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Gender and Gender Identity

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More Than Just Physical


Sex and gender are terms that are often used interchangeably and frequently seen as synonymous. For purposes of a discussion that leads to greater understanding of human sexuality, letís consider sex and gender as separate concepts. Additionally, letís examine variations and aspects of sex and gender. And letís further consider the notion that oneís sex and gender may not be defined in the extremes but instead along a continuum.

Sex and gender can be discussed and understood in terms of physical, psychological, social, and emotional perspectives. What do the various labels mean? What is meant by sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation? This is an attempt to delineate the differences and clarify the terminology.


SEX (Physical)
Male or Female

Sex is described with regard to physical elements and in terms of oneís biology and anatomy. A personís sex is defined as his or her medical assignment as manifest through organs, genitals, hormones, and chromosomes.  A person might be male or female. Or a person might be intersex (hermaphroditic).

GENDER IDENTITY (Psychological)
Man or Woman

Gender identity is oneís psychological understanding of self. It is defined in terms of roles, perceptions, and self concept. A personís gender identity can be described as the way in which he or she views him or herself. A person might be a man (boy) or a woman (girl). Or a person might be genderqueer, two-spirited, or third-gender.

Masculine or Feminine

Gender expression is a social construct. It can be defined with regard to societal expectations and interpretations. A personís gender expression can be described as the way in which he or she communicates his or her gender to others. It is manifest through outward appearance, mannerisms, clothing, hair style, and speech pattern.  A person might be masculine (butch, top) or feminine (femme, bottom). Or a person might be agender, androgynous, or a transvestite.

Homosexual or Heterosexual

Sexual orientation is described as oneís emotional identity. It can be defined in terms of oneís romantic or erotic response. A personís sexual orientation is described with regard to sexual behavior and is manifest through attraction, affection, relationships, and love.  A person who is attracted to persons of the same sex are homosexual (gay, lesbian) and a person who is attracted to persons of the opposite sex are heterosexual (straight). A person might also be bisexual (both sexes), asexual (neither sex), pansexual (all variations), or omnisexual (all variations).



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Sex and Gender Across the Spectrum


In an attempt to understand sex and gender, it is important to consider new perspectives and ever-widening definitions and understandings of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression as they exist across a spectrum of experiences.


To that end, one of the key points is the concept of a non-binary understanding of sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.  There is a long-respected research-based view of an individualís range of experiences along a continuum. Matters of sex and gender should not be defined in mutually exclusive dualistic terms, but in more fluid, sometimes ambiguous, terms. When thinking about sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, researchers have come to embrace a view that understands a range of experiences on a kind of broad-band spectrum.


When thinking about the sexual notions of male and female, we are asked to also consider a variety of definitions in between the two binary labels, including intersex presentations. 


When thinking about the gender identity notions of man (boy) and woman (girl), we are asked to also consider a range of definitions in between the two designations, including gender fluid, gender non-conforming, gender variant, and gender queer identities.  Transgender and transsexual persons fall within this spectrum.


When thinking about the gender expression notions of masculine and feminine, we are asked to also consider a variety of ambiguous or mixed expressions in between, including agender and androgynous expressions.


When thinking about the sexual orientation notions of heterosexual (straight) and homosexual (gay, lesbian), we are asked to also consider a range of definitions in between the two extremes, including bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual, polysexual, and asexual orientations.



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Sex and Gender Definitions



Biological sex includes external genitalia, internal reproductive structures, chromosomes, hormone levels, and secondary sex characteristics such as breasts, facial and body hair, and fat distribution. These characteristics are objective in that they can be seen and measured (with appropriate technology). The scale consists not just of two categories (male and female) but is actually a continuum, with most people existing somewhere near one end or the other. The space more in the middle is occupied by intersex people (formerly, hermaphrodites), who have combinations of characteristics typical of males and those typical of females, such as both a testis and an ovary, or XY chromosomes (the usual male pattern) and a vagina, or they may have features that are not completely male or completely female, such as an organ that could be thought of as a small penis or a large clitoris, or an XXY chromosomal pattern.



Gender identity is how people think of themselves and identify in terms of sex (man, woman, boy, girl). Gender identity is a psychological quality. Unlike biological sex, it can't be observed or measured (at least by current means), only reported by the individual. Like biological sex, it consists of more than two categories, and there's space in the middle for those who identify as a third gender, both (two-spirit), or neither (genderqueer). We lack language for this intermediate position because everyone in our culture is supposed to identify unequivocally with one of the two extreme categories. In fact, many people feel that they have masculine and feminine aspects of their psyches, and some people, fearing that they do, seek to purge themselves of one or the other by acting in exaggerated sex-stereotyped ways.



Gender expression is everything we do that communicates our sex/gender to others: clothing, hair styles, mannerisms, way of speaking, and roles we take in interactions. This communication may be purposeful or accidental. It could also be called social gender because it relates to interactions between people. Trappings of one gender or the other may be forced on us as children or by dress codes at school or work. Gender expression is a continuum, with feminine at one end and masculine at the other. In between are gender expressions that are androgynous (neither masculine nor feminine) and those that combine elements of the two (sometimes called gender bending). Gender expression can vary for an individual from day to day or in different situations, but most people can identify a range on the scale where they feel the most comfortable. Some people are comfortable with a wider range of gender expression than others.



Sexual orientation indicates who we are erotically attracted to. The ends of this scale are labeled "attracted to women" and "attracted to men," rather than "homosexual" and "heterosexual," to avoid confusion as we discuss the concepts of sex and gender. In the mid-range is bisexuality. There are also people who are asexual (attracted to neither men nor women). We tend to think of most people as falling into one of the two extreme categories (attracted to women or attracted to men), whether they are straight or gay, with only a small minority clustering around the bisexual middle. However, Kinsey's studies showed that most people are in fact not at one extreme of this continuum or the other, but occupy some position between.


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Romantic Attraction


Consider these terms used to describe romantic attraction:


Attraction to men, males, and/or masculinity


Attraction to women, females, and/or femininity


Attraction to non-cisgendered people, including genderqueer and transsexual people and expressions


Sex and Gender Categories


Consider these sex and gender categories and the related terms within each category:


Biological Sex:
Male / Female / Intersex


Gender Expression:
Masculine / Butch / Feminine / Femme / Agender / Androgynous


Gender Identity:
Cisgender Man / Cisgender Woman / Transgender / Trans Man / Trans Woman / Genderqueer

Sexual Orientation:
Straight / Gay / Lesbian / Bisexual / Pansexual / Asexual


Romantic Attraction:

Aromantic / Androphilic / Gynephilic / Skoliophilic






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