Gender, Sex, and Sexuality Explained

An LGBTQIA Primer

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Over the last several decades, our society’s understanding of gender and sexuality has changed drastically and language has evolved to reflect a beautiful, complex spectrum of identities. This evolution can feel like it’s happened very quickly, and the new concepts that have arisen often ask us to call into question certain core beliefs we’ve been taught about gender and sexuality.

It’s not uncommon to feel confused or to struggle to keep up.

We’ve broken down some of the basics and compiled this resource to help you understand some common terms you might encounter and how they’re used.

Sex and Gender

So, what is sex?

Most of us are taught that there are only two biological sexes, male and female. Shortly after your first breath, a doctor most likely examined you and assigned you one of those two sexes.

However, for intersex people, also referred to as people with differences of sexual development, the categories of male and female don’t necessarily fit. In considering people with differences of sexual development, researchers have argued that there are as many as five to seven common biological sexes and that sex actually exists along a continuum with many different variations. Estimates suggest that as much as 1.7 percent of the population has some variation of sexual differentiation. It’s much more common than you might think!

But, how do we qualify sex?

Again, it’s a tricky subject that even scientists can’t seem to quite agree on. Is your sex determined by your genitals? By your chromosomes? By your predominant sex hormones? Is it a combination of the three?

For folks with differences of sexual development, genitals, chromosomes, and predominant sex hormones can vary from what is considered “normal” for males or females.

For example, people with Kleinfelter Syndrome are often assigned male at birth, but have XXY chromosomes and may have low testosterone levels and other physical variations such as wide hips and enlarged chest tissue. Indeed, intersex folks have distinct needs for which the categories of male and female simply aren’t useful.

Transgender people, or folks who were assigned a sex at birth that doesn’t align with their gender identity, also call into question the category of biological sex. For those transgender people who have chosen to pursue physical transition by taking hormone replacement therapy to make testosterone or estrogen their predominant hormone, by having chest or genital confirmation surgery, or both, these markers of biological sex again may not line up as we’ve been taught to expect.

For instance, a transgender man, or someone who was assigned female at birth but identifies as a man, may have a vagina, XX chromosomes, and testosterone as his predominant hormone. Despite the fact that his chromosomes and genitals differ from what we consider typical for males, he is still male.

Biological sex is a little less cut and dry than we thought, huh?

Which brings me to another important distinction: gender.

We’ve also mostly been taught to believe that there are only two genders, men and women. We’re told that men are people who were assigned male at birth and women are people who were assigned female at birth.

But, as many folks have begun to understand over the last several decades, there is nothing universal or innate about gender. The fact that gender roles shift over time and tend to differ between cultures calls into question the idea that gender is a fixed thing. Did you know pink used to be considered a boy’s color? This shows that gender is actually a system of socially agreed upon norms that determine how boys and girls, men and women in a given society are expected to behave.

What’s more, people are increasingly beginning to understand that gender identity, or how an individual understands their gender, is actually a spectrum.

This means that, regardless of the sex you were assigned at birth, you may identify as a man, a woman, or really anywhere in between those two categories.

If you are cisgender, that means that your gender identity lines up with the sex you were assigned at birth. So, a person who was assigned female at birth and identifies as a woman is a cisgender woman, and a person who was assigned male at birth and identifies as a man is a cisgender man. You might feel weird about being labeled cisgender, but it’s actually just a useful way to classify different experiences.

If you are transgender, as I explained earlier, that means that your gender doesn’t align with the sex you were assigned at birth. That means a transgender man is someone who was assigned female at birth and identifies as a man and a transgender woman is someone who was assigned male at birth and identifies as a woman.

Some, though not all, transgender people elect to pursue medical transition in order to feel more comfortable in their bodies. The important thing for transgender people is how they identify, and not what chromosomes, genitals, or sex hormones they do or do not have. Folks who do opt to pursue surgery, often referred to as gender confirmation surgery, may choose to have surgery to reconstruct the genitals or the chest, to remove reproductive organs, or to feminize the face among other possible surgeries. But, again, doing so is totally optional and doesn’t have any bearing on how an individual identifies.

