Why We Need To Understand The Difference Between Gender Identity And Sexuality

by Vanessa Nichols
Originally Published: 
LGBTQ flag on a sunny day with palm trees in the background
Vanessa Nichols

As an LGBTQ ally, I’m encouraged to see an uptick in awareness for the LGBTQ community. Coming off the heels of Pride Month, it was beautiful to see rainbows coming from every direction. I’ve read so many articles floating around, some urging parents to affirm and accept their LGBTQ kids, some on studies on LGBTQ youth and their emotional well being, some on legislation that needs more attention, etc. I see so much good, pertinent, important education out there.

Despite the current administrations’ quest to demolish LGBTQ rights, I’m seeing love and acceptance in our day to day lives, which is giving me hope and the energy I need for advocacy and activism.


We need to take a minute to delineate gender identity from sexuality because it seems as though these lines are so blurred when we are talking about young members of the LGBTQ community. There seems to be some confusion, so I’m here to help.

Gender Identity, by definition: (noun) a person’s perception of having a particular gender, which may or may not correspond with their birth sex.

Sexuality, by definition: (noun) a person’s sexual orientation or preference.

These are not one in the same, and we must recognize this and understand the difference so we can all be awesome LGBTQ allies.

I am a mom of a transgender son.

When he was really young, around age 5, he started to verbalize his gender identity by saying things such as, “Mama, I feel like a boy in my heart and in my mind”.

Vanessa Nichols

And because I myself didn’t completely understand the concept, I patted him on the head and said, “No worries, my love. We will talk about this when you get older,” firmly planted in my thoughts that puberty would sort through this one way or the other. I assumed that I was supportive because I allowed him to dress in all boy’s clothes, play with boy toys, cut his hair short, and so on. (See my Scary Mommy post that ran in 2015 before I was more aware.)

I didn’t comprehend that gender identity lives in the brain and formulates very early in life, unlike sexuality. My child knew who he was and he tried to tell me.

I refused to listen to my son back then because I was lacking the education. Until he became self-conscious, isolated himself, and even self-harmed at the tender age of 8. It was then when I finally realized, when a literal brick fell on my head, that I was confusing gender identity with sexuality to an extent. I was intermingling the two, assuming that they were both determined with age, maturity, and development.

Just like you and I have known our whole lives whether we were a boy or a girl, so do trans kids. It’s already developed in their brains, early on.

Similarly, if someone offered you a million dollars right this minute, but the condition was that you must change your gender, surgically and all, chances are, you wouldn’t do it because it isn’t in your soul. And you wouldn’t want to live that way.

Then there are kids who gender-bend, are gender fluid, or non-binary.

These are kids who don’t necessarily feel as though their assigned gender doesn’t match with how they’re feeling in their minds, but they play with the confines of gender roles. They might float between feeling like a girl and a boy, expressing themselves in fluid ways. Maybe they’re exploring, maybe they’re just fine with identifying as male or female but they live outside of that box (that we so love to put everyone in), maybe they identify as non-binary (which can also fall under the transgender umbrella, if the individual so defines themselves this way), or maybe they just like what they like without boundaries or labels.

All acceptable since societal gender norms are bullshit.

None of these things I’ve mentioned so far determines if you’re gay, straight, bi-sexual, pansexual, etc. None.

Young boys who like to wear dresses, play with dolls, and paint their toenails? Doesn’t mean they’re gay.

Young girls who love short hair and football and despise makeup? Doesn’t mean they’re lesbian.

Sexuality defines that part for everyone, transgender or cisgender (not trans).

Around that awful, dreaded time of puberty, somewhere between those ages of 10-13, hormones surge and this is when they realize who they’re attracted to. This is sexuality or sexual orientation or sexual preference. And although we’re all prewired for who we’re attracted to, it’s puberty that really says, “Well, hey. Those are new feelings in my pants,” because those puberty hormones are steering that ship.

This is when our LGBTQ kids might come out as gay, bi, lesbian, etc., usually (not to say sexual preference stays static from puberty onward, however).

Hopefully, we’re creating open, safe spaces for them at home where they feel free enough to share how they’re feeling at any moment of any day about gender identity and their sexuality. And regardless of, or because of, all of the above, we love our kids selflessly and let go of all of the binary hopes and dreams we might have had for them. We reconcile our own shit, realize that they are their own person, and we follow their lead because parents who don’t affirm and accept their LGBTQ kids are assholes. Full stop.

These really shouldn’t be awkward, uncomfortable conversations with our kids, especially given the statistics of LGBTQ youth’s emotional health.

I digress.

It’s important to know the lingo to be an effective ally. If we want to be true allies, we need to continue to learn.

I’m certainly not an expert and I’m not aiming to condescend. I’m learning and growing every single day because I’ve been fortunate enough to be chosen to parent a transgender child, so I’m hopeful that by passing on the correct information, we can get to a place of understanding and acceptance together.

The more you know.

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