|Note that this article is still under construction.|
If gender studies were algebra, then transgender studies would be like calculus. Jumping in to try to understand the trans experience and condition without knowing the fundamentals is just as hard as understanding calculus without knowing the fundamentals of algebra. And without any experience, learning about being transgender for yourself or for someone else can seem just as daunting. There is so much to learn and so many things that need to be done, but just like with math, it can be learned, step by step and problems that seemed impossible before will start making sense!
This links to a quick overview of the terms trans people use. While it is important to know the common language we use, we caution you to only refer to the list when looking for individual words or when hyperlinks send you here. The reason for this is the same as the reason a person doesn't study only the terms of their textbook to learn the material. They review them at the end of a chapter, because then they have the context for the information to be meaningful!
The most important thing to know about labels is that they don't define you, nor can you use them to define anyone else. The purpose of labels is to start a conversation. That said, you should adopt labels based on what makes you feel comfortable or how you want that conversation to start.
Sometimes people try to build hierarchies in labels, they try to say, for example, only real gay men do this or that, or that you're not really gay, because, etc etc. It is important to know that isn't how labels work, nor is it how our identities work. Nobody gets to tell us how we identify, what that means to us, or who we are. Nobody is more trans than someone else, and there isn't a right way to be any label. They have common definitions of course, but they're flexible and meant to start a conversation, not define. So let's get into those common definitions.
Gender is a unicorn! Not really (maybe!), but the gender unicorn was created by the Transgender Student Educational Resources to help us break it down into its base components and makes it easy to understand: Gender Identity, Gender Expression, Sex assigned at Birth, Sexually Attract to, and Romantically attracted to! Here is the quick break down of gender, but if you want a way more comprehensive understanding, please check out the gender 101 page!
- Gender Identity: Is our brains innate and internal sense of what our sex is. It is a sense that we all have and it tells us whether we are male, female, or something in-between or outside that binary. To understand what it is like for a transgender person, who had a gender identity different than what they were raised as, imagine your sense of balance. It isn't something you ever think about, unless you're off balance and then it becomes very alarming. A transgender person has their gender off balance most of their life and it causes the same effects, until they can align themselves with what their brain expects. (Here is a video explaining the biological functions of gender identity!)
- Gender Expression/Presentation: This is the range of masculine and feminine we give to dress, behavior, societal roles, and many other things. Gender expression is the social construct of gender and is defined by the culture you live in. It is important to know that someone's gender identity doesn't define their gender expression. That everyone can express their gender in any way and we aren't limited by our gender identity or our sex, but we are sometimes limited by our society. Also, sometimes transgender people need to have a gender expression that more closely resembles their gender identity, so they will be accepted or given treatment, but never to reinforce stereotypes.
- Sex Assigned at Birth: We are assigned a sex at birth based on a guess doctors make. We aren't born men or women, but rather babies who will grow up to discover who we are. Especially problematic and tragic is that if a baby is intersex or has otherwise ambiguous genitals, doctors will routinely preform genital mutilation surgery to make them look more typical at the cost of healthy function and psychological well being down the line. It is worth noting that sex is a spectrum and the only consistent thing across all genders is how people self identify.
- Sexually Attracted To: It is important to know that for sexual attraction, gender matters for both people. That a straight trans woman will only go after straight men and not gay men, because her identity as a woman is integral to the intimacy and attraction. Additionally that people can be asexual and it is a healthy natural variant, that they aren't just scared or not confident, but sincere.
- Romantically/Emotionally Attracted To: This functions the same as sexual attraction in regards to who a person can be romantically attracted to. As such, a person can be gay romantic and romantically attracted to men or straight romantic and be romantically attracted to women. It is important to know that while sexual and romantic attraction often play hand and hand, they don't have to and that gender matters for both parents as much in a romantic relationship as it does in a sexually relationship.
What does all of that mean though? Well it all goes into making up your gender and how you identify. Going from the top to the bottom of the list, we could construct an identity like this:
- Female, feminine, assigned male at birth, lesbian: Which is a trans woman who is feminine in mannerism and dress, who likes other women.
- Male, feminine, assigned female at birth, straight romantic: This is a feminine trans man who is emotionally attracted to women, but is asexual.
- Female, masculine, assigned male at birth, lesbian: Here we have a trans woman who is masculine and likes other women and she'd likely be referred to as butch.
These are all very possible people and they help to illustrate that any gender identity can have any gender expression. That our sex assigned at birth doesn't dictate our gender identity or our sexuality. But they all go together to give us a sense of who we are. Each one of those components is a vast spectrum and our labels are just the most obvious colors, but that doesn't mean a person can't be authentically something else. The thing to understand is that these labels can't define us and we can't use them to define other people, the purpose of labels is to start a conversation. It isn't about whether you're really one thing or another, it's about what you feel helps people understand you and how you want to explore yourself!
Intersex Society of North America is a comprehensive website with all the information about intersex conditions, activism, and history! Please Check it out!
The most important thing you can know is that sex is a spectrum, which means it isn't just a binary of female and male, but rather an expansive possibility of expression based on our chromosomes. There are a ton of different ways to be not strictly female or male, but the important factors are whether someone has a chromosome structure, body, or genitals that differ from the statistical average. Some people may differ a little and others a lot. These people are completely okay with their bodies and their bodies are completely natural, they can grow up to be as happy as anyone else.
Intersex people can also be transgender and wish to change their body and endocrine system to align with a sex different than what they were assigned at birth, but it is worth noting that many of them have to transition because doctors preformed the wrong surgeries on them as infants, effectively making them transgender, by putting their body out of alignment with their brain.
It should be noted that intersex is by definition not the same thing as transgender or transsex. While an intersex person is very likely to be okay with their bodies if doctors don't preform genital mutilation surgery, a transsex by definition isn't. Also, keep in mind that while you could try arguing that transgender is a intersex brain condition, remember that the discrimination these two groups face and what they go through are vastly different experiences that make a distinction into these two categories very useful.
Here we'll explore all the things that go into being transgender. There are a ton of labels and a ton of ways to express ourselves, so what makes you transgender? What makes you authentic? What makes you sure? We'll explore all of that here, but there isn't an easy answer and there definitely isn't a right answer. But what we can offer is a community of people who will support you on your journey and hold your hand for support until you can walk alone.