What does it mean to be transgender?
There has been a lot of media attention buzzing around the concept of “transgender” lately. Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, and upcoming films About Ray and The Danish Girl are only a few examples of contemporary exposure of transgender individuals. However, it’s hard to understand something as complex as gender and trans identity from a few representations direct from Hollywood. The concept of transgenderism in general may be anywhere from superficially familiar to even a complete mystery – what’s certain is that a vast population of people alive today still is not quite sure what it means to be transgender.
Let’s look first at the word transgender and what it means. We all know what “gender” is… or we think we do. But what does it mean to be “trans”-gender? You’ve certainly heard the trans- prefix before. Transatlantic, transport, transfer. “Trans” seems to evoke a sense of distance, of travel, of communication from one place to another. In fact, the prefix “trans” comes from the Latin preposition trans, meaning “across; over; beyond.”
Those interested in molecular biology (which identifies factors or elements with the same prefixes) may also be aware that trans- has an opposite: cis-. “Cis,” also from Latin, means “on the same side.” This dichotomy features in science and in geography, wherein something might be described as trans or cis based on whether they were across or on the same side of, for example, a river. Because of the complementary nature of the terms, you could say that everyone is either transgender or cisgender.
So what is cis and what is trans when it comes to people? The “crossing” referred to by the trans- prefix in this case refers to a departure from one’s assigned gender at birth. That is, the gender (typically male or female) a doctor or other professional might designate upon you when you are infant. This is usually conflated with the concept of biological sex, which is looked at in more detail in this post. Since sex as a designation does not necessarily correlate to biological or hormonal reality, the term then “assigned gender (at birth),” rather than “sex,” is used to refer to the (usually binary) label given to infants to assign them “boy” or “girl.” The “trans,” therefore, happens when an individual departs from this assigned gender and identifies instead with a different, multiple, or no genders. This is a transgender individual. Someone who never departs from his, her, or their assigned gender, then, is cisgender. Note that this does not necessarily correlate with gender roles, presentation, or conformity. A person may depart from gender roles by presenting as a very butch lesbian, for example, but still be cisgender, because she was designated female at birth and continues to identify as female.
Here are some examples of transgender individuals:
Eli always knew she was a girl. Though she had been designated male, by the age of seven or eight, she had begun transition to allow her outside to better match how she felt inside. Now she is a happy adult woman in all respects, though she still keeps the name she was given by her parents.
Ian was designated as female at birth, but came out as transgender in his teens. It wasn’t until he was an adult that he was able to live under his preferred name, which he chose for himself. Sometimes Ian dresses feminine and often people think he is a girl, but those closest to Ian know that his curvy body doesn’t offset his identity.
Tom looks like most men. They were assigned male and grew up looking and acting like what most people would call a normal boy. Today Tom doesn’t care much to change their appearance or body, but knows they are agender, not male, and use they/them pronouns.
A more exhaustive list would go on much longer, and include intersex individuals, people who may go through multiple stages or identities in their gender journeys, and a greater variety of genders, like bigender, two-spirit, or neogenders. However, due to the impossibility of universal inclusion, the above three examples will serve as a beginning basis for understanding. Though an individual may change or keep their name, use any set of pronouns, come out at any age or more than once, or present in a variety of ways, traditional or nontraditional, there is a common thread in all of these stories – transition.
In reference to the transgender experience, “transition” can refer to a number of things. The most basic transition a transgender individual may go through is that of gender identity. They are given an gender assignment at birth, but at some point in their life, their gender identity proves to part from that assignment. The feeling or identity of being a different gender than one is assigned is the only prerequisite for a person to be transgender. However, a transgender person may also, if they choose and are capable, go through a number of other transitions. Typically, one can put these in any of three categories: social, medical, and legal.
Social transition refers to the way a person goes about their life and interactions with other people. A person who socially transitions may choose to: dress differently; wear different makeup; alter their style or countenance; train themselves to speak or walk differently; choose new names, pronouns, or forms of address; interact with people, platonically, romantically, and/or sexually, as a member of their true gender, etc. (“True” gender, when used here, will refer to a person’s gender identity, regardless of medical or other assignment. If a person identifies as female, then her “true” and only actual gender is female.) Social transition is not a linear process. A transgender individual who is “out” to some people may not be “out” to all; their presentation may change according to their company or the occasion. They may use one name with family and another with friends. One might be out and use a new name and pronouns, but not dress or act differently. To some people, gender identity is private and personal, and may not be shared or expressed with others. Other people may choose some aspects to change, or all. Overall, there is no wrong way to socially transition – even refraining from social transition altogether is a valid choice.
