Why Gender Identity and Sexuality Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

“Gender identity” and “sexuality” can be complicated terms. Learning the difference is important to understanding LGBTQ+ identity.
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  • Sex, gender, and sexuality are different concepts with different definitions.
  • None of these identity categories are binary.
  • They are also interrelated with each other and culturally based.
  • Understanding these terms better can help us be advocates for equity and inclusion.

There is a rich history of LGBTQ+ centers on college campuses today. However, different institutions may have various names for them, including LGBT Resource Center, Center for Queer and Trans Students, Office of LGBTQI+ Student Life, or Gender and Sexuality Center.

These different naming conventions are partly due to how we understand and use terms like “gender” and “sexuality,” which have 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 histories of development (and debate), “gender identity” and “sexuality” are critical terms 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 we refer to today as “sex assigned at birth”)
  • Gender (often used interchangeably with “gender identity”)
  • Gender role (what we refer to today as “gender expression”)
  • Sexual orientation

People often refer to each of these categories as being on a spectrum, rather than a binary, to acknowledge that there are more than just two options in each.

Sex Assigned at Birth

One way to think about these distinctions that some find fun and more accurate is the gender unicorn.

“sex assigned at birth” is a legal and administrative category — an assignment babies receive when they're born. While biological sex is a complex mix of chromosomes, hormones, genes, and both internal and external sexual anatomy, usually 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 categorized as intersex. However, due to society's compulsion to make everything into a binary, intersex babies are usually assigned either a male or female sex and then subject to cosmetic surgical procedures to make their anatomy conform to that doctor's idea of what that child's body should look like.

These surgeries are often unnecessary (being intersex is not an illness or flaw), and they can also be dangerous, sometimes resulting in scarring, sterilization, loss of sexual sensation, and trauma.

Gender Identity

“Gender,” or “gender identity,” is how a person understands themself. In recent centuries, it has been common practice for people to base gender on sex assignment at birth, with people expected to fit into one of only two genders. In this framework, male babies are expected to become men, and female babies are expected to become women. People whose gender and sex assignments align this way are called cisgender, or cis for short.

However, for many people that is not true, and they may consider themselves to be transgender, or trans for short. And just like sex, there is a diversity of genders out there beyond just “man” and “woman” — people can be agender, pangender, femme, genderqueer, and more.

Gender Expression

Another assumption is that gender aligns with “gender expression,” meaning that 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 not. 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 not 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.

As an example of how they are connected, the relationship between someone's sex and their gender tells us whether they might use a label like cis or trans. And depending on what labels we claim, how we identify our sexual orientation can depend 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 Turtle Island (and all over the world) understood there to be more than two genders. They had different words for gender — winkte, nádleehi, hemaneh, and others.

Today, Indigenous people decolonizing gender and reconnecting with their traditions are reclaiming many of these terms. Each of them has a distinct meaning and is culturally embedded within their nation. 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 for example, it's not appropriate to say that the winkte are transgender people. They may be, but it's a little more complicated than that.

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What Does This Mean for LGBTQ+ Equity and Inclusion?

To start with, let's normalize that it is OK to not know or 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 with our language.
  • Be intentional about what terms we use and when. For example, if we're celebrating Transgender Visibility Day, we shouldn't refer to it as LGBTQI+ Visibility Day.
  • Validate and affirm people's identities as they understand them, not based on what language we know and use.
  • Apologize when we make mistakes, better understand how someone does identify, and commit to not making the error again.
  • Accept that the fluidity of gender and sexuality means that the terms people use to describe themselves can change — and that's OK. We can change our language with them.

In short, gender and sexuality are different from each other, but they're not totally separate.

Our personal knowledge and societal conceptions of these ideas continuously shift. When we are exposed to cultures different than our own, we ought to be open and willing to listen to better understand who people are.

In a world that constantly puts up barriers for people to express themselves authentically, we can be antidotes and make someone's day by showing up for them.