To members of the LGBTQ+ community, gender identity and sexual orientation are not simply definitions – they are part of their identities. According to a Pew Research study, 48 percent of gay men and 50 percent of lesbians say their sexual orientation is extremely or very important to their overall identity.
Uncommon gender types are important as well. Bisexual and transgender, asexual, pansexual, and demisexual are considered uncommon for some, but they still exist. The growing number of ways people identify make understanding the relationship of gender identity and sexual orientation important.
Ball Bearings sat down with Ashleigh Bingham, a doctorate student in women and gender studies; Scott Zello, who identifies as gay; Collin Moore, who identifies as transgender and lesbian; and Bonu Dustova, a member of Spectrum (Ball State University’s organization for LGBTQ+ support), to discuss the difference between gender and sexual orientation and the importance of understanding these concepts.
Ball Bearings: How do you define gender?
Bingham: From a feminist perspective, gender is a social construct that is made up of the expectations and characteristics of an individual often based off of sex, although the two are separate because feminist perspective and feminist theory will look at it as a construct [of how someone should act].
Zello: Sometimes gender is synonymous with gender roles. I’ve also seen people use gender to mean the sex that the person feels its body should be.
Moore: The two big things are: one it’s a construct, and two it’s a personal choice. It’s really important to remember that it’s not always tied into the gender roles or the clothing you associate with.
Zello: In addition, I think how people use gender results in a lot of misunderstanding between people because often when people use the word, they don’t define what the word is and the context they’re using it in.
Dustova: It depends on the perspective you look at it from – biologically or what gender they think they are. Really, it’s just based off of what aspect you are asking about, or what perspective you’re coming from.
BB: In contrast, how do you define sexual orientation?
Zello: Sexual orientation is who you’re attracted to.
Moore: Not tied to gender all the time.
Dustova: It can be something you don’t always think about. Because I’m a girl, just based off sexual orientation, [don’t assume] that I am attracted to men. Not always, because I’ve had a girlfriend. Sexual orientation is a person you seem attracted to, sexually or non-sexually.
Bingham: Sexual orientation is often a physical or romantic attraction, unless you have someone asexual, which means not attracted to someone sexually. It is romantic and sexual attraction to a certain group, often what we would call identity.
Dustova: They don’t necessarily depend on each other, but they work together.
BB: What are some unique gender identities or sexual orientations you feel people forget to consider? Explain each.
Dustova: I feel like asexual is not taken into consideration. When people try to define themselves as a certain sexual orientation, the first response you’re expecting is what gender or specific type they are attracted to. For people who are asexual, they just want to be more romantically involved with people, not necessarily seek a sexual relationship.
Bingham: Asexual, or ace, or agender, is someone who does not identify as one specific gender or one idea of a gender identity. Often we think of sexual orientation or gender identity as being a spectrum or a binary, which is not accurate. Agender and asexuality are ones that fall into the background. Also genderqueer, which is a contextual identity depending on how they want to use that for themselves.
Moore: I think it’s also important to remember a lot of people are more fluid when it comes to their sexual identity or gender identity. I’ve seen it with transgender individuals. A lot of people might identify with one group, then over the course of time may feel they identify with another group more strongly. There’s really no right or wrong answer, it’s really wherever you fit best. You really don’t have to label yourself if you don’t want to. That’s an important thing to remember.
Dustova: Second that.
Zello: Nothing to add.
BB: Have you ever faced discrimination for the way you identify?
Dustova: Discrimination will always be there. It’s so hard to not see it anywhere. There was a time after being here a while, I went to New York with a friend and we went into a store. There was a girl who kept giving me looks. ‘What’s wrong? Is my shirt not tucked in, are my shoelaces all crazy? Is something wrong with me?’ I thought. I looked at my friend, ‘Is there something on my face?’ I’m just not getting what’s wrong. When I decided to buy something and I go up, there was so much, not hate, more of “not likingness.” I was talking to my friend in my native language and the girl that was there happened to know my language. It was easy to guess I am probably Muslim. Knowing the religion I come from, the country I come from and the way I talk, I felt a lack of friendliness in that store. I would say it was because of how I dressed and how I identify, probably. Just because I refuse to wear dresses doesn’t mean she had to talk to me that way.
