4 Gender and Sexual Diversity

Gender and Sexual Diversity

Rebecca Hiebert

People identify themselves differently when it comes to gender and sexuality. In Canadian culture, we aim to welcome everyone and accept them as they are. Each person’s background and experience can influence the assumptions they make about gender and sexuality. We need to take time to learn new things in order to understand how to welcome the people we meet.

While you read, consider the following:

  • What information is new?
  • What did I used to think?
  • How can I use this information to welcome others?

Gender Identity

Gender refers to behaviours, personal traits, and social positions that society attributes to being female, male, or other genders. Gender identity is your internal perception of who you are. How you, in your head, think about yourself. As you know it, do you think you fit better into the societal role of woman, or man, or do neither ring true for you and you identify as a different gender such as non-binary or genderqueer? Previously, gender was understood to be a binary system – that there were only two options, “male” or “female.” In Canada, we are working toward understanding gender in a non-binary way – that there are more than two genders available for a person to identify as. In different parts of the world, recognizing gender in a non-binary way continues to be a challenge.

Transgender people’s sex assigned at birth and their gender identity are not necessarily the same. A transgender woman is a person who was assigned male at birth but who identifies and/or lives as a woman; a transgender man was assigned female at birth but identifies and/or lives as a man.[1]

It has been accepted that we form our gender identities around the age of three, and after that age it is incredibly difficult to change our gender identity. Formation of gender identity is affected by hormones and environment just as much as it is by biological sex. A person can feel extreme negative feelings when they are assigned a gender based on their sex at birth that doesn’t align with how they’ve come to identify.[2]

If someone is born with male reproductive organs and genitalia, he is likely to be raised as a boy, identify as a man, and express himself in masculine ways. We call this identity “cisgender” (when your biological sex aligns with how you identify and express yourself). If someone is born with male reproductive organs but identifies as female we call this identity “transgender” (when your biological sex does not align with how you identify and express yourself). [3]

Gender Expression

Gender expression is all about how you demonstrate your gender through the ways you act, dress, behave, and interact – whether that is intentional or unintentional. Gender expression is interpreted by others perceiving your gender based on traditional gender roles in society (for example, men wear pants, women wear dresses).[4] As we grow, we learn how to behave from those around us. In this socialization process, children are introduced to certain roles that are typically linked to their biological sex. [5]

The term “gender expression” refers to society’s concept of how men and women are expected to look and behave. These roles are based on norms, or standards, that are created by society. Characteristics of gender, on the other hand, may vary greatly between different societies. For example, in North American culture, it is considered feminine (or a trait of the female gender) to wear a dress or skirt. However, in many Middle Eastern, Asian, and African cultures, sarongs, robes, or gowns are considered masculine. Similarly, the kilt worn by a Scottish man is not an expression of female-ness in that culture.[6]

Biological Sex

Biological sex refers to having certain features as part of your body such as the organs, hormones, and chromosomes you possess. Being biologically female means having a vagina, ovaries, two X chromosomes, and predominant estrogen. Being biologically male means having testes, a penis, an XY chromosome configuration, and predominant testosterone.[7]Intersex” is a general term used to describe people whose sex traits, reproductive anatomy, hormones, or chromosomes are different from the typical two ways human bodies develop. Some intersex traits are recognized at birth, while others are not recognizable until puberty or later in life (interACT 2021).[8]

Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation is all about who you are physically, spiritually, and emotionally attracted to. Sexual orientation is typically divided into several categories: heterosexuality, the attraction to individuals of the other sex; homosexuality, the attraction to individuals of the same sex; and bisexuality, the attraction to individuals of multiple genders or attraction to your own gender and other genders such as non-binary, intersex, genderqueer, or transgender.[9] Other sexual orientations include: asexuality, not having feelings of sexual attraction or desire for sexual contact; pansexuality, an attraction to people regardless of sex, gender, gender identity, or gender expression; omnisexuality, an attraction to people of all sexes, genders, gender identities, and gender expressions; and queer, a term that some people choose to use to describe their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.[10]

Putting It All Together

Gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, and sexual orientation are independent of one another (that is, they are not connected). People’s sexual orientation doesn’t determine their gender expression, and their gender expression isn’t determined by their gender identity, and their gender identity isn’t determined by their biological sex. Those things certainly affect one another (that is, they are related to one another) but they do not determine one another. For example, a person who expresses themselves as male can be sexually oriented toward men or women, or a person who has the biological sex organs of a female may identify as a woman or a man.[11]


A transfeminine executive with a non-binary coworker
A transfeminine executive with a non-binary coworker. Author: The Gender Spectrum Collection by Zachary Drucker. Image source: https://genderphotos.vice.com/#Work. License: CC BY-ND (Attribution NonCommerical NoDerivatives)

Key Takeaways

We need to consider the importance of sexual and gender diversity when working with other people at college and in the workplace. We can recognize and value each person’s unique identity and welcome people as they present themselves.

  1. Introduction to Sociology by Tonja R. Conerly; Kathleen Holmes; and Asha Lal Tamang. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-3e/pages/12-1-sex-gender-identity-and-expression
  2. https://www.itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2011/11/breaking-through-the-binary-gender-explained-using-continuums/
  3. https://www.itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2011/11/breaking-through-the-binary-gender-explained-using-continuums/
  4. https://www.itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2011/11/breaking-through-the-binary-gender-explained-using-continuums/
  5. https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-3e/pages/12-1-sex-gender-identity-and-expression
  6. https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-3e/pages/12-1-sex-gender-identity-and-expression
  7. https://www.itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2011/11/breaking-through-the-binary-gender-explained-using-continuums/
  8. https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-3e/pages/12-1-sex-gender-identity-and-expression
  9. Adapted from: https://www.itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2011/11/breaking-through-the-binary-gender-explained-using-continuums/
  10. https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-3e/pages/12-1-sex-gender-identity-and-expression
  11. https://www.itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2011/11/breaking-through-the-binary-gender-explained-using-continuums/