Traditional teachings around sex, gender, and sexuality were very limited. People were divided into two categories, male and female, and there were specific roles men and women were expected to play (for instance – girls wear pink and are attracted to boys, boys wear blue and are attracted to girls).
Today, we have a much more comprehensive, inclusive way to understand and describe the ways people experience their bodies and sexual attractions. We know that there are more categories besides simply “male/female” and “gay/straight.”
Whether you’re wondering how to define yourself, understand your friends, decode the news, or you want to be able to jump intelligently into conversations on the topic, is a list of key gender and sexuality definitions:
Biological Sex: Our biological sex, often referred to simply as “sex,” refers to our body parts (internal and external), chromosomes, and hormones. The terms male, female, and intersex fall under this category.
- Female – A girl or woman who has XX chromosomes and typically has a vagina, ovaries, and uterus. Females develop breasts at puberty.
- Male – A boy or man with XY chromosomes, who typically has a penis, scrotum, and testicles, and produces sperm.
- Intersex – Refers to people who have a combination of anatomy and/or chromosomes that do not fit an exact male or female pattern. For example, someone born with both female and male anatomy, like ovaries and a penis, would be intersex. Traditionally, intersex people have been ignored by our culture (think male and female bathrooms, fairytale love stories). However, as society becomes more educated about the complexities of sex and sexuality, people are more accepting and inclusive with regard to intersexuality.
Gender: Gender is one way of understanding biological sex and the traits that come along with it. The dictionary defines “gender” as “the state of being male or female…the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits associated with one sex.” A person’s gender identity and gender expression refer to the ways they view themselves (as feminine, masculine, etc…) and how they represent themselves to the world.
- Gender identity – Our own personal feeling about our gender, how we see, define, and talk about ourselves.
- Gender expression – The way we represent our gender identity to the world through our clothing and actions, even our haircuts and tone of voice. Peoples’ gender expressions can be masculine, feminine, neither, or both.
- Transgender – Someone who has a gender identity that is different from the sex and gender they were assigned at birth. For instance, a person could be born with male sexual organs but identify as a woman. Caitlyn Jenner is transgender.
- Cisgender – Someone who has a gender identity that matches their sex. (ex: a female who identifies as a woman.)
*Importantly, as the Human Rights Campaign emphasizes, “Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation. Therefore, transgender people may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc.”
Sexual Orientation: Sexual orientation refers to a person’s sexual or romantic desire toward other people. Sexual orientations include asexual, bisexual, gay, heterosexual, lesbian, pansexual, queer, and questioning. For more about sexual orientation, check out our guide.