Moore: Nothing super serious. I’m still in the early process of transition so I haven’t started hormones or anything – soon though. When I dress more feminine, I am 6’4″, I have an Adam’s apple, and my voice is really deep. It does take some time to figure out how to mask those, change those, or decide if I want to change those. You do get weird looks. I got stared at today for going into the men’s bathroom. It’s just minor things, minor stares. I think that’s always constant I guess.
Dustova: That’s a big one, the bathroom. There was a time when a woman who entered the bathroom I was in stepped back to look at the sign and make sure she was entering the right bathroom. I think that’s, in a way, funny, but also hurtful. It makes the situation slightly awkward because it has happened so many times. I have short hair. I always wear pants and a shirt or a t-shirt. Looking from behind it’s probably hard to tell if I’m a boy or a girl.
BB: What do you think about unisex bathrooms?
Zello: I think unisex bathrooms are a great thing. Unisex bathrooms are a single stall. You don’t have to worry about any awkwardness in the bathroom. Especially for people who are obviously gender nonconforming. Often they have issues in bathrooms. As long as every building has one, that solves a lot of the problem for people who choose to use the unisex bathrooms.
Moore: It really does go a long way. Currently where I am, I don’t feel comfortable in either one. In either one I’m going to get stares and I’m just trying to pee. It really helps a lot. It’s a safe place where you can keep to yourself.
Bingham: We now have legislation on campus that any building that is renovated or built must be built with so many gender neutral bathrooms. That is getting passed; I think that went through.
BB: Why do you think it’s important for people to know the difference between labeling someone’s gender or sexual orientation?
Zello: [For example] with transgender people, other people think the person is so gay that they needed to become the other sex. Because they’re conflated like that, people often see it that way because they don’t know any better. By explaining the difference between the two, it can let people understand that transgender people aren’t like that.
Dustova: It’s kind of a part of a person’s identity so it is pretty important to at least be somewhat informed. Just so when you meet someone for the first time you don’t offend them. Being aware of this stuff benefits you. It’s like if someone walked up to me and asked me what religion I am and I say: ‘I’m born Muslim but I don’t practice it,’ and they were like, ‘Okay, what’s the Muslim religion?’ Its important because it’s part of your identity; it’s how you see yourself. When a person can understand what you’re saying it kind of makes you feel more comfortable or more open to people to talk to them. It kind of makes the world a little friendlier when you know about things.
Moore: It really helps prevent discrimination. Even if you don’t identify with the LGBTQ+ community, it’s still important to be informed on the issues and to be an active voice on that. There’s a lot of people involved in [past and present social issues] that haven’t necessarily identified within those communities.
Bingham: I would say it assists in the avoidance of assumptions. I think there’s a certain amount of privilege with having a name for a part of your identity. It’s like an acknowledgement, in a way, that you have a group of people who have one thing in common. You can put a name to it. You can say, yes, you are validated through this name. You can come together through that. It’s a sense of unity. It’s a sense of acknowledgment. I think there are also certain legal implications with certain things. There are pros and cons to having so many titles, so many names, so many labels for various parts of identity or various parts of the human experience. Most often in order to give people rights you have to give a name to it, you have to call something nominally before you can ignore it.
Zello: One reason that it’s important is because some people get confused and think transgender people are so gay they transitioned to the other sex. It also contributes to the reason why some people are confused as to how someone can be transgender and lesbian, gay, or bisexual. I also think it’s part of the reason why some people inaccurately believe someone is the man or the woman in a same gender relationship.
BB: What can be done to increase understanding of gender identity and sexual orientation?
