Alright, I’m going to give you, the reader, some credit. I know you probably don’t hold this outdated, backwards belief. You know about, and respect transgender as a separate identity from homosexuality. You know about LGBTQ, and understand people in this group have suffered historic discrimination. But what really is the difference? A surprising number of well-meaning, otherwise supportive people, seem to get caught up in this simple question. And honestly, that’s okay, our primary school education on these topics is light to non-existent and there is surprisingly little public discussion about LGBT issues beyond generalized support or opposition as a cultural issue.
Before I dive into the differences between sex, gender, and sexuality, I’d like to illustrate this confusion with a few quick examples. When I came out as trans to my sister in September 2019, and my ex wife in March 2020 one of the first questions both asked was if this meant I now was interested in men. I had always presented as a cisgendered heterosexual man to them and when I came out as trans, I guess the assumption was that it was all up for grabs. When I brought up a former partner to a casual acquaintance, a self-identified gay man, at the dog park earlier this month, he asked “Oh, what did he do?”
I don’t mention these assumptions to mock, tease, or berate anyone. These are big, thorny issues and we each approach them with a lifetime of emotional baggage and cultural assumptions. Even the gay man in the park who must have dealt with a lifetime of assumptions about his own sexuality and has told me he is married to a psychologist naturally assumed I was interested in men. But here is why I’m not upset by the question: I also deeply and extensively questioned my own sexuality during the process of coming out. I honestly wondered if being transgendered meant I was interested in men. I had only ever dated women, but was I limiting myself out of some misplaced belief of who I should be dating?
Gender, Sex, and Sexuality
A basic understanding of gender, sex, and sexuality is key to understanding this issue and so a cursory definition is mandatory at this point. That said, many other writers have published eloquent definitions, and entire careers are made in the study of these and related terms, so please do your own research and accept my apologies for my necessarily limited definitions.
Sexuality: A person’s sexual interests including but not limited to orientation, attraction, identity, experiences, etc. Human sexuality is complex and fluid. A woman primarily attracted to other women may identify as a lesbian, whereas one primarily attracted to men, may identify as heterosexual. Every human being has a sexuality and there is no default sexuality.
Sex (sometimes called biological sex): A person’s primary and secondary sexual characteristics, gonads, chromosomes, hormones, etc. We tend to think of sex as a dichotomy and imagine that everyone fits neatly into two categories: male and female, but it’s important to note that due to variations in biology, there are many many variations. For example, someone with XY chromosomes (traditionally associated with maleness) may not express any external physical characteristics of a male and may spend their entire life presenting as a woman. This is just one of innumerable examples which show that sex too is a spectrum.
Gender: Gender is an inherently social construct with what constitutes masculine and feminine varying across cultures and time periods. Every human being possesses varying amounts of masculinity and femininity which similarly exists in relation to the culture. Someone who is transgender identifies with the gender opposite their biological sex.
The ideas of sex, sexuality, and gender necessarily exist in relation to each other (I am a transgender woman, meaning I was assigned male sex at birth but have a gender identity of female), but also apart. If you must know, I’m attracted to women. Mostly. It’s all a spectrum.