What does it mean to be transgender?

You might think the word “transgender” refers to someone who used to be one gender, and then became another gender.

That’s actually a common misconception.

the transgender symbol
the transgender symbol

Transgender refers to any person who was assigned a different gender when they were born than the gender that they really are.

This is as opposed to cisgender, which is what our culture typically (and wrongly) assumes everyone is by default: a person whose sense of who they are lines up with the label that was put on them when they were born.

The word “transgender” includes a variety of different folks.

Some trans people are men, some are women, and some are nonbinary

The transgender flag

The colors of the transgender flag are associated like so:

  • Blue: for the traditional color of baby boys
  • Pink: for the traditional color of baby girls
  • White: for people who are nonbinary or in transition

( You can learn more about gender pride flags and their meanings here.)

Transgender people come in many forms. There are binary transgender people. Those include:

  • people who were assigned male at birth, but are actually women
  • people who were assigned female at birth, but are actually men

There are also nonbinary transgender people. These are people (like me) who were assigned male or female at birth, but whose real gender is outside of the gender binary.

Here are a few examples of nonbinary gender identities (but there are many more, and many that people choose not to label):

  • Agender, which is a person without gender
  • Bigender, which is a person who has two genders they either switch between or experience simultaneously
  • Demi-gender, which is a person who experiences a partial gender
  • Genderfluid, which is a person whose gender shifts and changes
  • Neutrois, which is a person whose gender is in-between male and female

While “nonbinary” is typically nested under the transgender umbrella, not all nonbinary people use the transgender label. The reasons for this can be simple, for example, not feeling comfortable with a word that has so much stigma, or much more complex and nuanced. For example, not all cultures assign binary genders at birth—in which case, a nonbinary person wouldn’t necessarily be trans. It’s a very complex issue, and maybe eventually I’ll write more on it in another post.

Some medically transition, and some don’t

Some transgender people choose to undergo medical procedures that help them present themselves in a way that aligns more accurately with the person they really are.

These procedures include surgeries, hormone therapies, and electrolysis.

There is no single “sex change” procedure. Many transgender people pursue some aspects of medical transition, but not others.

Other transgender people choose not to undergo any form of medical transition whatsoever. This can be for a variety of reasons. For example:

  • Most of these procedures are extremely expensive. Even in the case where people have good insurance, a lot still comes out of pocket.
  • Many trans folks have health issues that prevent them from being able to undergo various procedures and therapies.
  • Transitioning in various places can be extremely dangerous socially, and for many trans people, it’s not worth the risk.
  • Many folks don’t have the support network they need to help them with surgery recovery.

There are plenty of other reasons trans folks might not choose to medically transition. Whether or not medical transition is part of a transgender person’s story, they are just as trans.

The thing that makes a person transgender isn’t their body—it’s their mind.

Some experience dysphoria, and some don’t

Gender dysphoria is a profound sense of discomfort and unease that comes from expressing one’s gender incorrectly. This can be experienced both with your body and with the way society interacts with you.

While many transgender people experience dysphoria—which is often horrifying and crippling—many don’t.

What all transgender people share is a knowledge of who they are in contrast to who they were labeled to be.

Transgender people can be “stealth,” closeted, or openly trans

A closeted transgender person is someone who is living according to their assigned gender, and not their real gender. For example, I was a closeted agender person until age 28. Friends, family, and society treated me like I was a woman, and I didn’t correct their misunderstanding. I was still just as transgender then as I am now.

A stealth transgender person is someone who society views as their true gender, but isn’t openly trans. For example, I know a young man who medically and socially transitioned. Society doesn’t question whether or not he is a man, and he doesn’t inform anyone that he is transgender. Most of his acquaintances and friends have no idea.

An openly transgender person is someone who makes the transgender aspect of their identity known, whether it’s because they can’t hide it, or because they choose to make that known for the purposes of activism or other reasons. For example, I’m an openly transgender person, both because I can’t hide it and because I choose to embrace it and make it known.

You might think you’ve never met a trans person before, but it’s possible that you’ve just never met an openly trans person.

There is no such thing as a “transtrender”

“Transtrender” is a harmful myth that was created to shame and control transgender people. It’s not a real thing: it’s a form of abusive hate speech. The term creates a fictional image of people who aren’t really transgender, but are just pretending to be to get some sort of attention.

Only an individual person knows what their gender is, and it can’t be accurately defined or verified by an outside source.

If someone says they are transgender, believe them. This is about their identity, which should never be under someone else’s control. If it turns out that they’re wrong, that’s on them. Not on anyone else.

Other pages to check out:

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