Transgender people are those whose gender identities do not match the conventional gender associated with their sex assigned at birth.1 They face unique challenges including gender dysphoria, discrimination, and misrepresentation and lack of representation in the media. This article details transgender-related concepts such as trans terminology, the gender spectrum, the transition process, and trans issues such as politics and transgender media. It also dispells some common misconceptions about trans issues. If you are a cisgender person who would like to learn about how to support transgender people, please read the section titled “How to Be a Trans Ally.”
What Does Transgender Mean?
In order to understand the term transgender, it is helpful to first differentiate between gender and sex assigned at birth. Sex assigned at birth is a categorization that doctors use to classify newborn babies as male, female, or intersex based on the appearance of the genitalia.1 Gender is a social construct that classifies a person as a man, woman, nonbinary, or some other identity.1 While they are traditionally considered to align, sex assigned at birth does not always predict gender. Transgender individuals have a gender identity that does not match the conventional gender associated with their sex assigned at birth. Transgender is not a type of gender, but rather a term that refers to a person’s experience of moving away from their assumed gender in some way.1 The shortened version of the word is “trans,” which can also be used in front of a person’s gender as a descriptor (e.g., trans woman, trans nonbinary).1 Transgender is often used as an umbrella term for anyone who is not cisgender.1 Cisgender is the opposite of transgender and refers to someone whose sex assigned at birth corresponds with their socially expected gender identity.12
The terminology surrounding transgenderism is constantly evolving, as there is an ongoing conversation within the trans community about what terms are most appropriate. Generally, most people in the gender expansive community identify with the terms transgender or trans. The term transsexual is sometimes used to refer to people who have had their sex characteristics medically altered in order to match their gender identity; however, using it can be problematic because not everyone in the trans community identifies with this word. The word transvestite, which historically refers to a person who wears clothes associated with a different gender, is widely considered to be an outdated and derogatory term.1 The word cross-dresser is now used instead to describe people who dress as a member of a different gender, but are not necessarily trans.1
The Gender Spectrum
The gender spectrum encompasses a wide range of gender identities.3 Some identities on the gender spectrum include cisgender, gender nonconforming, gender nonbinary, gender fluid, and transgender. The gender spectrum is separate from the spectrum of masculinity and femininity, and it is also separate from the sexuality spectrum. This means that you cannot assume a person’s gender identity based on their sexuality, appearance, clothes, or behavior.12 The only way to know someone’s gender is to ask them. The gender spectrum has a long and diverse history. For example, some indigenous tribes traditionally recognize a third gender known as two-spirit, and some parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal have a similar concept called Hijra.
A transgender individual’s transition refers to the process of outwardly expressing their internal gender identity in their life.1 Transitioning can help to alleviate symptoms of gender dysphoria, a term which refers to the distress or discomfort associated with feelings of discrepancy between a person’s gender identity and sex assigned at birth. It is a continuous process that involves three general parts: emotional, social, and medical.1 The emotional element of transitioning involves internally realizing and exploring one’s gender identity. The social aspect can include a person changing their name, using different pronouns, coming out to others, and changing their gender expression. Medically transitioning can involve taking hormones, hormone blockers, cosmetic treatments, and undergoing gender affirming surgeries.1 The transition process is different for everyone. Treatments are a personal choice and surgeries or medical procedures are not necessary to validate an individual’s gender identity.12 There is no definitive end to the transition process and for many people it can be lifelong.
Pronouns are a key aspect of gender expression. Common pronouns include she/her/hers, he/him/his, they/them/theirs, and zie/zir/zirs, among others.12 Transgender people will often ask their peers to refer to them by their real pronouns, which are determined by their gender identity rather than their sex assigned at birth. Pronouns are meaningful because they affirm a person’s gender identity. You can show respect and support for an individual’s transition by using the pronouns that they ask you to. Using the wrong pronouns to refer to a trans person is known as “misgendering.”12 Misgendering a trans individual is harmful to their psychological health and can trigger gender dysphoria. It can also potentially put a trans person in a dangerous position by exposing them as transgender, or “outing” them, which makes them more vulnerable to hate crimes.
Political Climate for Transgender People
Many people often confuse transgender with transsexual, but they are not necessarily the same identities. While the term transgender includes all who are transsexual, some people who identify as transgender may not identify as transsexual. Many people who are transsexual alter their primary or secondary sex characteristics with hormone treatments, surgery, or both. These surgeries might include transitioning to either female-to-male (FTM) transsexual or male-to-female (MTF) transsexual.1 However, these changes are not necessarily a part a trans-identified lifestyle, since someone who is transgendered may not have the desire to change their anatomical sex.2
Disclaimer: this section discusses sensitive topics including transphobia, violence, homicide, sexual assault, and suicide, which may be triggering to some readers.
