Understanding sex, gender and sexuality

Diversity within sex, gender and sexuality is the focus that brings LGBTIQ communities together.

Sex

Sex generally refers to the chromosomal, gonadal and anatomical characteristics associated with biological sex. This isn’t always as clear-cut as ‘male’ or ‘female’.

Intersex

Intersex is the broad category for people who don’t fit within the male/female sex binary. Intersex Human Rights Australia (IHRA) defines intersex people as:

Intersex people are born with physical sex characteristics (including genitals, gonads and chromosome patterns) that don’t fit medical and social norms for female or male bodies. It’s important to understand that intersex variation doesn’t result in a single ‘type’ of person. People with intersex traits can have a wide variety of physical or biological types and these may not always align with legal understandings of sex or gender.

If you want to learn more, IHRA have a wide range of resources that cover social, medical, and legal topics.

Gender

Gender is the sociocultural division of people traditionally based on an assumed difference between the sexes. As a system, gender conveys social meaning that is typically encoded as femininity and masculinity.

Gender presentation is how a person expresses their gender using signs and signals. This can be clothing, physical appearance, and even behaviour and mannerisms. Many of the ways we present ourselves to the world carry a gendered meaning.

However, a person’s gender identity is an internal psychological factor that determines where and how they sit within the social system.

Trans/transgender

Transgender (often shortened to trans, as in Sara is a trans woman) is when a person’s gender identity doesn’t match the expectations placed on the sex they were assigned at birth. For example, a person assigned female at birth may feel a gender identity that more closely aligns to the expectations of masculinity and may identify as a man. Because gender is about sociocultural differences and self-understanding, it's important to recognise that the way someone understands their gender is just as valid as being assigned a gender at birth.

You can find out more from Transgender Victoria. Transgender Victoria has worked extensively with government on issues affecting the transgender community.

Cis/cisgender

Cisgender (often shortened to cis, as in Naomi is a cis woman) is the term used when a person’s gender identity aligns with the expectations placed on the sex they were assigned at birth.

Non-binary and gender diversity

Many people feel that the rigid division between masculinity and femininity doesn’t fit their gender identity and they may choose to adopt a non-binary identity.

There is no single way to express a non-binary identity. This is because our social system of gender doesn’t have clearly defined roles or expectations for non-binary identity – a fact many non-binary people appreciate.

People may use different terms to identify their gender outside the man/woman binary. Non-binary is in common use today but genderqueer was more prevalent in the past.
In different cultures around the world, other terms are in use for third or more gender options, such as hijra in India, two spirit in Native American communities and the sistergirls and brotherboys of Indigenous Australian groups.

Check out our external links page to find more resources on gender identity and gender diversity.

Sexuality

Sexuality is comprised of three separate but interconnected dimensions: attraction, behaviour and identity. For example, a woman who has sex with men (behaviour) to whom she is sexually attracted (attraction) and who identifies as straight (identity) would be a heterosexual woman.

Common identifiers for sexuality are:

  • heterosexual/straight: an individual who is attracted to people of a different gender to their own
  • homosexual/gay/lesbian: an individual who is attracted to people of the same gender as their own
  • bisexual/pansexual: an individual who is attracted to people of the same or different genders
  • asexual: an individual who does not experience sexual attraction.

Typically, there is a view that attraction, behaviour, and identity have a clear alignment, as seen in the examples above. However, sexuality is often linked to the heteronormative model based on a gender binary, which doesn’t allow for complexity of identities.

A man may occasionally have sex with men (homosexual behaviour) because he is visually attracted to the male physique (aesthetic attraction), but he may identify as straight (heterosexual identity) because his primary romantic and sexual relationships are with women.

Some of these examples might fit our standard terminology but in non-standard ways. For example, we don’t have terminology to describe an intersex person who has a romantic attraction to women only but has sex with non-binary people as well.

The complexity of human sexuality is vast when taking into account sexual behaviour, attraction, relationship building, identity and societal norms and stigma.