What does it mean to be transgender?
Transgender people are those whose appearance, behaviors, or personal characteristics differ from stereotypes about how men and women are supposed to be (NGLTF, 2000). The group includes crossdressers, transsexuals (both male to female – MtF and female to male – FtM), and intersexed people (those born with genitals that may look like boys or girls but may have the other gender’s internal reproductive organs). Transgender people often suffer both internal confusion and suffering and prejudice or violence from others. Transgender people face enormous discrimination in society – from immediate family, neighbors, and co-workers. The pressures to conform to gender stereotypes are so overwhelming that many transsexuals attempt suicide before seeking treatment. Unfortunately, far too many fail by succumbing to suicide while many other individuals suffer their lives in seclusion and secrecy.
Why should the general lesbian, gay, and bisexual (lgb) community care about transgender issues?
The reason this is so important to the lgb community is that someone who is viewed as being gender different, regardless whether they identify as transgendered or not, is often subject to the exact same oppression, the same violence as those of us who do identify as being transgendered. Being perceived as gender different is the leading reason given for “gay-bashing”. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) has long included transgender rights in its mission and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) recently expanded their mission statement to include the transgender community.
Finally, gender rights are ultimately human rights. Each of us is assigned a gender role at birth that we are expected to conform to, regardless of how we might feel or view ourselves as being. As a most basic human right, each of us should be free to express our gender as we wish.
Transgender Terms Defined
Transgender / Trans: An umbrella term encompassing other terms defined below. It refers to anyone who is “crossing gender” in any way, or whose gender identity does not necessarily match their assigned sex at birth.
Sex: Sex is the physiological makeup of a human being, referred to as their biological or natal sex. Sex is usually thought of in a bipolar way, dividing the world into males and females. In reality, sex is a complex relationship of genetic, hormonal, morphological, biochemical and anatomical determinates that impact the physiology of the body and the sexual differentiation of the brain. Although everyone is assigned a sex at birth, approximately 2% of the population are intersexed and do not easily fit into a dimorphic division of two sexes that are “opposite.”
Gender: Gender is a social construct that divides people into “natural” categories of men and women that are assumed to derive from their physiological male and female bodies. Gender attributes vary from culture to culture, and are arbitrarily imposed, denying individuality. Most people’s gender identity is congruent with their assigned sex, but many people experience their gender identity to be discordant with their natal sex. A person’s self concept of their gender (regardless of their biological sex) is called their gender identity.
Gender Role: Gender role is the expression of masculinity and femininity and has often been referred to as “sex roles.” Gender roles are thought to be a reflection of one’s gender identity and are socially dictated and reinforced. Gender roles are how gender is enacted or “performed” (consciously or unconsciously) and may or may not be related to gender identity or natal sex.
Transsexual: A person who wishes and seriously acts upon the sense of having the wrong gender body, often– though not always–culminating in sexual reassignment surgery. This term is commonly misunderstood and is considered outdated as many find this term offensive. Pre-operative transsexuals include those not yet undergoing surgery; post-operative transsexuals are those who have received surgery; non-operative transsexuals are those who, for whatever reason, cannot or choose not to have surgery. Individuals who identify as transsexual may not identify as transgender and vise-versa. NOTE ON PRONOUNS: All transsexuals are referred to by the pronouns of the gender they see themselves as being, whether they are pre-operative, non-operative, or post-operative. If in doubt, ask the individual.
Female to Male (FtM)/Male to Female (MtF): These terms are widely used in the trans community to define the direction of crossdress or transsexuality. There are harsh critics of these terms due to the assumption of duality.
Benjamin Standards: A set of standards established by committee to guide therapists and surgeons in the process of sexual reassignment. The standards are named after Dr. Harry Benjamin, who worked with Christine Jorgensen, the first American to receive sexual reassignment surgery. The standards set minimum therapeutic and hormonal pre-requisites to surgery and are currently available at http://www.tc.umn.edu/~colem001/hbigda/hstndrd.htm.
Gedner Affirming Surgery/Genital Reassignment Surgery: The term used for the set of surgeries to alter the gender of an individual. For male-to-female transsexuals, it usually involves amputation of testicles and most of the penis, inversion of the penis skin into a vagina, and optional breast implants, tracheal shaves, and labiaplasty. For female-to-male transsexuals, it involves mastectomy, hysterectomy, and optional attempts at creating a penis and scrotum. Preparatory and follow-up hormonal treatment is almost always given, and M to Fs often undergo long, expensive, painful electrolysis.
Transition: This is the process of changing gender role, and also the time period in which the change occurs. The time period starts, more or less, with the decision to change gender, and ends with surgery. The term is also used in the sense of an event, usually when a person begins working in the new gender role.
Androgynous/Androgyn: Between genders or without gender.
Intersexed: The term preferred by people born with both female and male characteristics; the more commonly used term in history is hermaphrodite. Children born with obvious intersexed characteristics are often operated on as an infant to remove whichever characteristics the family or surgeon decides should disappear. This may or may not coincide with which gender the child considers him/herself to be.
Gender dysphoria: Clinical literature on transsexualism once spoke of transsexuals having “gender confusion.” The term now used is “gender dysphoria,” a fancy way of saying “extreme discomfort.” Transsexuals, once given an understanding and a vocabulary for who they are, are confused mostly by society’s reluctance to give them validity. The best science we currently have indicates that biological gender dysphoria is caused by hormonal fluctuations at a crucial time in fetal development.
Crossdressing/Transvestitism: People who desire to dress and occasionally act as a member of the opposite sex, but do not consider themselves as being the opposite sex or even want to be. Transvestites never seek sexual reassignment surgery, and most are heterosexual, often married. Clinicians recognize transvestism as a tranquilizer against the rigors of manliness. The usual forms of transvestism were removed from the list of mental illnesses in 1995. Many societies, including our own, have ritualized transvestism in religious ceremonies or in secular party times, like Halloween or Mardi Gras. Support groups and private events exist in most major cities in the U.S. for men who want to dress as women but feel unsafe in doing so publicly. “Crossdresser” is often the preferred term of those who participate in this behavior.
Bigendered: People who see themselves as possessing both genders: man and woman. Some may feel that one side or the other is stronger, but both sides are there.
Intergender: An identity which falls somewhere between the endpoints of man and woman. It assumes an acceptance of the construct of a Gender Continuum. Given such a continuum, man and woman become bounding constructs with an infinite number of gendered states in between. One identifies as neither a man nor a woman but as something separate and unique from either extreme.
Gender Continuum: Also called the Gender Spectrum. The construct that gender is not a binary system where there are only men and women, but a continuum or spectrum spanning from man to woman with an infinite number of gendered states in between. It is an attempt to account for the obvious variety and endless differences there are in how people gender themselves.
Drag Queens/Drag King: A term used to refer to gay men (usually) who dress in a feminine manner, often exaggeratedly so. If they do it on stage as well, they also are impersonators and the terms are sometimes interchangeable. The female form of this is the drag king. Most commonly found in bars, parties, and parades, as well on television.
Gender Bender: A term used to refer to anyone who acts outside the generally accepted norms of gender behavior, usually by the way she or he dresses, without care about “what people think.”