Gender identity and sexual orientation can be significant parts of who we are. And for many of us, there are lots of other aspects of ourselves that are meaningful and help make us the people we are. All of these identities help shape us into ourselves. Race, ethnicity, (dis)ability, national origin, the language(s) we speak, age, social class, religion/spirituality, and many other identity categories help us tell a larger picture about what it means to be us. Gender identity and sexual orientation can be just one piece of the puzzle. We are all complex human beings, and that is wonderful!
Basics of Sexual Orientation
Questioning your identity is an experience that lots of people have many times throughout their life. Identity is complicated and if you aren’t sure how you identify, that’s ok! You are allowed to not have everything figured out right at this moment. Taking some time to think through how you feel can be helpful in better understanding your gender identity, gender expression, and/or sexual orientation.
Many people aren’t sure of the difference between gender identity, gender expression, sex assigned at birth, and sexual orientation. It isn’t something many of us are taught. Instead, lots of us end up figuring out what these categories mean on our own. Let’s spend some time breaking down the difference between each of these terms and exploring what they mean together.
What Is Sex Assigned at Birth?
When we are born, doctors decide whether “female” or “male” will be listed on our birth certificate. This is often one of the first instances when gender is ascribed to us. This sex assignment at birth is typically based solely on one’s genitals. Just like a lot of the concepts in this handbook, sex assignment at birth is far more intricate than meets the eye. The label of one’s sex assignment at birth is often attributed to a child before they can speak, walk, or know for themselves what their gender identity is. As such, sex assignment does not take into account one’s true gender identity. Your true gender may be different than the gender that a doctor assigned you, which is perfectly normal, valid, and wonderful.
Additionally, there is so much diversity between bodies. For some babies, their bodies do not fit neatly into the category of “male” or “female.” These people may come to identify themselves as intersex, which is a term used for “a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male” (Intersex Society of North America).
It is not always an easy process to figure out what your sex assignment at birth and your gender mean to you, so we want to take a moment to recognize all that it took to discover who you are.
What is Gender?
Some people say that gender looks like this:
Others say gender is this:
In actuality, gender often looks a lot like this:
Now, let’s zoom in!
Gender Identity describes our internal understanding and experience of our own gender. Each person’s experience with their gender identity is unique and personal.
Some people think that there are only two gender identities possible: boy or girl. But, in fact, thousands and thousands of people experience their gender outside of this gender binary (binary meaning made up of two things). Some people identify as being both a boy and a girl, or being neither a boy nor a girl. Some folks identity as a gender that is different than boy or girl, or they don’t experience gender at all. Non-binary is a term that refers to people who don’t experience their gender(s) as completely a girl/woman or boy/man.
Think of how many different ways there are to be a boy or a girl; there are millions of different ways to be non-binary too. Throughout the course of history and all around the world, there have always been people who experience their gender(s) in diverse ways.
While many people identify with the sex they were assigned at birth, some people may find that their gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Exploring your gender is normal at all ages and at any stage of life. All of these experiences are equally valid.
How do I experience my gender?
How do I feel in relation to the sex I was assigned at birth?
What does gender mean to me?
It can be helpful to visualize how you experience gender. Below is a Gender Identity map where you can mark how you identify in terms of gender identity. Maybe you can make a single dot on this graphic, maybe you place yourself using five separate dots, maybe your identity needs a circle around one large area, or more. We give you the freedom to mark the map one way today, and a entirely different way tomorrow, a month, or a year from now. Your identity may shift fluidly or stay the same. All experiences are welcome here!
Gender Expression describes the way in which we present ourselves, which can include physical appearance, clothing, hairstyles, and behavior.
Gender identity is not the same as gender expression. It is important to not assume that the way that someone moves, talks, dresses, or styles their hair is indicative of how they identify their gender. There are an infinite amount of amazing ways to be a person of any gender. Some boys wear dresses, some girls have short hair, and some non-binary folks wear makeup. Gender expression is all about how you want to present. If you are not currently able to express your gender the way that you wish you could, we stand with you. You are still you!
How do I like to present my gender?
In an ideal situation, how would I want to express my gender?
What aspects of gender expression make me feel happy and authentically myself?
What aspects of gender expression make me feel sad and not like myself?