Dustova: Like Spectrum, this was the first time when I came to university that everyone was so open about talking about it – probably because I was from a different country. One way to increase awareness is to promote it in schools. You don’t have to necessarily start at a very early age. At a certain time in school I think everyone should learn a little bit about these differences, that there is such things. Parents should definitely talk to their kids. It’s important because now I don’t feel as much like an outsider or as much of a closed-minded person or not as informed about this stuff. One way of promoting it would definitely be to talk about it and promote it in schools or institutions so that people have an answer besides the Internet.
Moore: It’s really important to open the dialogue. At every level it’s really important to have those resources within a school for people to see, whether it’s a college or elementary school to kind of explore these kinds of things. It’s important for parents and kids to talk about it. For example, I identify as trans[gender] so I’ve educated my friends, family, and people I’ve met.
Dustova: I agree with that. I came out to my friends for the first time about having a girlfriend, not even my family members, because I was terrified of that. In my country it’s like a taboo, you don’t talk about it. If you don’t talk about it then you pretend it does not exist. It’s really tough. The first time I came out to my friends, for example, they were like, that’s a joke right? I’m like no, I actually do have a girlfriend and it was probably after six months of being together and everyone was shocked. Out of my family members, just my sister knows, just because she lives in the United States. I didn’t tell the rest of my family because I’m so terrified. It could make sense because it’s not talked about back home. Maybe if they knew about it, at least to a certain level, they would be more up to talking about it or discussing it.
Moore: It’s really hard to discriminate against people when your best friend identifies within that community.
Bingham: I think most of the time the brunt of the responsibility for the education falls on the groups in the minority. If you’re talking about equal rights and social equality, it falls on the members of the LGBTQ+ community. Most often, unfortunately, the responsibility falls on them as the responsibility to educate others. I think the step it needs to take now is that allies are educating themselves. The resources are out there [such as] books, documentaries, and films. You can talk to your friends about the issues, but it shouldn’t necessarily be automatic that they should have to teach you about it. As allies, as someone who sees a group that is discriminated against for whatever reasons, it becomes the allies’ responsibility to educate themselves and they can ask questions. I think we’re at a place in gender equality and sexual orientation equality that it’s really switching hands to the allies.
BB: How can we alleviate fear among people who don’t support the LGBTQ+ community? You mentioned promoting it in schools so I can assume there would be push-back. What are some ways they could alleviate that fear?
Dustova: Like they already said, having a discussion about it. I mean I am totally fine if one day my family comes to talk to me about it. I will talk as much as they want me to talk. It will take me time to actually open up and be open about it. If their purpose of trying to understand it is to just come and talk to me about it then it’s fine. I’ll spend days to just talk to my sister about this if it’s necessary. I’ll even go do extra research so I’ll know more and I’ll be correct when I’m telling her, just so she would know more and she won’t be as much discriminating toward it. You start somewhere and somehow it will get to the other end of the world. It’s about having the discussion.
Moore: I think we’re really lucky with the younger generation and people in my age group, 21-year-olds. Quite frankly, we don’t give a shit about anything. If someone wants to transition, then go for it.
Dustova: We happen to be in a time when youth, or people of our age, are more open-minded to sit and talk about things. They can decide whether they’re opposing it or for it. When I look at myself, my sister, and my parents, they are very conservative. My other sister, who is five years older than me, is more open-minded and I’m more open-minded. If you think of a timeline, we’re at the part of the timeline where we’re like, “Let’s talk about it before you consider that I don’t like it.”
Zello: I think a lot of the fear is from lack of knowledge and preconceived ideas about sexual orientation and gender. I know that’s a big issue with my parents; they already have preconceived ideas on how things are supposed to be. They don’t have the willingness to learn and be educated on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Bingham: I think fear is an interesting word to use because I think that targets a specific community, people who do fear. Anything that is not heterosexual is seen as a threat to this idea of normality or this idea of tradition. What’s interesting about that is you have communities, religious sects, and groups of people who are trying to maintain order over an entire nation or country. Then you have people who are trying to live lives that just concern themselves and those that they are romantically or socially involved with. You see this threat of power, of losing power over a larger group. I think it’s interesting to use fear. I do think it’s seen as a threat to a power structure that upholds heteronormative ideals.
