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Sex, Gender and Sexual Orientation

Our understanding of sex, gender and sexual orientation is an important part of the way we understand sexual violence.

Understanding Sex, Gender and Sexual Orientation

Sex, gender and sexual orientation are related but distinct terms.

Sex assigned at birth refers to the sex assigned to someone when they are born (male, female or intersex), typically determined only by their external genitalia. For example, someone with a vulva would likely be assigned female at birth and someone with a penis would likely be assigned male at birth.

Intersex refers to several conditions where someone is born with a sex that doesn’t fit our typical definition of male or female. For example, someone with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) has XY chromosomes and a vulva. Some intersex conditions are visible at birth (such as a baby born with a noticeably large clitoris, or a scrotum divided like labia) and others are not.1 This means that, without genetic testing, some intersex people are assigned male or female at birth and may not find out they are intersex until later in life.

Sex is therefore not binary, like many people believe it to be.

Gender is distinct from sex assigned at birth. A person’s gender identity is their individual experience of gender, and their gender expression or presentation is the physical manifestation of their gender through things like clothing and hairstyle.2 We can’t assume someone’s gender identity from their gender expression—this is because some people don’t openly express their gender identity to prevent discrimination or harassment, and others may express their gender in ways we don’t expect based on stereotypical ideas.

For some people, their sex assigned at birth is the same as their gender identity, meaning they are cisgender. For others, their sex assigned at birth is not the same as their gender identity, meaning they are transgender. Some transgender people are men and women. Others may live outside this gender binary, identifying under the nonbinary umbrella. Nonbinary is not the same as intersex, and most nonbinary people are not intersex.3

Sexual orientation, or sexuality, refers to the gender(s) someone is sexually or physically attracted to. A straight person is a man attracted to women or a woman attracted to men. Gay is often used to refer to men attracted to men, though some women attracted to women may also identify with the term gay and/or lesbian. Gay is also sometimes used as an umbrella term for any non-straight sexual identities.

Bisexuality can refer to people attracted to men and women, or to their own gender and other genders (inclusive of nonbinary gender identities). Regardless of who a bisexual person is sexually or romantically involved with, they are always bisexual (e.g., a bisexual woman dating a man is still bisexual, not straight).

Pansexuality refers to people attracted to others regardless of gender.

Asexuality refers to people who do not feel sexual attraction to others. Asexual people may or may not also be aromantic, which refers to someone who does not experience romantic attraction, and aromantic people may or may not be asexual. These identities are spectrums.

Queer is an umbrella term for a range of gender and sexual identities. Because of its historical and contemporary use as a slur, especially towards feminine gay men,4 some do not like the term. However, “queer” was reclaimed as a political statement and badge of courage by some activists during the Stonewall Riots and the AIDS Crisis,5 and continues to be used by many people with varying definitions.6

Two Spirit is an umbrella term used by Indigenous peoples to refer to those in their communities who are a third, fourth or even fifth gender7. Some Indigenous people who identify as Two Spirit also identify as queer or transgender, while others do not. The term was coined at the Native American/First Nations Gay and Lesbian Conference in Winnipeg in 1990 and is for use solely by LGBTQ Indigenous people.

Importantly, all the identities listed above are valid and normal. A person who is asexual is not broken, a person who is nonbinary isn’t confused and a person who is bisexual isn’t in a phase.

The only person who can define your identity is you, based on which definition you feel fits you best. It is completely valid to change the way you define your identity over time or to choose to not label it at all. When referring to someone else’s identity, it’s important we use words they do (e.g., we shouldn’t use the word “queer” to describe someone who has told us they identify as bisexual).

Why are there so many new words?

Gender and sexual diversity have always existed, across time and across cultures, and many languages have words or terms to represent this diversity. The reason so many new English words have been and continue to be made is to recognize the existence of this diversity. Because our society normalizes the experiences of cisgender, straight, sexual people, those who exist outside of these identities (i.e., transgender, queer or asexual people) can be made to feel broken or confused. Having a word to identify oneself allows people to understand their own gender and sexuality, communicate it clearly and make connections with the same identity.

Discrimination and Oppression Based on Sex, Gender or Sexual Orientation

Sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation are protected grounds of the Ontario Human Rights Code8 meaning that actions that discriminate against people based on these are prohibited. This kind of discrimination is also covered within McMaster’s Discrimination and Harassment Policy and Sexual Violence Policy. Such discrimination can be both subtle and overt.

There are several terms to describe the discrimination and oppression of people experience because of their sex, gender or sexual orientation.

Sexism is oppression by men against women, intersex, transgender and gender non-conforming people.9 Men can experience discrimination and prejudice based on their gender, but this is not considered oppression due to systemic power that men have.

Transphobia refers to the “fear, hatred, disbelief or mistrust of people who are transgender, thought to be transgender or whose gender expression doesn’t conform to traditional gender roles”10 and is perpetrated by straight/cisgender people and even by others within the LGBT community.11 The Trans PULSE Project has shown that transphobia is common in Ontario.12 Examples of transphobia include deadnaming (using a trans person’s name from before they transitioned), referring to someone by the incorrect pronouns or de-humanizing pronouns like “it” (see ”Pronouns” section below) and denial of healthcare.