Transgender people face discrimination in virtually every society in the world. Transphobia and cissexism are terms that refer to prejudice against trans individuals, which can be subtle internal prejudice or systemic and overt discrimination and violence. While it is more common among groups of people who are politically conservative, highly religious, older, less educated, or more authoritarian, transphobia can manifest in any demographic.5 Transphobia and cissexism also exist within the LGBTQIA+ community, and sometimes even in the transgender community itself. They also exist on a familial level, as trans folks often face rejection from their family members based on their gender identities.8 These forms of bias have tragic consequences. The transgender community faces far higher rates of discrimination, poverty, unemployment, houselessness, and acts of violence (including sexual assault and homicide) than cisgender people.8 According to a report by Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide, at least 350 transgender and gender diverse people were killed in 2020 around the world.13 Anti-trans violence disproportionately affects trans women of color due to the intersectionality of transphobia, racism and sexism.8 Anti-trans discrimination is detrimental to the mental and emotional well-being of transgender individuals. Thus, trans people are more likely to suffer from adverse mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and PTSD.8
The media plays a significant role in shaping people’s perceptions of the trans community. There is evidence to support that frequent television watching correlates with more favorable views towards the transgender community.5 This is likely due to increasing transgender representation in mainstream media among celebrities and in shows and movies. However, the media can also be a source of transphobia and cissexism. Movies and shows often perpetuate negative stereotypes about the trans community. Cisgender actors like Eddie Redmayne and Jared Leto have been criticized for playing transgender characters because they are inauthentically representing the trans community and also claiming roles that could have potentially gone to transgender actors.
JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, has been recently criticized for denouncing the transgender community on Twitter.4 Rowling is a notorious “TERF”, which stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. Her new book, Troubled Blood, perpetuates the harmful and false stereotype that transgender women are sexual predators and actually just men in disguise. The TERF movement has recently gained momentum on Twitter as people spread misinformation about the transgender community, including the false belief that the existence of trans people undermines the feminist movement.9
Some Myths and Facts About Transgender People
Myth: There are only two genders.
Fact: Gender is a spectrum, not a binary3.
Myth: There is no biological evidence to support gender diversity.
Fact: Scientific research in genetics, neurobiology, and endocrinology support that gender is a spectrum.3 The myth that science only supports the existence of two genders is based on an oversimplification of the biology surrounding gender.2 Every human brain is made up of a unique combination of both male-typical and female-typical components, leading to complex gender identities14.
Myth: Only trans people use pronouns.
Fact: Everyone uses pronouns, including cisgender people1.
Myth: Trans people have to “pass” in order to validate their gender identity.
Fact: Trans people do not have to “pass.” “Passing” means that a transgender person conforms to the societal expectations of their gender identity based on physical appearance as defined by cisgender people.1 “Passing” is completely irrelevant to a person’s gender identity, and not every trans person’s goal is to “pass”12 .
Myth: Having sex with a trans person means that you are gay.
Fact: Sexual relationships between men and women are heterosexual, regardless of whether they are transgender or cisgender.
Myth: People are trans for sexual reasons.
Fact: Gender identity is not sexual. This myth stems from a theory proposed by Ray Blanchard, who stated that trans people are trans because it sexually excites them. Blanchard’s theory has been disproven and discredited by the scientific community based on his poor research methods.
Resources for Transgender People
The following is a list of resources available to transgender individuals.
- The Trevor Project
- Call Him Hunter
- Trans Lifeline
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- The Jim Collins Foundation
- Trans Women of Color Collective
Because transgender people are a traditionally marginalized community, transgenderism is a fairly new research field. Transgender issues are also still debated within the transgender community, so the points in this article are subject to change with additional research and discussion. Because of the changing nature of transgender issues, we recommend continuing to educate yourself using online resources such as the ones listed above. As a transgender ally, listening to trans folks (including trans people of color) about their feelings and how they would like to be treated and supported is the best thing that you can do.
- LGBTQIA+ GLOSSARY, University of California, Santa Barbara Resource Center for Sexual & Gender Diversity.
- Sun, Simón(e) D. “Stop Using Phony Science to Justify Transphobia.” Scientific American Blog Network, Scientific American, 13 June 2019.
- Ainsworth, Claire. “Sex Redefined: The Idea of 2 Sexes Is Overly Simplistic.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 22 Oct. 2018.
- Sarah Steelman, Ph.D. “Making the Choice Between What Is Right and What Is Easy: Speaking Out against J.K.” Medium, Medium, 11 June 2020.
- Jones, Philip Edward, et al. “Explaining Public Opinion toward Transgender People, Rights, and Candidates.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 15 May 2018.
- Smith, Gregory A. “Views of Transgender Issues Divide along Religious Lines.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 10 Sept. 2020.
- Frankovic, Kathy. “American Views of Transgender People: the Impact of Politics, Personal Contact, and Religion.” YouGov, 11 Oct. 2019.
- Lee, Mark. Human Rights Campaign Foundation, 2018, pp. 2–27, Dismantling a Culture of Violence – Understanding Anti-Transgender Violence and Ending the Crisis.
- Miller, Edie. “Why Is British Media so Transphobic?” The Outline, The Outline, 5 Nov. 2018.
- Andrew R. Flores, Taylor N.T. Brown, & Andrew S. Park. The Williams Inst. Uni. of Cal. L.A. Sch. of Law, Public Support for Transgender Rights: A Global Survey (2016).
- “Tips for Allies of Transgender People.” GLAAD, 11 Nov. 2020.
- “A Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Youth.” The Trevor Project, 27 Mar. 2020.
- Clifton, Derrick. “At Least 350 Transgender People Have Been Killed Globally in 2020.” Them., 12 Nov. 2020.
- Sanbonmatsu, Karissa, director. The Biology of Gender, from DNA to the Brain. TED, 2018.
Last Updated: 6 March 2021