Introduction to Transgender Identities

trans umbrellaGender Introduction[1]

When discussing the term "transgender," it is useful to begin by examining the concept of gender. We begin by separating sex from gender. Sex refers to biological and physical characteristics that are linked with being labeled male or female. Sex is labeled at birth, usually on the basis of genitalia and/or chromosmes. Gender refers to the combination of characteristics, expectations, and roles usually associated with biological sex - often placed on a spectrum between masculine and feminine. The concept of gender is complicated because most aspects of gender are social constructs that vary across time and culture. For example, gender presentation (appearance, clothing, mannerisms, and behaviors) and gender roles (social roles, occupational choices) vary widely depending on the culture and era.

A central aspect of gender is gender identity. Gender identity is the self-image that one has about one's own gender as masculine, feminine, or otherwise. Often, people assume that gender identity is congruent with biological sex; they believe that a female will identify as feminine, and a male will identify as masculine. However, this is not true for everyone, since some people with male biology feel strongly feminine, and some with female biology feel themselves to be masculine. Others do not consider their gender to be either feminine or masculine, but a blend of both; still others feel that they are neither masculine nor feminine, but some other third gender. It is important to remember that gender is a malleable and variable category.

Transgender Introduction[2]

People who defy gender norms have existed in every culture throughout time. However, the term "transgender" is relatively new, dating to the mid-1990s. Often, transgender people are not well understood by the general population. It is useful to think of the word "transgender" as an umbrella term that encompasses a number of people who live substantial portions of their lives expressing an innate sense of gender other than their sex assigned at birth. This includes transsexuals, cross-dressers and people who feel like their biological sex fails to reflect their true gender. People who do not identify as transgender can be called "cisgender," meaning that they identify with the sex assigned at birth.

Some transgender people report feeling that they were born in the wrong body. For this reason, some transgender people choose to have surgery to take the physical form of their desired sex. This person is sometimes called a post-operative transsexual. Someone can also be pre-operative, or can choose never to have surgery (in this case, she or he might be known as "non-op"). Hormones are used to promote secondary sex characteristics, such as breast tissue or facial hair. Often, the word "transitioning" is used to describe the period of moving away from one's assigned sex. Physical transitioning may describe surgical, hormonal, or other changes to one's body. Socially transitioning may describe legally changing one's name, asking friends to use a chosen pronoun, and other acts of disclosure.

If specifying that someone is trans is necessary (although it usually isn't), the following terminology should be used: someone who formerly identified as a woman and who now identifies as a man is known as a FTM (female-to-male) transsexual, a trans man, or a transgender man. Likewise, someone who formerly identified as a man and who now identifies as a woman may be labeled a MTF (male-to-female) transsexual, a trans woman, or a transgender woman. It is extremely important to remember that MTF people are women, just as FTM people are men.

Addressing transgender people the way they prefer to be addressed (including chosen name and preferred pronouns) demonstrates respect. Some transgender individuals may choose to use gender-neutral pronouns, such as "ze/hir/hirs," as in the sentence "That book is hirs. Ze brought hir favorite book." Other pronouns are in use; the best way to find out someone's preferred pronoun is to simply ask.

Transgender people may identify as lesbian, bisexual, gay, heterosexual, or some other sexual orientation. Having experienced discrimination, prejudice, oppression, fear and shame, they share commonalties with LGB people. Like LGB people, transgender individuals should not have to hide who they are in order to have safe and satisfying lives.

To learn more about ways to be an ally to trans people, check out some of the following resources.

[1] Adapted and amended from The Transgender/Transsexual Policy Group, part of the Human Rights Office at Queen's University of Ontario, Canada

[2] Some information from Duke University's Safe Space Manual.