There are a lot of people out there who are confused as to how sexual orientation is different from gender identity, myself having been one of them for the longest time. It’s a common misconception that both are connected when they are really not. In fact, the meanings of these two terms don’t even intersect at any given point. For example, many people automatically assume that if someone is a transgender person, they must also be gay. However, that is not the case. So what exactly is the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation?
What Is Gender Identity?
According to the Human Rights Campaign, gender identity is defined as the “innermost concept of self as male, female, a combination of both or neither–how individuals perceive themselves and accordingly, what they call themselves.” In layman language, gender identity is one’s internal and personal sense of being a female, male or as someone outside of that binary. There are more than a dozen of genders, outside of just man or woman, that people can identify with. One can be gender-neutral, non-binary, agender, pangender, genderqueer, two-spirit, third gender, and all, none or a combination of these. People’s gender identity can mirror what they were assigned at birth, or be entirely different. And accordingly, they might or might not want to be referred to with certain pronouns—it all really depends on what they identify as.
Usually, cisgender is the umbrella term used to describe people whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their chromosomal and phenotypic sex, while transgender is the larger umbrella term used to describe people whose sense of personal identity does not correspond with the sex assigned to them at birth.
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What Is Sexual Orientation?
According to the Human Rights Campaign, sexual orientation is defined as the “inherent or immutable enduring emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to other people.” In simpler terms, it’s who one is interested in dating and being intimate with. A person might identify as straight, bisexual, pansexual, queer, asexual or use a host of other words that reflect their capacity to be attracted to more than one sex or gender or to not feel sexual attraction at all. Sexuality is a complex phenomenon and attraction can manifest very differently for different people. This emerging language illuminates a complex world in which simple either/or designations such as gay or straight are inadequate. Categories are commonly used to understand our attractions, but they aren’t always inclusive of the vast variety of expression that makes up human sexuality. Hence, one would notice that the language about sexuality is constantly evolving.
Perhaps no one can put the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity in simpler terms than the Youtuber Brendan Jordan who identifies as gender fluid: “[Sexual Orientaion] is who you go to bed with, but gender identity is who you go to bed as.” Sexual orientation really doesn’t have anything to do with gender. Therefore, the next time you meet someone who identifies outside the binary system, don’t ask questions like, “because you don’t identify as a female, does that mean that you’re gay?” “How can you be straight when you identify as a transgender?”
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People having different sexual orientations, i.e. who are straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, etc., are cisgenders if they identify themselves as the birth sex assigned to them. On the other hand, transgender people can be straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and so on. For example, a person who has transitioned from the gender identity of a male to a female and is attracted solely to men would typically identify as straight as far as their sexual orientation is concerned. The truth is that both gender and sexual orientation are essential components of who we are, and how we live our lives. But even so, the two, in any scenario, are not the same, and that’s a crucial fact we need to remember.
Dyuti Gupta is an intern with SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.