I’ve heard gender identity described as “who you are” and sexual orientation as “who you want to have sex with”. I agree with this, but there’s a lot more to it. Many people get sexual orientation and gender identity confused. They tend to think it is the same thing, but they are actually totally different from each other. Gender identity refers to what gender your brain is, who you are, and how you want others to see you. What gender you identify with is going to impact many areas of your life, if not all. It will affect how you are seen in society, how others respond to you, how you are addressed, expectations for your behavior, where you go to the bathroom, your role in your family, and much more. Sexual orientation refers to who you are attracted to, who you would like to receive romantic attention/affection from, and who you would like to be sexually intimate with.
Ultimately, who you are sexually attracted to doesn’t have a lot to do with who you are and how you present on a day-to-day basis. To whom you are attracted doesn’t matter when you are checking out at the grocery store. Since our standard greetings don’t entail “Hello, Lesbian” and “Thank you, Gay Man” but “Hello, Ma’am” and “Thank you, Sir”, you can see how gender identity is a more pervasive issue and one that affects an individual even more regularly than sexual orientation. Who you go to bed with that night doesn’t matter when you’re out interacting with society. Additionally, one may not go to bed with anyone that night… or have a sex life to speak of, but one’s gender and how it impacts a person is unavoidable. Some people know what their gender identity is at a young age others tend to not completely know until later on in life like myself. Most of the time its a process you go through to determine your gender identity.
People have asked me wouldn’t it be easier to just stay a lesbian? While the question seems absurd to me, I suppose it echoes the questions of many people who don’t understand the need to transition. Easier? Yes, I suppose avoiding transition would be the easier choice in some ways. The better choice? No. Opting to live a life in a gender that feels foreign is the making of a rough journey. Staying socially/biologically female and being a lesbian would cause hardships and struggles in all areas of my life. For example, think of the names “Mom” and “Dad”. If a trans man were to live his life “as a lesbian” and had children, his name might be “Mom” or a version thereof. This simply doesn’t fit with his gender identity and would likely sound as strange to him as it would to any cis male who is a father.
Additionally, asking a trans man about “staying a lesbian” is actually a misnomer. A trans man is not, and never has been, a lesbian. Yes, many transgender individuals come out as gay prior to understanding their gender identity or coming out as trans. Because being gay is presently more accepted and understood than being transgender, this may be the only way a transgender individual knows how to identify at first. If a cis female is attracted to women, she may assume she is a lesbian and may come out as such, before realizing he actually identifies as male. Often times one’s gender identity is understood later which then invalidates a previously thought sexual orientation. My sexual orientation changed once I started identifying as a man because I was no longer a woman. Years prior to coming out as transgender I always identified as a lesbian, but no longer identified that way. To be honest I never really was a lesbian even though I identified as one for so many years. It was just the persona I took on in order to not confront the inner desires of being a man. It wasn’t until I confronted those desires that I realized who I was completely and what I had been fighting for so long.
The fact that gender identity and sexual orientation are two separate entities is precisely why someone can be transgender AND gay. For example, a cis female who has the brain gender identity of a male may transition to a male and also be attracted to men, thereby making him gay. I can hear it now from people, “If the woman were attracted to men already, why transition to be a man only then to be gay? Wouldn’t it be easier to stay a straight woman?”. Forgive me if I’m being redundant, but this person never was a straight woman and therefore could not “stay” one. This is because one’s gender identity is a pervasive, essential fact to everything one does during the day. One’s sex life is only an element.
While these two concepts are different, they are not entirely separate. Gender identity and sexual orientation affect one another in the bedroom. Sexual relations are not only about who you want to sleep with, but how you want your sex partner to treat and perceive you. A transgender man will likely want to be treated sexually as a man, whether he is choosing to be sexual with a man or a woman. This is because the former is about gender identity, the latter about sexual orientation. Additionally, one’s gender identity must be factored in to understand one’s sexual orientation.
To summarize gender identity: Someone with a male gender identity (cis male or not) will want to be treated as a man in the grocery store, by society, by his family, and in the bedroom. Someone with a female gender identity (cis female or not) will want to be treated as a woman in the grocery store, by society, by her family, and in the bedroom.
To summarize sexual orientation: Someone with a male gender identity (cis male or not) who is attracted to men is gay. Someone with a male gender identity (cis male or not) who is attracted to women is straight. Someone with a female gender identity (cis female or not) who is attracted to men is straight. Someone with a female gender identity (cis female or not) who is attracted to women is gay.
Whether or not your straight, gay, bisexual, transgender, or any of the above we are all human beings. We should all be treated the same no matter what society says. I am a queer transgender man who is attracted to women. It’s part of who I am and I embrace it. You should embrace who you are no matter what and be proud of it.