Gender, Sexual Orientation, & Sexuality

       Gender, sexual orientation, and sexuality represent important aspects of every person's identity. All people have a sexual orientation and gender identity, regardless of whether they talk about it or make it obvious to others. Especially for those who do not conform to traditional gender identities (man or woman), a heterosexual orientation, or participate in traditional monogamous relationships, it is crucial for professionals to understand and be sensitive to the diversity in sexual orientations, gender identities, and romantic relationships that exist in a multicultural society.
    Facets of identity as related to gender, sexual orientation, and sexuality can be considered separately but may be interrelated for many individuals. Additionally, some aspects of gender (e.g. transgender) are often addressed through organizations and in literature that also addresses sexual orientation (e.g. LGBT issues, rather than strictly LGB). Intersections of sexual orientation and gender become especially complex in individuals who do not conform to traditional gender roles or identify as heterosexual. Consequently, issues of gender, sexual orientation, and sexuality are noted here together.

Gender Identity

    While past literature has used the terms “gender” and “biological sex” interchangeably, contemporary research notes an important difference. The term “gender” refers to one’s identification along a continuum of masculine and feminine traits and roles. “Biological sex” refers to one’s genetic and physiological sex (e.g. one’s sex chromosomes which are usually XX and XY, the presence of certain hormones, as well as the secondary sex characteristics), while gender refers to the social roles, traits, interests, and customs.  Where biological sex determines whether someone is male or female, gender identifies where a person lies on a continuum of culturally bound traits associated with being a man, a woman, or somewhere in between.

The term gender identity refers to an individual's identification on the continuum of gendered traits. It usually refers to a person's internal identification as a man or woman.

Sexual Orientation

    The term sexual orientation refers to one’s sexual/romantic attraction to an individual of a particular gender. Sexual orientation is not chosen, instead it appears to be part of one’s biology and is not determined merely by sexual behavior. The term sexual orientation is preferred to “sexual choice” or “sexual preference” because there is little evidence to suggest that people can choose their sexual orientation. Additionally, the term “homosexual” is no longer used in the psychological literature because it was used until 1973 as a DSM diagnosis and maintains a derogatory connotation. Preferred terms may include gay, lesbian, or bisexual; however, it is always best to check with individuals regarding their preferred identification.
     “Homophobia” is defined as the fear of people of a non-heterosexual orientation. In the psychological literature, the term “heterosexism” assumes that heterosexuality is superior to all other sexual orientations. It is used more frequently in the literature than homophobia and is defined as a value system that denies the value of, discriminates against, or stigmatizes any form of non-heterosexual behavior, identity, community or relationship. When people who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual believe heterosexist things about themselves, they are said to experience “internalized heterosexism” which is defined as the psychological internalization of negative attitudes toward same-gender sexual orientations as a result of a culture that approves of heterosexual orientations and devalues and disapproves of same-gender sexual orientations. Particularly for people who live in communities where heterosexism is the norm, internalized heterosexism can lead to devastating psychological consequences.


   Sexuality refers to how an individual expresses sexual desire and erotic pleasure. It refers to the biological, psychological, and social aspects of human sexual desire. Sexuality is included in this section because people’s sexuality is often interrelated with their sexual orientation and gender. Included, are links to information that discuss alternative ways of expressing romantic and sexual attraction.