Gender Identity Vs. Sexual Orientation

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 their gender. 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” other kids, no matter what their gender, 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, no matter who she is sexual with.  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. 🙂

It’s Hard For Moms

I have a lot of respect for Chaz Bono. Being the child of a superstar like Cher, coming out as trans and transitioning under the spotlight no doubt makes a frightening and difficult process all the more so. He has been very visible and vocal in order to educate the public and pave the way for other transgender individuals. As he said on the Oprah special, “I’m doing this because I want to try to help people…I want to try to put a face on an issue that people don’t understand. That’s why I did this publicly.” And now to push himself further out of his comfort zone and appear on Dancing With the Stars… wow. My hat’s off to you, Chaz.

He said something in response to a question from a fan about his mother Cher’s response to his transition that really stuck with me, and I think it summarizes an aspect of one’s gender transition beautifully.

The fan said, “I would think your mom would accept it real well!”

Chaz’s response? “It’s hard for moms.”

Yes, even Cher. Even the leather-wearing, booty-revealing, sex symbol/gay icon mom!

This process is indeed hard for moms; likely for all parents and guardians. This element is something that is a large part of the work I do with my transgender clients. Inevitably my job in therapy is part helping the individual transition and process emotions that accompany that; part is helping them cope with responses from others and understand what the process might be like for their loved ones.

When becoming a parent, the prospect of one’s child becoming a different gender than originally thought is not usually within one’s realm of possibility. Parents often begin planning, fantasizing, and formulating expectations for their child’s life as soon as they’re born; often as soon as they are conceived. Gender plays a big part in these expectations which then have to shift a great deal when the gender nonconformity or different gender identity is revealed.  This comes as a shock to most parents, and it can be difficult to wrap one’s brain around, particularly if the parents have not previously had experience with someone who is gender variant.

Of course, responses vary from one extreme to the other. Some parents get on board soon after hearing their child verbally reveal their true gender identity. Although rare, this can be related to seeing many signs of gender variance since early childhood, or sensing an unknown source of distress and seeing the relief the gender revelation brings. Other parents fight it and resist for many years, struggling to have any type of acceptance. This is the more common response, likely due to the parents having to shift ideas they had been formulating about their child’s life since the child was born. There is also a distinct element of fear; fear they will “lose” their child, or that their child will become unfamiliar to them. This usually is not the case (post-transition often being easier than expected and realizing their child is still the same person), but that “What If?” is sure powerful.

I have sat in many a session and witnessed two people in pain: the transgender individual, wanting desperately to be accepted and supported in the daunting process of transitioning, and the parent, wishing this were not true, wanting it to go away.

Some of the feelings a loved one might feel are likely similar to feelings the transgender person has already gone through prior to disclosing their gender identity or plans to transition. Many have walked through the fear, the wishing away, the major adjustment to how life is going to change.

If you are a gender variant person expressing your true gender or looking to transition, and your mom, parent, or loved one is struggling with it, take heart. Even though it’s hard for them, acceptance is possible. It may be closer than you think. While you are on your own journey, your loved ones are on theirs, and all of you deserve compassion, patience, and tolerance. When you find yourself getting discouraged, remind yourself, “It’s hard for ___________”, filling in the blank with your loved one who is struggling.

If you are a parent of a gender non-conforming child or adult, and you have struggled with negative feelings about your child’s gender expression or transition, be kind to yourself. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of acceptance, please don’t judge yourself for having feelings about this. It’s important you take care of yourself while taking care of your child. Having feelings of fear, dread, sadness, or loss doesn’t make you bad; it makes you human. Walking through these feelings to get to the other side is a part of the process. I can’t underscore the importance of getting to the other side, though… and eventually being able to support your child’s decision with the unconditional love they absolutely need, no matter how old they are. The significance of the parent/child relationship is both what makes this difficult on you, and why your acceptance is crucial to your child’s happiness. Ultimately, your acceptance will likely be one of the most important aspects on your child’s journey. So on this journey to acceptance and support (and anyone can get there!), validate your feelings, find a place to be heard, talk to other parents in your situation. Because yes… it’s hard for moms.

Gender Vs. Sex

Recently I had a conversation with my in-laws about a “Gender Revealing” party they saw on television. The expectant couple had the ultrasound technician find out the sex of the baby, write it on a card, and the couple didn’t peek at it. (Now that’s self-control!) They gave the card to a bakery, and a special cake was made based on what the card read.  At the “Gender Revealing” party, when they cut it open, a pink or a blue cake was discovered, thereby revealing the “gender” of the baby to be. My response? “I went to a party like that! Except they called it a ‘Sex Party’, which is what it was… they were revealing the sex of the baby, not the gender.  The true gender won’t be revealed until the baby is much older.” The blank stares I was met with weren’t surprising. So few people ever think of the distinction between gender and sex, but due to my work and experiences with loved ones, I understand how important this distinction is. Do I need to be educator at every turn, or explain the distinction any time someone mentions something like this? Probably not. But, the reason I do it is this: the more people in society who understand the distinction between sex and gender, the better off gender nonconforming people will be.

To be perfectly clear… sex refers to genitals and sex organs; either male or female genitals/sex organs make one biologically male or female.  One’s gender identity comes from the brain, and may or may not align with one’s sex.  I believe gender identity is something that is formed in the womb along with the genitalia; sometimes they just don’t match.

Gender is in reference to what a person feels like as a result of having a male or female brain.  If one identifies as having a male gender, he is most likely going to be comfortable with being called a male name, having male pronouns used for him, and will want to present as male. If one identifies as having a female brain or gender identity, she is going to want to be referred to by a female name, female pronouns, and will want to present as female.  Often I simplify this so-not-simple concept with this question: “When you check out at the grocery store, do you want someone to say ‘Thank you, Ma’am’, or ‘Thank you, Sir”?  I say this because it relates it to an everyday experience which we all can relate to. It just wouldn’t feel right to ANY of us if someone addressed us with the “wrong” title. In these everyday experiences, sex organs don’t matter, but brains certainly do. And yet transgender individuals have to deal with being referred to by the “wrong” gender (due to their sex) often for years before transitioning.

So when a baby is born and the parents hear, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!”, that is a statement of what sex the baby is. One’s true gender (may match the sex, or may not) is revealed much later when the individual becomes old enough or aware enough to express the gender identity of their brain.