Culture and Lifestyle > Identity and Sexuality

The Facts About Identity and Sexuality

How we define and categorize ourselves determines a lot about how we interact with the world.

One woman has her right arm wrapped around another woman who is smiling.

Identity is not a part of your life; in many ways, it is your life. Each person's experiences, cradle to grave, will differ depending on factors including race, class, religion, nationality, sexuality and gender. These differences between us make life interesting and exciting, but they can also become stumbling blocks, making room for difficulties, discrimination and prejudice.

In the course of your life, you will meet people vastly different from you. How you relate to others and how you interact with them depends on your knowledge of their experiences, but also, more importantly, your ability and willingness to empathize with those who identify differently than you do. You can get a head start on making these interactions easier, more pleasant and more beneficial for everyone involved by doing some preemptive research.

Gender identity

Two factors of identity that inarguably dictate much of a person's life are sex and gender. But how are they different? At delivery, a child's birth certificate will reflect the genitalia the child was born with: male or female. But not everyone's body is so easily categorized as that of a boy or a girl. According to Planned Parenthood, estimates suggest that about 1 to 2 people among every 100 born in the U.S. are intersex, with naturally occurring variances in their reproductive or sexual anatomy. Most babies born intersex will have a binary sex designated for them by their doctors or by their family, and often undergo medical procedures to match that sex.

These procedures are typically irreversible, and can have lifelong effects on intersex people. For example, an intersex child who has their gonads removed in infancy will have to be on hormone replacement therapy for the remainder of their life. This also can create identity issues that may persist into adulthood, which can cause many intersex people to feel stigmatized.

Most babies, however, have typical genitalia and are marked on their birth certificate accordingly. This determines a person's sex. As a child grows and comes to understand and adopt gender expression, they can reach another point of difference. A person whose gender identity matches their sex is cisgender, a category that includes the vast majority of people. However, when gender identity and sex do not match, that person is transgender, or trans for short. A trans woman, for example, was born with male sex characteristics, but identifies as a woman and may choose to express that female identity in any number of ways.

Transgender identity comes in many varieties. A person may transition to the "opposite" binary gender, recruiting medical interventions such as gender affirmation surgery and hormone therapies to help their outward appearance better match their intrinsic gender identity. However, not all trans people choose to undergo a medical transition and might instead express their gender identity outwardly in other ways, such as how they dress. Either way, someone's gender identity isn't always obvious based on their outward appearance, and can't be reliably guessed just by looking at a person.

Additionally, some transgender people may be nonbinary, meaning they don't identify as the sex on their birth certificate, but they don't necessarily identify as the opposite binary sex, either. Many identities fit under this nonbinary umbrella. A person could be agender, with no particular attachment to either gender; genderfluid, with a dynamic and changeable relationship to gender; demigender, with an incomplete attachment to a given gender; or other.

These identities evolve and may become more prevalent as the social construction of gender shifts and continues to be analyzed and critiqued.


The public reckoning with gender identity and sexuality has occurred hand in hand, because the two concepts go hand in hand. Just like gender, sexuality is not confined to a binary, and can change over the course of a lifetime or stay fixed from an early age. Whereas the binary in gender identity refers to the opposition of male and female, people may think of sexuality in terms of the binary opposition of straight and gay. However, those orientations exist among a plethora of others.

Bisexuality, contrary to popular belief, does not mean that individuals are attracted exclusively to "men and women." Rather, bisexual people are attracted to multiple genders—at least two, but possibly more. Because bisexual people can often outwardly appear straight if they happen to be in a heterosexual relationship, they can fall victim to bi erasure, which can make them feel less connected to and less seen by the queer community.

Pansexuality is an experience of sexual attraction to all genders, or an experience of sexual attraction regardless of gender. The overlap with bisexuality is so broad and the similarities so strong that they've spawned a fierce and convoluted debate over which word is more inclusive—if one makes the other obsolete and, ultimately, which one is "better." The fact is that which sexuality an individual identifies with is not determined so much by semantics, root words or public discussion. For some (but not all), the difference comes down to being attracted to a person of a given gender, as opposed to being attracted regardless of gender. For others (but not all), it's simply a gut feeling.

