Gender v. Sexual Orientation: a short primer

Several weeks ago I had a guest author write about how to talk with your kids about sexual orientation. While I loved much of what Wesley said in her post, I was a little concerned about the way she treated gender and sexual orientation. Because this is a common point of misunderstanding, I want to take a moment and iron out some details of the differences between these two very importantly distinct points.

Our societal assumption of either being a man (and associated masculinity and attraction to women) or being a woman (and associated femininity and attraction to men) has made talking about these issues difficult. We have moved to a place where men can be attracted to men and women can be attracted to women – but this barely scratches the surface of these issues.

First: Let’s talk about gender. This is about masculinity and femininity as it is defined in our culture. Just for a second please forget that you are probably an evolved individuals who don’t make distinctions based on whether someone is a girl or a boy and quickly answer some questions: Is a nurse a man or a woman? A teacher? A football player? A car mechanic? Is a man or a woman more likely to cry? To yell? To prefer the color blue? To have long hair? These questions are about gender. Gender is about how you identify based on a set of cultural standards. It’s about, aside from anything else in the world, if you’d say you’re more feminine or masculine

Second: Now things get hairy. Before we can dive into sexual orientation (which is what this post proclaimed itself to be about), we need to talk about sex. If gender is about what our culture says we should do as a man or a woman, sex is about what our biology tells us: man or woman. For most people (and animals of all kinds) it’s pretty clear if you take a quick look between their legs if they’re a man or a woman. (But it’s not always, and that’s when we get into areas of Intersex.) However, not having access to most people’s genitalia, we rely on a number of other actors when assessing their sex, including body shape and size, clothing, hair styles, voice, etc. You may notice that many of the ways we think about sex (man or woman) is actually about gender (femininity or masculinity).

Confusing sex and gender can cause problems and confusion. For a majority of Americans, gender = sex, sex = gender. Completely aside from the fact that most people don’t fit fully, squarely into the round peg of entirely feminine or entirely masculine, and some people don’t fit entirely into the peg of biological man or woman, there are still other people don’t quite feel that their biological sex fits into their societal assigned gender. And there are people who do not identify within this binary paradigm at all. (And can you blame them?)

If you’re confused or unsure how all of this fits together, that’s okay. This is complicated stuff, particularly if you haven’t dived into these particular depths before.

Third: Now let’s talk about sexual orientation. This is generally about whether someone is attracted to men or women or both or everyone or no one or something in between all of those. Except I just pointed out that the binary assumption of men and women and maleness and femaleness is itself a complex conversation that doesn’t always have clear answers. It is often assumed that if a man has many female aspects to him, he must be gay. But gender does not equal sexual orientation does not equal sex. Each of these components can and should be understood as entirely freestanding.

My colleague Sam Killerman created an infographic that I think portrays these dynamics, along with a few more, quite effectively (I helped a little):


And finally: a dictionary. If you’re unsure of the meaning behind any of the words I used in this post, and then did not fully define, you can probably find them in Sam Killerman’s Comprehensive List of LGBTQ+ Term Definitions.

Questions? Leave them in the comment section below and I’ll help you sort everything out.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. This is wonderful, Karen. It IS confusing! Even to people who have inhabited several locations on several of those spectra! 🙂

    I found myself having to mentally translate, reading this, because I equate the word “sex” with the ACTIVITY of making love, “having” sex with someone. So, when reading your above post, I kept translating the word “sex” to “biological sex” … Sam’s graphic makes it quite clear that “sex” is that genital component.

    Thanks for contributing to the conversation. My daughter, and all her high-school buddies need to read this post! 🙂

  2. Thanks, Ruth! The word “sex” just has far too many meanings, doesn’t it?

    I hope you’ll pass on, if not the entire post, then at least Sam’s graphic to your daughter and her friends! It seems like a great lesson topic for a school.

  3. Dr Rayne;

    Thank you so much for such a wonderful article and explanation. I myself am a Male to Female Transsexual. I often try to explain how things are for me to people who are interested. I am very open and honest about who I am, and believe it is right to be so. I am attracted to both men and women but find myself to be a celibate. My choice is based solely on the heart. I simply choose to to wait until I find the right person regardless of gender. I believe love can and should exist based on how we feel for the other person rather then what gender they happen to be. I realize as you wrote both gender and orientation are totally separate issues, as is the brain and heart. Why does there have to exist limitations on love regardless of gender or orientation. I hope one day society is better able to understand this basic capacity of the human condition. Thanks so much again.

    Jenny Saintonge

  4. It’s a good question, Jenny. Sexual orientation helps explain a bit about a person in shorthand. Many people (probably most people) are primarily romantically and sexually attracted to men or women. When you start asking around it becomes clear that there is substantially more fluidity than most people discuss openly. In my college classes I introduce people to the terms “gynephilic” and “androphilic” which at least help to reduce the focus on the individual’s biology. Bisexual is nice partly because it does the same thing – you can be bisexual and male, female, trans*, it doesn’t matter. Ultimately I do hope that society is moving to a place where claiming a sexual orientation becomes less of a moment of note. Many middle and high school aged youth are in this place already – they don’t feel the need to claim gay, straight, or bi. They just are. Maybe as they grow older they’ll manage to keep their openness and will school the rest of us on our narrow perceptions of sexual orientation!

  5. I totally agree Dr. Rayne, in fact I always tell people our future generations are already years ahead of us. I talk with younger people often about these issues. My nieces who are 7 and 9 years old are totally accepting of me and really had no problem with the whole idea of being trans. It is my belief that this world will be a better place in the next couple generations. As you stated our youth really just not see the big deal of orientation, as do those generations such as mine and my parents. It is also a goal and dream of mine, and in the works to found a LGBT center in my home town. I share your pursuit of not only understanding these matters but also helping others who struggle with the acceptance as well as other social issues.

  6. That’s great to hear, Jenny! I hope that your work to found an LGBTQ center takes hold!

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