Gender and sexual orientation are frequently talked about together. Heck, they’re even in the same acronym! Both are used to describe our identity as humans, and to describe how we navigate the world. Clearly there’s a difference, though, right? Otherwise, there wouldn’t be different words to describe each experience. So what is the difference? Simply put, gender describes who you are, while sexual orientation describes who you are attracted to.
Of course, that is overly simplified. Where it can get confusing is that both are used to describe an internal experience. Is who we are attracted to not a part of who we are? In a way, yes. However, there is a difference between your internal experience of who you are, and what it is about others that you find attractive. It’s a subtle difference, but a significant one. Gender, or who we are, is information from within that we process and then present to the world. Sexual orientation, or who we are attracted to, is information that we take in from the world and then process internally.
Additionally, sexual orientation can also refer to how you experience sexual attraction. Some people may experience sexual attraction immediately upon meeting a person. Others will not develop sexual feelings outside of specific conditions, such as forming an emotional or romantic connection with another person. Some people do not have sexual feelings, but do experience romantic feelings.
There are a number of terms used to describe sexual orientation and there is some debate in the community about what the true definitions of some might be. The important thing is not the label. Think of it as short-hand. The important thing is that you develop insight into your own experience and be able to verbalize it to those with whom you want to share.
I’ll leave you with a resource to begin your own exploration.
Written by: April Moritz, LPC