After my Gender Vs. Sex blog, I got some requests for a blog about Gender Identity vs. Sexual Orientation. Happy to oblige! For those of you hip to this scene, it might be something you’ve heard before, perhaps said a bit differently. For those of you still learning, I hope this will serve to clear up some confusion. I apologize in advance for the length of this blog… although I could have said more, trust me!
I’ve heard gender identity described as “who you are” and sexual orientation as “who you want to have sex with”. I agree with this, but there’s a lot more to it.
Gender identity refers to what gender your brain is, who you are, and how you want others to see you. What gender you identify with is going to impact many areas of your life, if not all. It will affect how you are seen in society, how others respond to you, how you are addressed, expectations for your behavior, where you go to the bathroom, your role in your family, and much more.
Sexual orientation refers to who you are attracted to, who you would like to receive romantic attention/affection from, and who you would like to be sexually intimate with. I’d even like to say sexual orientation not only refers to the sex (anatomy) one is attracted to, but also the gender. Certainly, anatomy plays a big part in sexual relationships, but the gender of the individual is likely what captures your attention in the first place. I would also suggest that gender is more of a factor in dating and relationships than one’s anatomy.
Ultimately, who you are sexually attracted to doesn’t have a lot to do with who you are and how you present on a day-to-day basis. To whom you are attracted doesn’t matter when you are checking out at the grocery store. Since our standard greetings don’t entail “Hello, Lesbian” and “Thank you, Gay Man” but “Hello, Ma’am” and “Thank you, Sir”, you can see how gender identity is a more pervasive issue and one that affects an individual even more regularly than sexual orientation. Who you go to bed with that night doesn’t matter when you’re out interacting with society. Additionally, one may not go to bed with anyone that night… or have a sex life to speak of, but one’s gender and how it impacts a person is unavoidable.
Do children have a gender identity? Yes, usually children have a clear understanding of being either a boy or a girl. If you can’t remember thinking about your gender as a child, it’s likely because your assigned gender matched with your natal* sex. (*Natal meaning “of, relating to, or present at birth; associated with one’s birth”. In this blog when I say “natal male” or “natal female” it is referring to one’s anatomy, or sex, present at birth.) Do children have a sexual orientation? Not really. Children are not sexual beings. However, at what age do you remember “liking” or having crushes on other people? Developmentally, this usually happens in elementary school. “Wanting to have sex with” either girls or boys is not usually a factor during elementary school! However, whispering about, sending notes to, and giggling in the presence of one’s crush usually is. Therefore, it is at this age when some children realize they are interested in members of the same sex, but this won’t become a sexual idea for some time.
I remember many years ago watching a Larry King show with transgender guests. He asked a trans man (who was in a relationship with a female), “Wouldn’t it just have been easier to stay a lesbian?”. While the question seemed absurd to me at the time, I suppose it echoes the questions of many people who don’t understand the need to transition. Easier? Yes, I suppose avoiding transition would be the easier choice in some ways. The better choice? No. Opting to live a life in a gender that feels foreign is the making of a rough journey. Staying socially/biologically female and being a lesbian would allow the individual to continue to sleep with women, but all other areas of life would be more difficult. For example, think of the names “Mom” and “Dad”. If the trans man were to live his life “as a lesbian” and had children, his name might be “Mom” or a version thereof. This simply doesn’t fit with his gender identity and would likely sound as strange to him as it would to any natal male who is a father. Another example would be this same person (continuing to present as female) taking [his] wife out to dinner, and the server says, “Hello, Ladies”. Cringing inside every time [he] hears the reference to [himself] as female is most certainly not the “easier” way to go.
Additionally, asking a trans man about “staying a lesbian” is actually a misnomer. A trans man is not, and never has been, a lesbian. Yes, many transgender individuals come out as gay prior to understanding their gender identity or coming out as trans. Because being gay is presently more accepted and understood than being transgender, this may be the only way a transgender individual knows how to identify at first. If a natal female is attracted to women, [s]he may assume [s]he is a lesbian and may come out as such, before realizing he actually identifies as male. Often times one’s gender identity is understood later which then invalidates a previously thought sexual orientation.
The fact that gender identity and sexual orientation are two separate entities is precisely why someone can be transgender AND gay. For example, a natal male who has the brain gender identity of a female may transition to a woman and also be attracted to women, thereby making her a lesbian. (Stew on that one, Larry King!) I can hear it now, “If the male were attracted to women already, why transition to be a woman only then to be a lesbian? Wouldn’t it be easier to stay a straight man?”. Forgive me if I’m being redundant, but this person never was a straight man and therefore could not “stay” one. The above-referenced person could date women, but would perceived as a straight man, which would likely cause great distress. This is because one’s gender identity is a pervasive, essential fact to everything one does during the day. One’s sex life is only an element.
While these two concepts are different, they are not entirely separate. Gender identity and sexual orientation affect one another in the bedroom. Sexual relations are not only about who you want to sleep with, but how you want your sex partner to treat and perceive you. A transgender woman will likely want to be treated sexually as a woman, whether she is choosing to be sexual with a man or a woman. This is because the former is about gender identity, the latter about sexual orientation. Additionally, one’s gender identity must be factored in to understand one’s sexual orientation.
To summarize gender identity: Someone with a male gender identity (natal male or not) will want to be treated as a man in the grocery store, by society, by his family, and in the bedroom. Someone with a female gender identity (natal female or not) will want to be treated as a woman in the grocery store, by society, by her family, and in the bedroom.
To summarize sexual orientation: Someone with a male gender identity (natal male or not) who is attracted to men is gay. Someone with a male gender identity (natal male or not) who is attracted to women is straight. Someone with a female gender identity (natal female or not) who is attracted to men is straight. Someone with a female gender identity (natal female or not) who is attracted to women is gay.
Of course, I’m as opposed to boxes as anyone else… there are all sorts of beautiful nuances of both sexuality and gender identity! Please forgive me for making this blog seem like both are black and white. This was for the sake of simplicity.