Asexuality, often colloquially shortened as being "ace," means that someone experiences little or no sexual attraction to others—though they may still experience other types of attraction, including romantic attraction. Asexuality, like all orientations, lies on a spectrum. Some people identify as gray ace or graysexual, which means they might experience sexual attraction rarely or with low intensity. Some asexual people do still have libidos and enjoy or feel neutral about engaging in sexual behaviors, while others are sex-repulsed, meaning they find the idea of engaging in sex repulsive.

Demisexuality falls under the asexuality umbrella and describes people who experience sexual attraction only after forming an emotional bond with someone. Ace and demisexual people may additionally identify as straight, gay, bisexual and so on.

Many people in the LGBTQIA+ community, and even straight people, will move through different sexual identities over time.

Race and ethnicity

Race is often assumed to be an objective, biologically determined division of humanity based on external features, such as skin color, hair texture, facial features and more. However, the truth is that the whole concept of race is an invention, and a fairly new one at that.

Race was invented by white European philosophers and naturalists in the 17th and 18th centuries as they set about cataloging and categorizing the world around them. Unfortunately, they built unfounded notions of moral, intellectual and aesthetic superiority into arbitrary categories.

The truth is, human beings have naturally occurring variants in their physical appearances, and because these variants are genetic, natural selection caused certain adaptations to flourish in certain contexts. For example, human skin tends to have a higher concentration of melanin, a pigment that protects us from UV radiation, among populations that have historically lived closer to the equator, where there's more sunlight. More melanin means a darker skin color. But there is no innate genetic footprint that is unique to, or defines, any given "race," according to researchers.

Although race is often used interchangeably with ethnicity, the two are distinct from one another. For instance, an African American whose ethnicity is Kenyan might have a very different identity than a Black person whose ethnicity is Jamaican. This is part of the problem of relying on constructed racial categories in the first place, which can paint with too broad a brush and render specific ethnicities invisible.

Chronic health conditions and disability

Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—conducted on self-reporting, non-institutionalized adults—indicates that 1 in 4 adults experience some level of disability, whether with mobility, vision, hearing, cognition, independent living or caring for themselves. Some disabilities may be obvious: blindness, hearing impairment, reliance on a mobility aid or the use of a prosthetic device. However, disabilities range from attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) to seizure disorders to severe mood disorders and more. Any issue that impairs the ability of a person to perform tasks and engage in day-to-day life is described as a disability.

However, the law is designed to only assist people with disabilities who cannot work or cannot work gainfully, meaning they earn no more than $1,310 a month. This means that people with disabilities who can work are more or less on their own. Though the Americans with Disabilities Act requires a workplace to accommodate the needs of an employee with a disability, there are still vast inequalities facing them, notably in the medical community.

For example, the CDC also found that 1 in 3 American adults with disabilities does not have a regular or reliable healthcare provider; 1 in 3 has a medical need that's gone unmet due to cost; and 1 in 4 has not had a checkup in the past year. Related, those same people are more than twice as likely to smoke, more than twice as likely to have diabetes, and almost four times as likely to have heart disease.

The way a disability can impact your life doesn't stop at finances and medical care. Disability of any sort facilitates stigma and a tendency for peers to otherize a person, which can feel isolating. It also limits a person's access to both activities and places—traveling, at the overlap of both things, can be difficult for people with disabilities.

The role of identity

If your identity is anything other than what your culture was built around, you will likely face significant challenges. Each part of your identity—whether that's gender, sexuality, race, ability status, class, religion or anything else—will alter your lived experience, sometimes by only a little, sometimes by a lot. Every person on the planet will have a slightly different go at life, due to slightly different aspects of their identity, and treating those differences with compassion at an individual level will culminate in fewer harmful disparities between us all.