Dustova: They don’t necessarily fear, but definitely show a strong opposition to change. They are so used to how things are supposed to be or used to be, so change makes it seem like it’s going to strike out an entire system of how it’s supposed to be. In fact, in can actually be a good thing.
Zello: I think that’s why a lot of people have a fear of change.
BB: As an organization representative, do you find people who identify as LGBTQ+ struggle with understanding the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation?
Dustova: Mhhm. I mean I would consider myself coming from that community and I’m so confused about so many things because I’m just getting to learn about all this stuff. There is so much to learn, sometimes it just seems like a lot. I mean no offense, but don’t you agree there’s so much that it’s sometimes hard to not unintentionally make a mistake?
Bingham: It’s abstract. We’re wanting to confine behavior. We’re wanting to confine identity, thoughts and feelings and those are things that are already abstract. Starting to put labels on it, I think, is very difficult. It’s very easy to overstep, to make small or even large missteps, misquotes or misunderstandings just because of the language that’s used. This isn’t something that is stapled down. We talked about gender being flexible or sexuality being fluid – these aren’t necessarily things that are staying or concrete. I think it’s very easy to blur things.
Moore: There’s some people that still think within the gender binary, that there’s only male and female, either because they’re not aware or maybe they choose not to believe in that for whatever reason. There is a lot out there and there’s a lot of miscommunication that can be made. Again, it’s about keeping everyone informed, in touch and up-to-date.
Zello: Well a lot of cisgenders members of the LGBTQ+ community often are confused about the transgender members of the LGBTQ+ community. I guess that probably ties into people being confused about gender identity and sexual orientation.
Bingham: The interesting thing about the LGBTQ+ group of people because you have two separate entities, you have sexual identity and gender being thrown into one minority group. You’ll have CIS genders who do not understand the issues of anyone who’s trans or anyone who’s nonsex. You’ll have that difficulty, but I think there’s a little more acceptance within the community as a whole than you will see in a non-LGBTQ+ community. The majority I think you have a little more understanding, but of course there’s still conflict. There’s always going to be conflict in groups, especially when you’re working towards different privileges or different rights. The issues of the LGB are a little bit different than the issues for transgender students, even on campuses. So there is some difficulty and some discord, but I think they understand a little bit more and that they’re more individuals who fit in both categories. I think we have a little more understanding within the community.
BB: In your opinion, what is the most important thing people should take away from this discussion on gender identity and sexual orientation?
Dustova: Be open to talk about it. It’s not taboo. It’s not some sort of topic that is absolutely not allowed to be talked about. Try to be open-minded.
Moore: Be open, be talkative about it. Be a part of change. If people just sit around and don’t vote on important legislation, the stuff doesn’t get passed. Be aware of what’s going on.
Zello: Be willing to learn and listen to people who are members of that community. The best way to understand people of different groups is to listen to people who are members of that group.
Bingham: I think at the end of the day, it’s a good reminder that it’s a conversation about letting people live the lives they deserve to live. Being in their bodies, having a portrayal of someone they can recognize in the mirror and say, “That’s me,” being able to go home to someone they love, whether that’s legally or socially. It’s just about being able to live the life you deserve to live.
As acceptance and acknowledgment of the LGBTQ+ community continues to grow, it’s important to provide resources for those within the community, its allies, and others interested in these issues. Education is only one part. Creating space for judgment-free dialogue on this topic will also further the understanding of this community in society at large.
These conversations allow society to understand the human behind the identity. Understanding the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation is important to identify individuals properly. It also helps members within the community to understand themselves better. The more one is educated, the better equipped they can be to understand the issues facing this community.