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.