ACA Blog

Apr 21, 2014

Gender Identity, Gender Expression, and Sexual Orientation

Recently I wrote an entry about heteronormativity (i.e. a world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation), labels, and assumptions about one's sexual orientation. This week I'd like to take this topic further and reflect on the concepts of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. I have noticed the lack of clarity between the first two concepts particularly among heterosexual population - some assume that these concepts are interchangeable, others think that they are related. In reality, these two terms are distinct from each other. Sexual orientation refers to one's attraction to another, whether he/she is male or female; gender identity refers to one's sense of who he or she is, whether that person is a male or female; and the term gender expression refers to all the external identifiers of masculinity or femininity, including a dress code, mannerisms, human interactions, and others.

While being involved in LGBTQIA community, I had the honor of witnessing the aforementioned terms in various combinations, which stretched my perception and challenged my assumptions. I remember observing a support group of trans* individuals. All of the members were in the process of transitioning from biological female to male. One of the couples transitioned together, which meant that they went from identifying themselves as lesbians to identifying themselves as gay men [Note: this identification was verified, not merely assumed]. That moment was a revelation, because I witnessed the flexibility and variety of sexual orientations among trans* individuals. Some lesbian-identified people transition to heterosexual males, as they have always been interested in females, yet they have never felt like ones themselves. Then there are heterosexual-identified females, who transition to gay men and who have always been interested in men, yet they have never felt right in a female body. Then there are those who identify as females, yet express themselves through masculine dress and behavior, and, occasionally choose a male pronoun. Certainly, there are other combinations of gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation - all of which remind us about the many possibilities that human beings hold within themselves.

And an eventual reminder to counselors is to keep checking their assumptions, some of which may include:

  • This very masculine looking and acting female probably wants to transition to a male.
  • This male-identified person is probably interested in females.
  • This feminine looking person probably prefers to be addressed by a female pronoun.
  • This individual who transitioned from biological male to female and has a female partner now probably identifies as a lesbian.

Evelyn Pavlova is a counselor and an Ally, whose preferred population is LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, invisible minority, asexual, and ally) individuals. Her areas of interest are eating disorders, mood disorders, mindfulness, and spirituality. Read more about her new counseling journey at 

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  1. 2 Annmarie Wilson 22 Apr
    I have learned so much while reading your post. I do agree that counselors need to check your assumptions at all time. Counselors also need to learn from their clients and each client should be treated as an individual.
  2. 1 Suzzanne 25 Apr
    As a counseling student about to graduate, the LGBTQIA community and their needs have become important to me and this article is very helpful in my gaining knowledge of their treatment in therapy.  Thank you !


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