Understanding sexual orientation and gender identity

Decades of scientific research has shown that variations in sexual orientation and gender identity or expression are not a mental illness or developmental defect and suggest no impairment in a person’s ability to function. We also now understand that an individual’s sexual orientation and gender identity are not susceptible to change and, in fact, are established at a very young age, most likely due to complex genetic, prenatal, neurological and endocrinological factors.

Consider a common experience of a young person who is subjected to conversion therapy practices: Assume a child or adolescent who grows up in a world that stigmatizes and devalues their identity. Assume also that this young person is told by someone presenting as a trusted professional authority that who they are and what they are feeling is so shameful, flawed and wrong that it must be eradicated. It should not surprise you that this young person will suffer from a child’s hopelessness and desperation What is even more distressing for that young person is that these change efforts will ultimately fail, increasing the negative self-image and identity at crucial developmental phases of life. There is profound harm that flows from these misguided efforts.

Sexual orientation is a well-established concept in psychology. Sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions directed to another person. Sexual orientation is an objective, human phenomenon that can be assessed and measured. Although sexual orientation ranges along a continuum, it is usually discussed in terms of four categories: heterosexual, lesbian, gay, and bisexual. Individuals express their sexual orientation through identity and behavior.

Gender identity is also an established concept in psychology. It is distinct from sexual orientation. Gender identity refers to a person’s internal, deeply-rooted sense of one’s gender. Most people have a gender identity that is consistent with their assigned sex at birth. For transgender individuals, their gender identity does not match their assigned sex at birth.

Gender identity is also distinct from gender expression. Gender expression refers to how a person expresses their internal sense of identity, including through their demeanor, dress and behavior. Many people are gender-nonconforming. This means that their gender expression does not conform to traditional gender roles or norms. Being gender nonconforming does not mean that a person is transgender, lesbian, gay, or bisexual. “Gender dysphoria” is the significant distress a person experiences from the mismatch between the sex they identify as and the sex they were assigned at birth.

The American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and numerous other medical and mental health associations have publicly affirmed that they do not consider same-sex attractions and diversity in sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression to be mental disorders.

Roland Behm