There are also many different people who identify as something other than men or women who may or may not fall under the category of transgender. Some examples include:

  • Non-binary: People for whom the binary categories of man and woman don’t fit.

  • Genderqueer: An umbrella term for people whose gender identity is non-normative, fluid, or fluctuating.

  • Agender: People who don’t identify with any gender.

  • Bigender: People who identify with two different genders.

That brings up another big point: pronouns. Pronouns are a major part of our gender identity and how others perceive our gender. We’ve typically been told that there are two pronouns, he/him/his and she/her/hers. However, for folks who don’t identify as men or women, he or she may not feel comfortable. Some folks have chosen to develop new pronouns such as ze/hir/hirs, while others have stuck to using “they” as a singular pronoun.

I know, your seventh-grade English teacher probably told you not to use “they” as a singular pronoun, but colloquially, we do it all the time. For example, if you’re talking about someone whose gender you don’t know, you might say something like, “when will they get here?” The same goes for people who use they/them/theirs as their pronouns.

What’s somewhat less discussed than gender identity is what’s known as gender expression. We typically assume that men will have masculine traits and women will have feminine traits. But, like gender identity, gender expression exists along a spectrum from masculine to feminine, and people can fall towards either end of that spectrum or anywhere in between.

For example, a cisgender woman may be very masculine but identify as a woman.

The important thing is that an individual’s gender identity and expression are totally up to them to determine, regardless of others’ perceptions. You might be tempted to make assumptions about a person’s gender based on their body or their mannerisms, but the best thing you can do if you’re uncertain about someone’s gender and pronouns is to ask.

Whew! Now that we’ve got sex and gender out of the way, it’s time to move on to sexuality. And, yes, gender and sexuality are two entirely different things.

Sexuality

Gender, as we’ve now figured out, is how you identify yourself as a man, woman, or something else entirely. Sexuality is about who you are attracted to, and how that attraction relates to your own gender identity.

You’ve probably heard the terms straight, gay, lesbian, and bisexual. But, for some people, none of these categories are quite the right fit. Some examples include:

  • Queer: People who are attracted to folks with a variety of different gender identities.

  • Pansexual: People who are attracted to people of all genders.

  • Asexual: People who don’t experience sexual attraction.

  • Aromantic: People who don’t experience romantic attraction.

It’s easy to get tripped up by assumptions like that feminine men and masculine women must be gay or that transgender people have to be straight after transitioning. But, gender and sexuality, while related to one another, are two completely different things. A transgender woman may identify as a lesbian, while a feminine cisgender man may be bisexual or queer. Again, it’s all about who each individual person is attracted to and not who people assume a person is attracted to based on their gender identity and expression.

So, there you have it. Gender, sex, and sexuality are highly complex and deeply rooted in each and every individual’s own experience. Of course, this is all a somewhat simplistic way of describing a very big and complicated topic. But, with the basics in place, you have the framework for better understanding the current ideas and language of the LGBTQIA community, and you’ll be in great position to figure out how best to be an ally to your LGBTQIA friends.

KC Clements is a queer, non-binary writer based in Brooklyn, NY. You can find more of their work by checking out their website or by following them @aminotfemme on Twitter and Instagram.

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Clements, KC. "Gender, Sex, and Sexuality Explained." ThoughtCo, Jan. 12, 2018, thoughtco.com/an-introduction-to-lgbt-terms-4157524. Clements, KC. (2018, January 12). Gender, Sex, and Sexuality Explained. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/an-introduction-to-lgbt-terms-4157524 Clements, KC. "Gender, Sex, and Sexuality Explained." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/an-introduction-to-lgbt-terms-4157524 (accessed January 20, 2018).