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Every person you meet has a sex, an orientation, and a gender identity. But what do these things mean? And what’s the difference between them?

In this post, I break each one down and explain how it’s different from the other two.

What is a person’s sex?

A person’s sex has to do with categorizing their physical body.

Typically in our society, we all start with our body getting labeled by doctors as either male or female when we’re born based on their observations about our biology. This is known as our “assigned sex.”

There are people with sex characteristics that are typically considered female, people with sex characteristics that are typically considered male, and people with with combinations of both. People with combinations of both are intersex.

There are many intersex attributes that aren’t apparent when a person is born and aren’t tested by doctors. These are sometimes found out later on in an intersex person’s life. This means that there’s quite a margin of error in this sex labeling that happens at birth.

There’s another huge margin of error, too, in that some men are born in bodies that doctors label “female,” and some women are born in bodies that doctors label “male.” (Not to mention a whole lot of variations on this involving nonbinary people.) The word that describes people who have gone through this experience is transgender.

Not only that, but sometimes, intersex babies are intentionally mislabeled by doctors as male or female, and have unnecessary surgeries performed on them to make their bodies match the binary sex assigned to them. Fortunately this horrifying practice is becoming less common.

This is part of an issue known as binarism, which is a social bias toward only recognizing male and female as legitimate, and erasing anything outside of that.

The way we think of sex is in a tenuous place right now, as lots of new knowledge is emerging that’s showing us that things we’ve taken for granted about it are wrong.

The sex of a person is sometimes referred to as “biological sex.” Just like it’s impolite to publicly talk about someone’s private parts, it’s impolite to publicly discuss or ask someone about their biological sex.

What is gender?

A person’s gender is all about who they know themselves to be.

It’s a deep inner sense that can only be truly understood by the individual person. This sense tells them that “I am a man,” or “I am a woman.” (Male and female are the binary genders.)

The sense can get more complex, too. In some cases, people have multiple genders they can deeply sense, and those genders can switch suddenly or more gradually shift in a fluid way. In other cases, people have a sense of being some combination of both man and woman. In my case, I have no sense of gender whatsoever. All these are types of nonbinary genders.

There are new senses of gender constantly being uncovered the more we accept and listen to people with different experiences.

Gender is a very mysterious and complex subject that spans far beyond simple biological observations. We’ve learned that people of any gender can be found among people that were assigned a male body when they were born, and likewise people of any gender can be found among people who were assigned a female body.

So you can see that, while it’s a common misnomer that sex and gender are the same thing, that’s just not the case. It just so happens that for the average person, their gender and their sex are not in conflict with one another, so they seem to be the same.

You can’t see someone’s gender from the outside. All you can see from the outside is how someone expresses their gender. This is often tainted and distorted through many different layers. Having a conflict in sex and gender is one of those possible distortions. That’s why many transgender people pursue medical transition: so that their physical body will express their gender in a way that is more accurate to who they are.

But there are all kinds of other ways a person’s expression of their gender can be tainted. For example, I’m an agender person, and I was constantly being punished for not acting enough like a girl growing up. This meant that I learned I would be hurt and controlled if I didn’t express enough femininity. So I expressed femininity that didn’t really represent who I am because that was the price I had to pay to earn a small but precious amount of autonomy and safety.

This then made people close to me feel more confident that I was a girl, because they thought they were seeing who I was in how I expressed my gender. But all they were seeing was me behaving in the way that I learned was most likely to help me survive.

What is orientation?

Orientation is all about who you’re attracted to. A synonym for orientation is “sexuality.” There are many different kinds of orientations. I won’t cover all of them in this definition, but here are some important categories to know about.

There are people who aren’t sexually attracted to anyone. The word for this is asexual (sometimes abbreviated to ace).

There are people who are only attracted to one gender. This includes straight people (also known as heterosexual), which are women who are attracted to men, and men who are attracted to women. It also includes gay people: men who are attracted to men, and lesbians: women who are attracted to women. (Note: people of a variety of non-straight orientations use the word “gay” to describe themselves, even if they aren’t men attracted to men.)

There are people who are attracted to more than one other gender. This includes bisexual people—people who are attracted to two or more genders—and pansexual people—people who are attracted to other people based on factors unrelated to gender. (I’m an example of a pansexual person.)

Attracted to no genders Attracted to 1 gender Attracted to 2+ genders
asexual straight bisexual
gay pansexual
lesbian omnisexual

This is just a simple overview of orientation. There are a lot of nuances and variations on orientation that I don’t get into here—people are diverse and complex in their attractions. Attraction isn’t just sexual, either: for example, the degree to which someone experiences romantic attraction is another part of orientation. But that’s a subject for another article.

Still curious about other aspects of what makes gender, orientation, and sex different? Let me know in the comments.

Here are a few related resources: