Making Sense of It All: Understanding Sexual and Gender Expression

By Rick Isenberg - 01/14/2021

I am an out and proud masculine cis gender
monogamous kink-friendly gay man.
Who are you?

We live in a world that is increasingly open to non-mainstream forms of gender and sexual expression. We talk about gender-neutral bathrooms and gender pronouns and watch movies like 50 Shades of Gray which address forms of sexual expression that many of us never knew existed. We don’t have to look far today to appreciate the varied ways people express their sexuality and gender identity. Especially if we are coming from the majority perspective (gender conforming and hetero-normative), the way people show up and the descriptive terms that are used can be very confusing. So how do we understand sexual and gender expression in a way that allows us to accept and talk to each other? It is time that we have a common vocabulary. We can get clarity if we separate out Gender Identity, Gender Expression, Biological Sex, and Sexual Orientation. All of these, importantly, are independent of each other (that is, not tied together or connected.) More on this later.

Let’s start with Gender Identity. Gender is a concept everyone thinks they understands but most do not. Gender is not binary. It is not either/or. In many cases, it’s both/and. Gender Identity refers to your deeply held sense of relative maleness and femaleness. It is your psychological sense of self. It is who you know you are, in your head, based on how much you align (or don’t align) with the concept of man and woman.

Our gender identity is reflected in our likes and dislikes, the jobs we choose, the roles we play, our expectations and choices, and our personality traits. While you might see yourself fitting into one end of the spectrum or another, it is important to know that it is a spectrum and many people fall somewhere in between (and call themselves, for instance, gender-fluid, bi-gender, or gender-queer) or nowhere on the spectrum (agender). Depending on how you identify yourself, you may choose pronouns for yourself may include he/him, she/her, they/their, ze/hir, etc.

Gender Expression is about how you express your gender through your mannerisms, the way you dress, wear your hair, act, behave, and interact with others. Gender expression is generally interpreted on a spectrum that ranges from masculine on one end to feminine on the other, with androgynous in between. In the US, for instance, our society traditionally has said that men have short hair, wear pants, and are stoic, while women have long hair, wear skirts, and are emotional. How you express your gender may shift from time to time and is not locked into your gender identity.

Biological Sex refers to the sex you were assigned at birth and is generally determined by what type of genitalia you have. Mostly this means male or female, although some people have anatomy that is not easily defined at birth; these folks are described as intersex. Being female means you have a vagina, ovaries, XX chromosomes, can give birth, and have primarily estrogen. Being male means you have a penis, testicles, XY chromosomes, and primarily testosterone. Being intersex can mean you have any combination of the above. About 1 in 100 babies are born intersex.

Biological sex largely determines secondary sex characteristics (body hair, voice pitch, body shape, etc.). When your biological sex aligns with your gender identity, we call that cis-gender. Trans-gender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.

Sexual Orientation, simply put, refers to the type of people you are attracted to sexually and is roughly determined by whether you are drawn to people of the same gender (gay or lesbian), the “opposite” gender (heterosexual), both to greater or lesser degrees (bisexual), all people across the gender spectrum (pansexual), or no one (asexual). Sexual orientation actually is far more complex than this two-dimensional “sexual preference” description, because the concept also incorporates one’s romantic, erotic, relational, and cultural preferences. For instance, a person who identifies as male gender who prefers sex with men, fantasizes about men, wants to fall in love with a man, and hangs around with mostly gay men would likely identify his sexual orientation as gay. But if that same male has sex exclusively with men, fantasizes about both men and women, and wants to fall in love and raise a family with a woman, what would you call his sexual orientation? Bisexual, maybe? (Better not to call him anything and simply ask him what he identifies as his sexual orientation.)

Incidentally, evidence today indicates that most people are not strictly heterosexual or strictly gay/lesbian; most of us fall somewhere on the complex spectrum in between.

To make the concept of Sexual Orientation even more complex, we have to consider the dimensions of erotic expression and relational expression. Non-mainstream forms of erotic expression include BDSM (bondage/domination/sadism/masochism) and other forms of Kink (leather, urine play, scene playing, humiliation, cuckolding, edging, electrostimulation, fisting, etc.). Relational expression refers to whether the love relationship is closed (limited to certain identified participants) or open (not limited to specifically identified participants). Relational expression also addresses what the structure of the love relationship looks like, that is, whether it is structured as two people (monogamous) or more than two people (non-monogamous, such as throuples and various forms of polyamory).

So how do we put this all together?

It is essential to understand that the dimensions of Gender Identity, Gender Expression, Biological Sex, and Sexual Orientation are all independent of each other. That means that they are not locked into each other. A person’s biological sex does not determine their gender identity. Their gender identity does not determine their sexual orientation or gender expression. There are many, many combinations of these dimensions, which explains the marvelous breadth of human diversity as well as the extraordinary difficulty we have trying to fit people into neat little boxes. It also means that there is no “right” or “wrong” configuration.

How do you characterize your gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation? Take some time to figure out where you fall on the spectrum and what language describes you best.

Our society is gradually awakening to the remarkable diversity of human gender and sexual expression. As we strive to be open, accepting, and welcoming to people who are different from ourselves, it is essential that we develop language that allows us to talk with each other. This essay is intended to help jumpstart that process for you.

**Genderbread Person graphic courtesy of

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