The difference between sexual orientation and gender identity

The CBSN Originals documentary, “Gender: The Space Between,” aired on CBSN Monday, March 27 and is available to view online.


It’s a common misconception that gender identity and sexual orientation are connected. If someone is transgender, for example, many people automatically assume that they must also be gay. That, however, is not the case. Gender and sexuality are different, and it’s an important distinction to understand.

“People often perceive that they intersect. But many of us are working very hard to unhinge one from the other,” said sj Miller, deputy director at NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. “They’ve been conflated for so long, and they’re completely different.” 

Gender identity is defined by the Human Rights Campaign as the “innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither – how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves.” It can mirror what a person was assigned at birth, or be entirely different. There are dozens of genders, outside of just man or woman, that people can identify with.

Sexual orientation, on the other hand is the “inherent or immutable enduring emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to other people.” Basically, it’s who you are interested in dating and being intimate with. Someone can be transgender, but also be gay, straight, bisexual, asexual, or a whole host of other sexual identities that exist. 

“Sexuality is who you go to bed with, and gender identity is who you go to bed as. That’s the simplest way I can describe it,” explained YouTuber Brendan Jordan, who identifies as gender fluid.

But it is often not that simple. Most of the transgender and gender non-conforming people who spoke with CBS News said it’s not uncommon for others to become preoccupied with their identity and sexual orientation.

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Ela Hosp

CBS News

“[Sexuality] really doesn’t have anything to do with gender at all,” said Ela Hosp, a 19-year-old non-binary student at the Kansas City Art Institute. “But there is a huge thing with like ‘Well, what, if you don’t identify as a female, then are you gay? Do you not like boys, do you like girls?’ And that’s just a whole other thing.”

People’s preoccupation with gender and sexuality can come to the forefront in the dating world.

“A lot of people are really concerned with what genitalia you have, that’s what they want to know. So there have been instances with relationships that could have worked out perfectly fine if you weren’t non-binary, and after that person found out that you were, everything changed,” Hosp continued.

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Quinn Diaz

CBS News

Quinn Diaz, a non-binary transgender man living just outside of Los Angeles, echoed that sentiment. “When you’re trans, I feel like people try to sexualize you a lot, or romanticize you. So that’s been very uncomfortable.” 

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Tinder now offers 37 different gender identities, and the option to write in your own

Tinder

In response to this, dating apps like Tinder amended their profile options to be more inclusive of the transgender and gender non-conforming community. Rather than just male or female, gay or straight, there are now 37 descriptions to choose from on the app, as well as the option to write in your gender identity. This feature not only recognizes and accepts trans users, but also gives them the choice of how to disclose their gender to a potential parter.

“When talking to our users, I learned that so many of them found being able to have their gender identity front and center allowed them to skip the step of having to explain to people how they identify,” Tinder sociologist Jessica Carbino, PhD, said of her research. “But some of our users said ‘I don’t want to put this out there.’ So we allow our users to either put it out there, or not.”

“It definitely helps,” said Hosp, who has had hesitations opening up about gender to romantic interests in the past, after a previous boyfriend repeatedly ignored their identity as non-binary and preference for the pronouns they/them/theirs.

Ultimately, whether they are navigating the dating scene, office culture, or life in general, people just want to feel that their gender identity is recognized. Gender and sexuality are both essential components of who we are, and how we live our lives. But the two are not the same, and that’s a crucial fact to remember.