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10 Jun 2020 (Last updated 28 Jun 2023)

Gender identity & sexual orientation 101

Smile Makers Author
two hands touching with a rainbow light shining down

A lexicon in progress: words matter.

Sexuality nor gender can be assumed and thanks to modern activists and historic figures such as Marsha P. Johnson, who fought for LGBTQI+ rights; the belief that the two intersect is finally becoming undone.

Martha P Johnson

In South East Asian communities all the way to Northern Native American tribes; intersex, trans and two spirit people have always existed and even revered. According to Dr Alison Dundon, an Anthropologist from the School of Social Sciences at the University of Adelaide these communities are “often connected to the spiritual.”

Unfortunately, the enforcement of gender identity was yet another way to control “minorities” and Indigenous people. According to the writer of Beyond The Gender Binary, Alok Vaid-Menon, explains that racist eugenicists were used to label “queerness and gender non-conforming expression” as something to be differentiated from in order to gain superiority and create otherness. They go on to say that “The sex binary was seen as a civilizational achievement of white people...” and that “sexuality became less about pleasure and more about population.”

Thanks to the slow but certain deterioration of outdated social models including traditional gender roles, or white supremacy, more people around the globe are able to enjoy a fuller spectrum of how they can identify themselves.

So, what is the difference between sexual orientation and gender? Gender-fluid, YouTuber Brendan Jordan offers a helpful definition...

Sexuality is who you go to bed with, and gender identity is who you go to bed as.

Who you go to bed with...

Below is a short but by no means exhaustive list of popular sexual orientation definitions.


People who not sexually attracted to other people but may identify as biromantic which means that they are romantically attracted to people. Aromantic asexuals are neither romantically or sexually attracted to anyone.


This is the romantic and/or sexual attraction to more than one gender or sex.


For these folks, an emotional connection is needed before sexual attraction. This of course is not guaranteed result of their romantic relationships but a strong emotional relationship is indeed required before physical intimacy. They may also identify as graysexual or even asexual; this is debated in their respective communities.


A person romantically and sexually attracted to people of the opposite gender or sex.


The romantic and/or sexual attraction to people of the same gender of sex.


Similar in definition as bi-sexuality but not to be mistaken, pansexual people may be sexually and/or romantically attracted to any person of any sex or gender. They may consider themselves gender-blind.

A note on sex.

Most of us will be aware that gender is not intrinsically linked to being male or female but it is also important to note that sex isn’t necessarily one of two things either. Our sex is usually determined by the genitals, reproductive systems and sex hormones that we have. These are usually decided by the chromosomes (molecular structure) that we have in our DNA; commonly known as the combination, XX for female and XY for males however there is a spectrum of alternative combinations and the effects of this range from subtle physical traits, genital ambiguity to reproductive dysfunction.


This term commonly refers to people who are born with some variation in sex characteristics. This could be due to their chromosomes, gonads (ovaries or testicles), sex hormones or genitals that, "do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies"2

In 2015, Malta was the first country in the world to ban surgical intervention of intersex people, (something which happens unconsensually at birth for a lot of intersex people). Since, laws have rolled out in many countries to protect intersex people from sexual discrimination. They may identify as a fixed gender or as none at all. Intersex people can be found in all cultures; from the bissu in Indonesia, “lady-boy’s” in Thailand and the Hijra in India.

“In Indian society, hijra (intersex people but can also include trans and gay people ) are not understood to be either male or female. They're understood to be something above and beyond that...They bless people at their weddings. They bless them at the birth of a child...The hijra also suffer, despite this, great discrimination. And certainly, since British colonial rule, the role of the hijra has changed quite radically, and they do sort of live on the margins of society.” Dr Alison Dundon.

Who you go to bed as...

As sex may not reflect how we identify within nor how we express ourselves in the world, gender is important and we should respect gender identity and expression just as we would sexual orientation.


Trans people are those who’s gender identity or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Some trans people will use hormone therapy or surgery to “transition” while others do not; this may be for lack of resources or out of choice. Trans people, especially in the West face a lot of discrimination and violence worldwide. “26% of transgender people reported being physically assaulted and 10% reported being sexually assaulted as a result of anti-trans bias”3.

Munroe Bergdorf, Laverne Cox and Schuyler Bailar are well known trans people who speak openly about their experiences and activism.


To be cisgender or cissexual is someone who's gender identity is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth. Someone with female genitals for example, may identify as a woman and so would be known as cisgender, often abbreviated as cis.


Rather than one identity, non-binary is a whole spectrum for all people do not identify with one fixed gender; they may identify as gender-fluid or as having no gender at all; agender. Some trans people will also identify as non-binary. Another term used for non-binary is genderqueer.


Reclaimed from what was once a slur used to discriminate people who were not cisgender. These days, queer can mean an array of things; someone attracted to many genders, non-heterosexual, an anarchist or a person who does not fit in with any cultural expectations of gender or sexuality.

Unsure of how a person identifies? Just ask for their pronouns (she/her, he/his, they etc.) and respect them! If you make a mistake and misgender someone; apologise and move on. Beyond pronouns no one owes you any further details about their gender identity and this is ok. Respect is key.


  • According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
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