What Is the Difference Between Gender and Sexuality?

gender and sexuality

Ronniechua / Getty Images

Gender and sexuality are often assumed to be related concepts but in reality they are separate and distinct.

For example, some people may assume that someone who is transgender is gay, but in reality, a transgender person's gender identity (the gender that they are) and sexual orientation (those they are attracted to) aren't connected.

However, both gender identity and sexual orientation are important parts of an individual's sense of self.

Gender and Sexuality

  • Gender is socially constructed and is one's innermost concept of themselves as a man, woman, and/or nonbinary person. People define their gender identity in a variety of deeply personal ways that can include man or woman, but can also extend to identities such as agender, genderfluid, gender nonconforming, and a variety of others.
  • Meanwhile, sexuality refers to who a person is attracted to and can include a plethora of orientations. While being gay, heterosexual, and bisexual are perhaps the most well-known sexual orientations, there are many others, such as asexual and pansexual.

This article will begin by defining gender identity and describing the differences between gender identity, gender expression, and sex. It will then define sexual orientation and discuss sexual fluidity. Finally, it will detail the impact of discrimination against gender diverse and sexual minority individuals and the factors that can help mediate the negative effects of stigma and prejudice.

Gender Identity

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines gender identity as "a person’s deeply felt, inherent sense of being a boy, a man, or male; a girl, a woman, or female; or an alternative gender, which may or may not correspond to a person’s sex assigned at birth."

Gender identity is personal and an inherent part of an individual's sense of self. While gender is often presented as a binary that only includes men and women, in reality, gender is a spectrum and people can define their gender in a variety of ways, including as a combination of woman and man, a completely separate gender, or as no gender at all.

Gender Identity vs. Gender Expression

Gender identity is internal and may not always be obvious to the outside world. That's because gender expression—the way one presents themselves through their external appearance and behavior with things like clothes, hairstyles, voice, and body language—may or may not conform to their gender identity.

Gender Identity vs. Sex

The terms sex and gender are often used interchangeably, and people often assume that the sex one is assigned at birth dictates the gender one is. In reality, though, gender identity and sex refer to different things.

While gender identity refers to how one defines themselves, sex is biological and dictated by one's anatomy, hormones, and chromosomes.

Just like gender identity, sex is a continuum that isn't limited to male or female, as people can also be born intersex, meaning their bodies aren't biologically male or female.

Sexual Orientation

The APA defines sexual orientation as "a component of identity that includes a person's sexual or emotional attraction to another person and the behavior that may result from this attraction.

It's important to recognize that sexual and emotional attraction may not always match for asexual and aromantic people. Someone may be sexually attracted to one gender but experience no romantic attraction, whereas they may be romantically attracted to another gender but not want to engage in sexual acts.

Sexual Fluidity

Sexual orientation can change at any point during one's lifetime. In particular as one ages and gets to know themselves and their preferences better, it may allow them to realize who they are attracted to, leading to the evolution of their sexuality. In fact, for some people, sexuality is fluid throughout their lives.

Discrimination and Its Impact

Unfortunately, transgender people or whose sexual orientation is something other than heterosexual often encounter discrimination and prejudice.

In the past few decades both gender identity and sexual orientation have become political flashpoints.

A case revolving around whether people who were not heterosexual had the right to marry went all the way to the Supreme Court and the judges' ruling led to marriage equality. And many states have passed or are debating laws about issues involving transgender people, such as whether to prevent transgender men and women from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity.

The fact that issues surrounding the rights of gender-diverse and sexual minority people are up for debate contributes to a climate where discrimination is still common against anyone who isn't straight and cisgender. Research shows gender diverse and sexual minority individuals suffer from physical and psychological abuse, bullying, and persecution in a variety of contexts including school, the workplace, and health care.

People can become preoccupied with an individual's gender expression or sexual orientation if it doesn't conform to social norms and they may make their lack of support clear by doing things like using incorrect pronouns to refer to the individual.

In fact, a 2019 report of the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth in American schools, found that over half of LGBTQ+ students were verbally harassed and that over one-fifth were physically harassed due to their sexual orientation or gender expression.

This kind of prejudice and discrimination puts gender diverse and sexual minority individuals at an increased risk of mental health issues including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide. On the other hand, an individual's journey to determining their sexuality or gender identity is personal. Suppressing one's true gender or sexual identity can lead to mental health issues as well.

Studies have shown that the mental distress triggered by discrimination can be mediated by things like social and familial support, contact with other sexual minorities or others who are gender diverse, and expectations of acceptance.

Moreover, LGBTQ students in schools with gay-straight alliances, LGBTQ-inclusive curriculums, and supportive educators felt safer and experienced a greater sense of belonging at school.

Gender vs. Sexuality

Both gender identity and sexual orientation are important to parts of a person's overall identity. Yet, in each case, social constructs surrounding gender and sexuality continue to result in prejudices that negatively impact gender diverse and sexual minority individuals. This may be one reason these constructs continue to be conflated.

It is important that people recognize that for individuals, gender and sexuality are not inherently linked and that assumptions should never be made about one's sexual orientation based on their gender or vice versa.

Instead, people need to feel free to explore and define their gender identity and sexual orientation in the way that feels best to them. In doing so, they can be the truest version of themselves.

Was this page helpful?
6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association Divisions 16 and 44. Key Terms And Concepts In Understanding Gender Diversity And Sexual Orientation Among Students. 2015.

  2. Human Rights Campaign. Glossary of Terms.

  3. Morris BJ. History of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Social Movements. American Psychological Association. 2009.

  4. Adams C. The difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. CBS News. 2017.

  5. GLSEN. The 2019 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Youth in Our Nation's School: Executive Summary. 2020.

  6. Moleiro C, Pinto N. Sexual orientation and gender identity: Review of concepts, controversies and their relation to psychopathology classification systemsFront Psychol. 2015;6. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01511