M. (2013). Contemporary issues in sexual orientation and identity development in emerging adulthood. Emerging Adulthood, 1, 52-66.
(3) Yost, M. R., & McCarthy, L. (2012). Girls gone wild?Heterosexual women’s same-sex encounters at college parties. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 36, 7-24.
About this Blog:
I'm here to help us discuss sexuality, gender, sexual media, and social media by integrating information from academic and mainstream sources. I do this so you can be informed about what is going on in the sex research world and apply the research to your life. I hope this process produces more sexually competent people who raise sexually competent kids.
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