As someone who has been on the other end of this conversation dozens of times now, I feel just as overwhelmed as you do. Telling someone that you are transgender can be hard, in no small part because it puts you in a vulnerable position with someone that you desperately want to love and accept you. In these emotional moments, I often forget that I don’t just have to come out as trans — I have to explain what being trans actually means to folks that haven’t spent the past year thinking about gender identity.
I’ve tried to find a good “Transgender People For Dummies” FAQ, but there honestly isn’t much out there. The only resources I found were written by cisgender (non-trans) people. And even when they try their gosh-darn best, they don’t quite get there. That’s about when I realized that I was going to have to write one myself.
Before we begin, please understand that I am just one trans woman writing from my own personal perspective. I’m going to do my best to be as inclusive as possible of all trans identities, but there are holes in my knowledge and lived experiences. If anything I say seems to contradict what your trans loved one tells you, you should trust and believe them over me. Being trans is not a singular or monolithic thing — it’s a broad web of similar-but-unique experiences. There is no “one right way” to be trans, just like there’s no one right way to be a man or a woman.
Can we start at the beginning? What does “transgender” actually mean?
Transgender people have gender identities that don’t match their assigned sex at birth.
I am a trans woman, which means that I’m a woman despite the fact that I have a penis and an “M” on my birth certificate. Trans men are men despite the fact that they may have ovaries and an “F” on their birth certificate.
Non-binary people are also transgender. Many non-binary people have gender identities that exist somewhere on the spectrum between the male and female binaries, while other non-binary folks are off the spectrum entirely or have fluid gender identities that range more toward masculinity one day and more toward femininity the next.
If this feels like an overwhelming place to start, don’t panic — we’ll talk about all of this in detail going forward, and I’ll do my best to explain it as best I can.
How can a trans woman be a woman if she dresses like a man?
Gender identity is different from gender presentation. Presentation is all the stuff you see on the outside, and it’s a great way to signal your gender to other people. Presentation doesn’t have anything to do with your actual gender identity, though.
For example, when a woman wears pants or a tie, she’s still a woman. A man is still a man whether he’s wearing a suit and tie or a skirt and leggings. When someone dresses in an opposite-gendered Halloween costume, we understand that they haven’t actually changed their gender identity.
How can a trans woman be a woman if she has a penis?
Gender identity doesn’t have anything to do with which body parts you have, either. This seems radical at first glance, but it makes more sense when you think about it for a little while.
Consider this: losing your reproductive organs or secondary sex characteristics doesn’t change your gender identity, right? If you’re a woman who has to undergo a hysterectomy or a mastectomy, you’re still a woman. If you’re a man who loses his penis in combat or testicles to cancer, you’re still a man.
Since we can accept that being a man doesn’t require a penis and being a woman doesn’t require a uterus, then it follows that gender identity is about something more than the sum of each person’s body parts.
What about chromosomes, though? Don’t women have XX chromosomes while men have XY chromosomes?
Sex and gender are actually two different things. When we talk about being “assigned male at birth” or “assigned female at birth,” that’s your sex. It’s generally determined by some combination of genitals, chromosomes, and hormones.
Even then, the concept of biological sex is actually a lot more nebulous than it seems. The whole XX/XY thing is actually quite complex and full of natural variation that isn’t really talked about. For example, a 2015 study shows that intersex people make up about 1.7% of the global population, making it about as common as having red hair.
But even if we ignore the complex realities of biological sex, the thing that many trans people are trying to do by transitioning is to modify their bodies so that they are more in line with their true gender identity. Saying “aha, your assigned sex at birth doesn’t match your gender!” simply names the problem.
So wait. If gender isn’t based on your genitals, your appearance, or even your chromosomes, what the heck is it?
I honestly have no idea. Maybe my soul was in the middle of an elaborate heist on the ethereal plane, and it all went south, and the only way I could elude the guards and avoid Heaven Jail was by jumping into the first portal I came across in the “this is your next body on Earth” chamber. Whoops, guess should have checked the sex on that body first!
Or maybe I’m trans because of “insufficient or inappropriate androgenization of the brain at a critical stage of embryonic development.” This would mean that my body was essentially given the “how to be a guy” instruction manual by my chromosomes while my brain was told that I was going to be a girl instead.
All I know is that gender is a feeling, and it comes from someplace deep inside me that I can’t really explain. It’s probably some complex combination of nature and nurture — brain-patterns, hormones, socialization, identity, and a thousand other things. You probably have a pretty strong sense of gender, too. You probably just haven’t spent much time thinking about it if you’re not trans.
Luckily, understanding gender identity is not a prerequisite for accepting that some peoples’ gender identities don’t match their assigned sex at birth. You don’t have to “get it.” You just have to accept that gender identity is a complex thing, and that trans people are being honest when we tell you what their gender is. Believing us — and accepting us — costs nothing.
Is being transgender a mental illness?
Nope! And this isn’t just me talking — ask The World Health Organization, who put out a statement saying that being trans is not a mental disorder.
Granted, gender dysphoria is currently classified as a disorder, but many trans advocates have argued that this decision was only made in order to stigmatize trans people. And there’s probably some truth to that argument: being gay used to be considered a mental illness as well, a classification that was generally used to deny rights to gay people for as long as possible. It’s far more accurate to consider being transgender as part of the normal variation of human experiences.
