It can be hard to keep track of the various ways that people label their sexual or gender identity. If you identify as queer or work with a lot of queer clients, chances are you learn a new term or identity pretty frequently. It is even more likely if you are working with queer youth! Youth, more than anyone, are recognizing the limitations of the language we have and the system that language is based in—the gender binary system.
The gender binary is a social construct that encompasses biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and attraction. It is a powerful discourse that organizes our daily lives.
The gender binary classifies gender into two distinct and opposite categories: masculine and feminine. It tells us that our gender is inherently connected to our sexual characteristics, to our gender expression, and to our attraction.
Although the gender binary system says that everyone is either a man or a woman, and that each man and woman should identity and express themselves in the same way, we know that this is not true. Gender is comprised of at least three interrelated factors: biological sex, gender identity, and gender expression. And each of these is much more complex than they may seem.
Biological sex refers to objectively measurable physiological traits. Primary sex characteristics include: sex chromosomes, gonads, hormones, internal genitalia, and external genitalia. Secondary sex characteristics may include facial and body hair, breasts, menstruation, body shape, body fat, height, and some organ development. The gender binary system tells us that everyone has either all male sex characteristics or all female sex characteristics. The truth is, biological sex is much more complex! In fact, up to 4% of people are intersexed, meaning they have some combination of male and female sex characteristics.
Gender Identity refers to how you think about yourself. Gender identity is influenced by biology and environment and is thought to be initially formed around the age of three or four. Your gender identity may align with the societal role of man or woman, with both, or with neither. Common gender identity labels include man, woman, agender, nonbinary, transgender, genderqueer, and more!
Gender expression refers to how you present your gender through the way you act, dress, behave, and interact. Gender expression can be motivated by your gender identity, sexuality, or your mood! It can also change from day to day, over time, or in different settings.
Attraction refers to who you are physically, spiritually, and sexually attracted to (if anyone!). Although who you are attracted to is not inherently connected to your gender, the labels we attach to attraction are based on the relationship between your gender and the genders you are attracted to. For example, if you are attracted to people of a different gender than you, you might label yourself straight. Seem simple enough?
What if your sex characteristics are predominantly female (and that is the sex you were assigned at birth), your gender identity is a man, your gender expression is androgynous, and you are primarily attracted to female-gendered folks. Are you considered straight? Gay? Queer?
While the “formula” may seem complex, the answer is simple. How you label your attraction is entirely up to you. The labels we have created are often insufficient because humans are much more complex than that. That is why we continue to add letters to LGBTQQIPPA+. Because we are creating categories according to the gender binary system, but gender and sexuality are naturally more complex, dynamic, and multifaceted than two mutually exclusive columns.
What are some identities or terms you have learned recently? Are there any you are unsure of? Head over to our discussion board so we can talk about language!