What does transgender mean?
In the simplest terms, transgender is an umbrella term used to describe people whose gender differs from the sex they were assigned or assumed at birth. Gender is one’s innate sense of self, and when it differs from the sex assigned at birth a person may identify as transgender. Cisgender is word used to describe those whose gender is congruent with the sex assigned to them at birth. If you are not transgender, you are probably cisgender. Start here for an excellent primer on understanding the concept of gender.
Transgender is an adjective, sometimes shortened to simply “trans”. Cisgender is similarly often shortened to “cis”.
Using the word as a noun is inappropriate – it’s not “transgendered” or “a transgender”. If you are describing someone who is trans, use “transgender woman”, “transgender man”, or “transgender person”.
People within the transgender community may use a variety of terms and labels to describe themselves, and you can find many incomplete lists around the internet. We’ll discuss some of these terms on this website, but if you are writing or speaking about someone who is transgender, use the words they use to describe themselves.
Trying to change a person’s gender is no more successful than trying to change their orientation – there is significant psychological research that shows us that it isn’t effective and can cause severe harm. When a transgender person makes the decision to come out and live publicly as their intrinsic self, this process is called transition. Not all transgender people make the decision to transition, for a multitude of very personal reasons.
Transition may be social, adapting the way they present to the world such as changing pronouns, changing names, etc. Transition may be medical, taking steps to bring their bodies into alignment with their gender using hormone therapy, surgical procedures, etc. There is no one path that all transgender people follow, and transition itself is not what makes a person transgender. Being transgender is not dependent upon any medical procedure. There is an endless variety of transgender bodies, an endless variety of transgender identities, and an endless combination of the two.
Understanding the Binary
Most people identify as men or women – falling into two binary categories of gender. Many transgender people transition from one of these genders to the other, from man to woman or woman to man. These folks are under the umbrella of “Binary Transgender”. But this does not apply to everyone. There are many people who do not identify with either of these two binary categories of gender, instead landing somewhere in between, outside, or simply not having a gender at all. These folks are under the category of “Non-Binary Transgender”. Non-binary people aren’t confused about their gender following a trend – non-binary identities have been recognized for millennia by cultures and societies around the world.
Treating Trans People with Respect
Appropriate language for describing aspects of the transgender experience is probably unfamiliar to you, so take a moment to learn some of the basic terms and concepts you’ll need to avoid harming someone unintentionally with inappropriate language. If you make a mistake, just apologize and correct yourself.
Don’t ask someone what their “real name” is… ever. The name a person is currently using is the only name you need to know – and it is in fact their “real” name. Birth names (sometimes referred to as dead names) can be associated with a tremendous amount of trauma or anxiety, and they are private. There is no reason you need to know someone’s previous name. If they choose to share their birth name with you or if you happen to know someone’s previous name, keep it private and refrain from using it.
Ask people their pronouns, avoid assumptions. When you meet someone new, introduce yourself with your pronouns. “Hi I’m Arden, my pronouns are they/them. What about you?” This gives you the opportunity to immediately learn everyone’s pronouns and avoid making any uncomfortable mistakes, and using your pronouns in conversation normalizes it. I greatly appreciate it when cisgender folks introduce themselves with their pronouns. Keep in mind that someone’s pronouns may change, and if you make a mistake because you’re in the habit of using the old ones – it’s ok. Just correct yourself and move on.
Don’t ask extremely personal questions. Someone’s genitals, medical history, sex life, or surgical history is none of your business. This seems like it should be obvious, but transgender people often face these types of questions. If this is something they want to share, they will bring it up themselves. Unless you are their medical care provider, you don’t need to know.
Backhanded compliments are not compliments. Sometimes this is an issue of impact over intent and people do mean well, but it can be very hurtful or insulting for transgender folks. “You tricked me, I never would have known you were trans!” or “Wow you pass really well as a man.” or “She’s gorgeous, I would have date her even though she’s transgender” or “You look just like a real woman!”… these are all completely inappropriate things to say to a transgender person.
Protect their privacy. Safety is an ever present concern for many transgender people, and it should always be up to the individual if or when they want to disclose any personal information. If you know someone’s birth name or medical information, you have a responsibility to keep that information private.
My Personal Trans Identity
If you landed on this website there’s a decent chance I directed you here myself, so you’re likely a friend or colleague. You might be wondering how all of this affects me personally, and what you should know about how I identify. Or you may not know me or care at all, in which case skip down to the resources section below. 😉
I fall under the wide transgender umbrella and the sub-umbrella of non-binary trans identities, as an agender person. I wrote a bit about what agender means for me here. I also strongly connect with the neurodivergent term “gendervague”, which I’m sure I’ll write a blog post about at some point in the near future.
While my identity is not up for debate, I’m happy to have respectful discussions if they are rooted in a desire to learn and grow. I ask that you start with the resources on this website, since many of your questions will be answered there and it will require less emotional energy and spoons from me.
Resources for Further Learning
We’ve barely scratched the surface here on transgender identity and what you should know to be an ally, an advocate, and a respectful human to the trans people in your life, but it’s a start! Visit the resource page for a curated collection of recommended websites and books for more educational opportunities.