Why Gender Identity and Sexuality Aren’t Mutually Exclusive
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- Sex, gender, and sexuality are different concepts with different definitions.
- None of them are binary.
- They are also interrelated with each other and culturally based.
- Understanding this better can help us be advocates for equity and inclusion.
LGBT Resource Center. Center for Queer and Trans Students. Office of LGBTQI+ Student Life. Gender and Sexuality Center. There is a rich history of LGBTQ+ centers on college campuses today.
Because of this, there's no lack of the different ways they are named at different institutions. This is partly due to how differently terms like "gender" and "sexuality" are understood and used on campuses, which has also evolved over time.
The University of Michigan's Spectrum Center, for example, has changed its name numerous times since its establishment in 1971.
While these terms each have their own history of development (and debate), gender identity and sexuality have critical connections that are important to explore in order to advance the understanding of LGBTQ+ identity and push toward equity and inclusion.
What's the Difference Between Gender and Sexuality?
Current understandings of sex, gender, and sexuality in the U.S. vary.
A common tool that is used in higher education is the Lev model, which distinguishes between four components of sexual identity: sex (what today we refer to as "sex assigned at birth"), gender (often used interchangeably with "gender identity"), gender role (what today we refer to as "gender expression"), and sexual orientation.
People often will refer to each of these categories as being on a spectrum (see image below), rather than a binary, to acknowledge that there are more than just two options in each.
Image Credit: Arlene Istar Lev, Transgender Emergence
A much more fun and accurate way to think about these distinctions is the gender unicorn.
Sex assigned at birth is a legal and administrative category, an assignment that is given to babies when they are born. While biological sex is a complex mix of chromosomes, hormones, genes, and both internal and external sexual anatomy, only external sexual anatomy is used to assign sex.
Although there is a naturally occurring diversity of sexes, sex assignment is predominantly minimized to only two — male and female.
People whose bodies do not fit into a strict male assignment or strict female assignment are intersex. However, due to society's compulsion with making everything into a binary, intersex babies are surgically assigned either a male or female sex, often based on a doctor's decision.
These surgeries are not only unnecessary (being intersex is not a health condition), but they are also dangerous, resulting in everything from scarring to sterilization, loss of sexual sensation, and trauma.
Gender, or gender identity, is how a person innately understands themselves to be. Based on sex assignment at birth, people are expected to fit into one of only two genders — male babies are expected to become men, and female babies are expected to become women. People for whom this is true are called cisgender, or cis for short.
However, there are many of us for whom that does not happen (e.g., transgender people, or trans for short). And just like sex, there is a diversity of genders out there beyond just men and women — such as trans, agender, pangender, trans femmes, genderqueer, and so on.
Another assumption is that gender aligns with gender expression. Meaning, those male babies who grew up to become men express themselves as masculine. And the female babies who became women, all express themselves as feminine.
It is true that this is indeed the case for many people around the world. But for many others, this is a restrictive way of being. People who don't conform to their expected gender expressions are gender-nonconforming. Both trans and cis people can be gender-nonconforming. And both trans and cis people can be gender-conforming.
Finally, sexuality is about the gender or genders a person is sexually and physically or romantically and emotionally attracted to.
Because we live in a heteronormative society, men are expected to be attracted to women only and vice versa. Yet again, while this is the reality for some, it is far from it for others.
Why It's Hard to (Completely) Separate Gender and Sexuality
Well, sort of. They're different from each other, but not necessarily separate.
For one thing, they are interrelated. For example, the connection between sex and gender tells us whether someone is cis, trans, or nonbinary. And how we identify sexually depends on how we identify our gender, as well as how people we are attracted to identify theirs.
In many cultures, these categories are also less distinct from each other. For example, before colonization, many indigenous nations in what was then known as Turtle Island, understood there to be more than two genders. They had different words to describe people across gender — winkte, nádleehi, hemaneh, and others.
Today, many of these terms are coming back, with indigenous people decolonizing gender and reconnecting with their traditions. Each of them have distinct meanings from each other and are culturally embedded within their nations. Meaning, for example, that only Diné people can be nádleehi, and so on.
These various ways of being can speak to gender, sexuality, and/or both simultaneously. So, it's not appropriate to say that the winkte are transgender people. They may be, but it's a little more complicated than that.
What Does This Mean for LGBTQ+ Equity and Inclusion?
To start with, let's normalize that it is OK to not know and understand everything and everyone's genders and sexualities. Once we've accepted that, we can also do the following:
- Commit to learning more when we have the opportunity.
- Be as accurately inclusive as possible in our language.
- Be intentional about what terms we use when. For example, if we're celebrating Transgender Visibility Day, we shouldn't rename that as LGBTQI+ Visibility Day.
- Validate and affirm people's identities as they understand them, not based on what language we know and use.
- Apologize, better understand how someone does identify, and commit to not making the error again when we make mistakes and invalidate someone's identity.
- Accept that the fluidity of genders and sexualities means that the terms people use to describe themselves can change — and that's OK. We can change our language with them.
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In short, gender and sexuality are different from each other, but they're not mutually exclusive.
As our own and society's knowledge of these concepts continuously shift or when we are exposed to cultures different than our own, we ought to be open and listen to better understand who people say they are.
In a world that constantly puts up barriers for people to express themselves authentically, we can be an antidote and make someone's day by showing up for them.