Understanding the Basic Definitions of Gender, Sex and Sexual Orientation

By Stephanie Hammerwold

People in the U.S. have been talking about gender and sexual orientation quite a bit in the last few years. There have been huge strides made with the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, and people like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have brought visibility to transgender identities. As such, there is quite a bit of terminology floating around regarding gender, sex and sexual orientation. The more we understand what these things mean, the better equipped we are to be accepting of others.

Keep in mind that there are variations on how people define these terms and what identities mean to individuals, so I encourage you to read more on this subject after you finish this post.

Gender, Sex & Sexual Orientation—What’s the Difference?

The terms gender and sex are often used interchangeably even though they have different meanings. Sex is based on biological characteristics, such as anatomy and X and Y chromosomes. We typically think of sex as male or female, but it is not that simple. Intersex people, for example, are born with characteristics that do not easily fit our typical definitions of male and female.

Gender is how we express ourselves and represent our identity. Gender identity is specifically who we internally feel ourselves to be. This could be a man, woman or anything in between. Gender expression is how we demonstrate that identity. Words like femininity and masculinity represent gender expression. This could be everything from how we dress, speak and externally show our gender. It is helpful to think of gender on a continuum that represents the many ways we express ourselves. Most people are not 100% feminine or masculine but instead draw from traits that are associated with both those identities.

Traditionally gender has been thought of in a binary way—either a person was a man or a woman. There was no room for anything in between. As I said, the reality is that most people do not fit neatly into either category of the gender binary, which is why it is useful to think of a continuum. Keep in mind that our place on the continuum is not fixed, and throughout life, we may shift in where we fall in terms of both gender identity and expression.

The term cisgender describes someone whose sex, gender identity and gender expression are all in alignment. Transgender is a broad term that refers to people whose gender identity and/or expression does not match the cultural expectations of the sex they were assigned at birth. A common question about transgender individuals is what pronouns should be used. This is a personal choice and varies from person to person, so be respectful of what pronouns a person wants used. GLAAD has an excellent article on this topic.

Sexual Orientation refers to who someone is romantically and physically attracted to. This includes things like gay, lesbian, bisexual and straight. As with gender, sexual orientation is not fixed and may change throughout life. Being a specific gender does not imply a set sexual orientation. For example, if a transgender individual transitions from male to female, it does not mean they will automatically switch their sexual orientation as well.

Intersectionality & Complex Identities

One of the big advantages of all the media attention transgender individuals are receiving is that it is showing us examples of how complex identity can be. There is not just one way to be a man or a woman or transgender, and things become even more dynamic when you start including race, ethnicity, nationality, religion and more in the mix. Intersectionality is a way to think of how all these parts of identity interact on multiple levels. This concept helps move us away from thinking of identity categories as monolithic. Instead, it is a reminder of just how diverse the experience of being a woman, a man or transgender is depending on other parts of identity.

It is important to talk about this topic on a workplace blog because we spend a large amount of time at work. If we are going to value our employees, we need to foster environments where employees are comfortable regardless of how they identify. Most companies have some kind of policy against discrimination and harassment, and it is vital that such policies underlie everything we do not only in the workplace but also in our daily lives.