That said, gender dysphoria often comes with an array of nasty symptoms, like anxiety and depression. Thankfully, there’s a medicine that helps out quite well: transitioning. Seriously: it’s scientifically proven that both social and medical transition help alleviate dysphoria and lead to happier lives the vast majority of time. You don’t need dysphoria to be trans, but if you do have dysphoria, transitioning is often the best way to alleviate it.
Even if you believe that gender dysphoria is a mental illness, being trans certainly isn’t. There are loads of trans people who live happy, healthy lives. Classifying us as “mentally ill” is just a way to stigmatize us for existing.
What’s the difference between trans women and a feminine men?
Feminine men are men, but trans women are women.
Feminine men still like being seen by the world as men, but they enjoy some aspects of gender presentation that are normally coded as female. Again — if you’re a man, it doesn’t matter what you wear, or whether or not you like to watch romantic comedies. You’re still a man.
Conversely, trans women are still women regardless of how feminine they are. It doesn’t matter what they wear, what they look like, or whether or not they like to watch football — they’re still women. I have a lot of hobbies and interests that are coded male, but thinking of myself as a girl feels correct in a way that thinking of myself as a guy never did.
What does being trans have to do with drag?
Drag may seem like part of the trans community from the outside, but it’s actually something entirely different. Most drag queens aren’t trans women — they’re (often gay) men who are exploring the trappings of femininity in a fun, campy way.
This is a huge difference in intention. Even though many drag queens will adopt a feminine persona and wear hyper-feminine clothing during their performance, they are still men — by choice — at the end of the day. When they wake up the next morning and go to work, they want to be treated as male by the world. Drag queens play with gender for fun, not because they’re actually women.
While drag is often harmless good fun, many trans women (including me!) are frustrated at how often drag is equated with being trans. It doesn’t help that RuPaul, the most famous drag queen in the world, has been known to hold transphobic opinions. But the biggest problem with drag is the implication that gender identity and gender expression are the same thing. There’s a lot more to being a woman than the clothes you wear, and drag is about appearance, not identity. Telling a trans person “Oh! You’re trans? I love Drag Race!” is a great way to show that you don’t really understand them yet.
What does being trans have to do with being gay?
Gender identity doesn’t have anything to do with who you are attracted to.
Some trans people are straight. Some are gay. Some are bisexual (attracted to their own gender as well as other genders) or pansexual (attracted to all genders). Sometimes, trans people find that their sexuality changes somewhat after undergoing hormone replacement therapy (HRT), but for many others this is not the case.
Regardless, being trans doesn’t make you gay, and not all trans people are gay.
I understand most of what you’re saying, but I’m still having some trouble “getting it” emotionally. Is there anything I can do about that?
I’m stealing most of this answer from one of my other essays about gender, but I think it’s important to reiterate here.
If you want to understand what being trans is like, don’t think, “hmm, what would it like to wish I was the opposite gender?” Not only is this thought experiment way too abstract, it is likely to miss the point entirely.
Instead, try to imagine what your life would have been like had you been raised and socialized as the opposite gender to yourself. You’re still you — your mind and gender identity are the same as they are right now — only your family, your teachers, your friends, and everyone you know have always treated you as a person of the opposite gender.
Picture yourself an opposite-gendered body, with the hormones and social expectations of an opposite-gendered person. Only you’re still you.
If you’re a woman, imagine what it would feel like to grow facial hair, broad shoulders, and be permanently pumped full of a chemical that makes you angry and horny and disconnected from yourself. Imagine having to constantly compete with other men in these deep, unknowable bonding rituals that are partially based on violence and machismo.
If you’re a man, imagine growing breasts and wide hips, Imagine never having your voice drop, being told that good girls don’t behave like you, being patronized by the patriarchy, and being forced to learn how to do elaborate beauty rituals on a face that didn’t even feel like your own.
If this all sounds kind of low-key miserable to you…well, you’re right!
Okay, I guess I can kind of picture that. But what about non-binary people? What does it mean to not be a man or a woman?
Our minds are used to thinking of gender as two distinct boxes: one labeled man, and one labeled woman. When you meet someone new, one of the first things you probably do — fully unconsciously mind you! — is to dump them into either the ‘man’ box or ‘woman’ box inside your brain.
In reality, gender is more like a spectrum. If you imagine a line segment with “man” on one side and “woman” on the other, many people are going to feel as though their gender identity is close enough to one of those poles to simply say, “yeah, I’m a dude,” or “woman feels right to me.”
But there are some people whose gender identities live somewhere out on that line segment, far away from either pole. They don’t really feel like either a man or a woman, and they’d rather not shoehorn their identity into one of those reductive boxes. Other non-binary people do live closer to one pole or the other, but still don’t feel as though ‘man’ or ‘woman’ fully describes who they are. There are also plenty of people whose sense of gender identity shifts from day to day, or even moment to moment.
Non-binary identities are varied and complex, and there are as many different non-binary genders and methods of gender expression as there are non-binary people in the world. Since I’m not non-binary, I’m going to link you to a couple of articles that have interviews with non-binary folks so that you can get some more primary source information if you wish.
Here’s the most important thing to remember: as with binary trans identities, you don’t have to fully understand non-binary trans identities to be accepting and inclusive. The best thing you can do is talk to the non-binary people in your life and accept what they tell you as the truth of their gender identity.
Cool, I have a better sense of what being trans is all about, but I still have a lot of questions about what I should and shouldn’t say to the trans loved one in my life. Can you help me with that, too?
Absolutely! But we’ve gone on long enough for one essay, so let’s handle that over in Part 2 (COMING SOON!)