Transmisogyny, coined by Julia Serano, is used to better describe the marginalization of trans women, based in the assumption femininity is inferior to masculinity. Trans women are routinely demeaned, sexualized and ridiculed in media and more often pathologized by psychiatric diagnoses than trans men. Trans women also experience disturbingly high rates of violence.13

Cisnormativity is the assumption that everyone is cisgender, resulting in often unconscious bias that privileges cisgender identities and gender norms and ignores the existence of trans identities.14 Cisnormativity is often invisible to cisgender people while sending a message to transgender people that they are not welcome. Comments that equate reproductive organs with gender enforce cisnormativity. For example, using language like “feminine products” to refer to pads and tampons unnecessarily associates menstruation with femininity and ignores the reality that some women (including transwomen) don’t menstruate while some nonbinary folks and transmen do menstruate. A more accurate, inclusive term would be “menstrual products.”

Homophobia refers to “the fear, hatred, discomfort with or mistrust of people who are lesbian, gay or bisexual.”15 Examples of homophobia include using language like “that’s so gay” to describe something as bad and “no homo,” typically used by a man to assert his heterosexuality after complimenting another man, or outright bullying and violence towards gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, and aromantic people. Internalized homophobia refers to gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual and aromantic people who turn their homophobia onto themselves and feel disapproval for their own sexuality.15

Heteronormativity is the assumption that everyone is heterosexual (straight), resulting in often unconscious bias that privileges heterosexual identities and ignores the existence of gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual and aromantic people.14  Heteronormativity is often invisible to straight people while sending a message to gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, and aromantic people that they are not welcome. This can manifest in everyday items like a simple form that asks for mother’s and father’s information (which could be resolved by asking for information on parent 1 and parent 2, if applicable) or comments like calling a young boy a “ladies’ man,” which assumes that a young boy is heterosexual and could create a sense of internalized shame for him if this isn’t true.

Pronouns

Pronouns are the words we use to refer to someone without using their name (such as “I” or “you”). When referring to someone in third person, we have to use the correct pronouns. Some people use the gendered pronouns “he/him/his” or “she/her/hers,” and some use genderless pronouns like “they/them/theirs” or “zie/zim/zir.” Some people may also use multiple sets of pronouns, like “she/her” and “they/them,” which could be written as “she/they.”

We often assume someone’s gender and pronouns based on their appearance, however our assumptions aren’t always right and can cause harm. Using the correct pronouns is a way of showing respect.16

Accidentally using the wrong pronouns may happen. In this case, apologize, correct yourself, and continue without making too much of a scene. Intentionally using the wrong pronouns is harassment based on gender identity17 and is not okay.18

For cisgender people, including your pronouns in your email signature or when you introduce yourself (“Hi I’m LJ, I use he/him pronouns”) are simple and effective ways to normalize the idea that we shouldn’t assume others’ pronouns. For transgender people, the choice to include pronouns in signatures and introductions is one to make when you feel safe and comfortable to do so.

1Intersex Society of North America. (2008).  What is intersex? https://isna.org/faq/what_is_intersex/

2Trans Student Educational Resources. (n.d.). Gender Unicorn. https://transstudent.org/gender/

3National Center for Transgender Equality. (2018, October 5). Understanding non-binary people: How to be respectful and supportive. https://transequality.org/issues/resources/understanding-non-binary-people-how-to-be-respectful-and-supportive

4Pink News. (2018, May 18). Gay vs queer – what’s the difference? [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4i3DHXroVM

5them. (2018, February 21). Tyler Ford explains the history behind the word “queer” | InQueery | them. [Video] YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpE0u9Dx_24

6Cheves, A. (2019, June 4). 9 LGBTQ+ people explain how they love, hate, and understand the word “queer.” them. https://www.them.us/story/what-does-queer-mean

7Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity. (2019). Two-Spirit. https://ccgsd-ccdgs.org/two-spirit/

8Ontario Human Rights Commission. (n.d.) The Ontario Human Rights Code. http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/ontario-human-rights-code

9Fabello, M. A. (2015, January 26). Why reverse oppression simply cannot exist (no matter what Merriam-Webster says). Everyday Feminism. https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/01/reverse-oppression-cant-exist/

10Planned Parenthood. (n.d.) What’s transphobia? https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/gender-identity/transgender/whats-transphobia

11TIFF Originals. (2014, Septemeber 17). Laverne Cox on transphobia in the LGBT community | Bent Lens | In Conversation [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huDiU8R0KhY

12Bauer, G. & Scheim, A. (2015). Transgender people in Ontario, Canada: Statistics from the Trans PULSE Project to inform human rights policy. ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/277558920_Transgender_People_in_Ontario_Canada_Statistics_from_the_Trans_PULSE_Project_to_Inform_Human_Rights_Policy

13Serano, J. (n.d.) Trans-misogyny primer. https://www.juliaserano.com/av/TransmisogynyPrimer-Serano.pdf

14Egale. (n.d.) Glossary of terms. https://egale.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Egales-Glossary-of-Terms.pdf

15Planned Parenthood. (n.d.) What is homophobia? https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/sexual-orientation/sexual-orientation/what-homophobia

16My Pronouns. (n.d.) What and why. https://www.mypronouns.org/what-and-why

17McMaster University. (2019, December 11). Sexual Violence Policy. https://secretariat.mcmaster.ca/app/uploads/Sexual-Violence-Policy.pdf

18My Pronouns. (n.d.) Mistakeshttps://www.mypronouns.org/mistakes