The terms sexuality, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and gender expression are used a lot, but what are the differences between all of them? Although there are similarities between these terms, there are big differences too. The Gender Unicorn can be used as a quick guide to show the differences between these important terms.
Sexuality incorporates many aspects of who you are including your sexual and reproductive anatomy, gender identity, sexual orientation, and sexual desires and preferences. It also includes how you feel about yourself, how you view your gender identity and sexual orientation, and how you feel about and interact with other people.
Sexual orientation describes the gender(s) of the people you are emotionally, romantically, and physically or sexually attracted to. If you are attracted to people of the same gender as you, you may identify as gay or lesbian. If you are attracted to people of the same gender as you, people of different genders than you, and other genders, you may identify as bisexual or pansexual. If you are attracted to people of different genders than you, you may identify as heterosexual or straight. If you have little or no sexual attraction to other people, you may identify as asexual. Someone who is questioning may be unsure of their sexual orientation (or gender identity) and may be exploring different things to try to figure it out.
Some people may identify with a sexual orientation not listed here or may not identify with any sexual orientation at all. Sexual orientation is fluid, meaning that a label someone identifies with may not stay the same throughout their life. However, research shows that sexual orientation is based on biological factors and genetics - it is not a choice or a lifestyle someone chooses, it is just who they are!
Romantic orientation can differ from sexual orientation. Romantic orientation pertains to one’s desire for intimate and emotional relationships with people of particular genders or sexes. For example, someone that experiences no sexual attraction but is romantically attracted to people of the same gender may identify as homoromantic asexual. If you experience no romantic attraction toward individuals of any gender (s), you may identify as aromantic. If you experience attraction to someone of a different gender, you may identify as heteroromantic. Individuals that experience attraction toward every gender(s), may identify as panromantic, and individuals that do not experience romantic attraction until a close emotional bond has been formed may consider themselves to be demiromantic. Just like sexual orientation, romantic orientation is not a choice or a lifestyle someone chooses. Some people may not identify with a romantic orientation listed here or may not identify with any romantic orientation at all.
Gender describes the social and cultural expectations of what it means to be a boy/man or girl/woman. Gender is socially constructed, which means that society and culture influence how people think a boy/man and a girl/woman should act, dress, or do based on the sexual and reproductive anatomy they are born with.
Gender is often confused with sex assigned at birth, which is based on the genitals a person is born with - male for people born with a penis and testes, female for people born with a vagina, vulva, and cervix. Intersex is a term that means people born with sexual and reproductive anatomy that doesn't match society's definitions of male or female. There are many different ways someone can be intersex, including having internal sex organs that differ from typical male/female anatomy, such as a person with both ovarian and testicular tissues, or could mean a combination of chromosomes other than XY and XX (typical of individuals assigned male or female at birth), like XXY. Others may be born with external genitals that fall into the typical male/female categories that don’t match their internal organs or hormones.
Gender identity is a person's inner ideas and feelings of what it means to be a boy/man, girl/woman, neither, or a combination of both. These feelings may or may not match the sex a person was assigned at birth. People who feel that their gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth may identify as cisgender. People who feel that their gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth may identify as transgender. People who feel that their gender identity shifts between genders, is a mix of genders, or no gender at all may identify as gender fluid. People who feel that their gender identity is something other than society's traditional gender identities of either boy/man or girl/woman may identify as gender queer. Someone who is questioning may be unsure of their gender identity (or sexual orientation) and may be exploring different things to try to figure it out. Gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same thing - anyone of any gender identity may have a sexual orientation of straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, or some other sexual orientation.
Gender expression is the way a person outwardly shows their gender identity, such as their clothing, haircut, speech, behavior, or other physical characteristics. Someone's gender expression may or may not match society's expectations of gender, such as masculine (qualities typically associated with men) and feminine (qualities typically associated with women). A gender expression that is gender neutral or both feminine and masculine is called androygnous. A gender expression that is something other than the traditional gender expression of masculine and feminine is called gender non-binary.
Pronouns are a way to address someone or to refer to someone in place of their name. People often make assumptions about someone’s pronouns based on someone’s appearance or name but, this can be harmful. For example, just because someone has feminine characteristics, that does not mean that they identify as female. The best thing to do is to ask someone what their gender pronouns are because this allows people to be comfortable expressing themselves. Pronouns that are used in the gender binary are: she/her/hers for people that identify as female, and he/him/his for people that identify as male.
There are also a number of neopronouns, pronouns that are not used in the gender binary, including they/them, xe/xem, vi/vir, ze/zer, etc. There are also people that use multiple pronouns because they feel like one set of pronouns does not truly define them. Some examples include she/they, he/they, they/ex, etc. It is important to remember that pronouns do not define someone’s gender identity and you should never assume someone’s pronouns.
Always ask for someone’s pronouns -- it’s the best way to show that you respect them and care about their identity. It’s also okay if accidentally misgender someone; everyone slips up at times! The best thing to do is apologize, correct yourself and move on. Overall, pronouns are unique to every individual person, and can change over time, and you should always respect that!