Similarly, medical transition is a choice which may be pursued partially, wholly, or not at all. Medical transition refers to the (usually permanent) physical alterations one may undergo in order to, as a transgender individual, feel more comfortable in their body and appearance. These procedures may involve hormone replacement therapy (HRT), gender affirmation surgery (which may restructure one’s genitals), the removal of or augmentation of breasts/breast tissue, facial restructuring or plastic surgery, vasectomies or hysterectomies, et cetera. Though many people choose to “fully” transition (which may mean to become physically indistinguishable from a person who was born with the assigned target gender), others may partially transition or not transition at all. Some of this is based off of personal choice, but, like social transition, it may also depend on the circumstances to which an individual is subject. Health concerns, inability to afford the recovery time, or lack of insurance coverage can all affect someone’s ability or ease of pursuing medical transition. The medical field can also range from exclusionary to outright hostile towards transgender patients, discouraging some from pursuing transition. Additionally, medical transition standards are often binary, meaning a person who does not identify with a strictly male or female gender may have difficulty conceptualizing what physical alterations would best suit their identity, much less be approved for said expenses or procedures. Though there are a wider and more accessible variety of options every day, there are also many obstacles.
Finally, there is legal transition. Legal transition is the reassignment of one’s legal, documented identity according to the gender which suits them best. This may include a revised birth certificate, a changed gender marker on one’s driver’s license or passport, and the court approval of an official change in gender that will be tied to all legal documentation regarding one’s person. Some countries allow nonbinary individuals (those who do not identify as strictly male or female) to have a separate gender marker. Others, including the U.S., remain binary, and individuals applying for a change must choose to be identified as either M or F. The processes for legal transition are largely dependent on location and local law. In my county in California, paperwork for a legal name change amounts to $435. Gender changes may also require proof of medical transition, a recommendation by a psychologist, and/or a published ad in a local newspaper prior to court approval. Depending on one’s unique situation, there are often many bureaucratic “hoops” to jump through in order to achieve legal gender transition. However, it can also be very powerful if acquired. Legal gender markers can affect one’s eligibility for marriage in some countries, will affect one’s title of address, and may be affirmed on every piece of legal documentation once fully successful. For those who choose to apply for legal recognition, a government-affirmed identity can be very fulfilling.
As discussed above, a transgender individual may go through any of the aforementioned forms of transition, or none at all. However, even for those who choose not to pursue it, the obstacles to transition and acceptance impact the entire transgender community. For many, mistreatment or refusal of recognition can harm a transgender person’s social well-being, mental health, and psychological stability. In fact, the judgment from outsiders or societal norms can be the biggest contributor to gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria replaced the inaccurate “Gender Identity Disorder” in the most recent publication of the Diagnostic Statisticians Manual, or the DSM-V. “Dysphoria,” the opposite of “euphoria,” is a word that refers to a sense of wrongness, dissatisfaction, and unpleasant feeling. To have gender dysphoria, then, is to feel a “wrongness” associated with your assigned gender, or a discomfort with how you are seen physically or socially. (Social dysphoria refers to feeling at odds with how your gender is viewed socially; physical dysphoria indicates a discomfort with one’s body as related to gender.)
Not every transgender person experiences dysphoria; some people may feel fine or comfortable in whatever body or presentation, but simply know themselves that another gender is best or most accurate to their true identity. Others may experience social dysphoria but not physical, or the other way around. Some experiences with dysphoria are ingrained in one’s own beliefs or the result of societal encoding. Other experiences with dysphoria may be a direct response to the reactions or judgments of an external populace. Dysphoria can be vague or distinct, and can waver or remain constant. For most, though, the treatment for gender dysphoria is gender transition. Many cisgender people may not understand why a transgender person feels the need to transition; it is likely because, without being allowed to fulfill the transformation that makes them feel most like their true self, a transgender person suffering from dysphoria may feel stuck in a “wrong” or improper sense of self until achieved. Cisgender people can help ease this feeling by respecting a person’s social transition: treating a transgender person as their true gender, using their preferred personal pronouns, and addressing them with their chosen names and identifying terms (to the extent and in the circumstances with which the transgender person is individually comfortable).
Now that you understand what it means to be transgender, and what a transgender person’s transition might look like, consider learning more about the gender spectrum.