The words a person uses to describe their experiences and identities are incredibly important — perhaps more important than the words used by others.
Word usage is often discussed in reference to what’s acceptable or politically correct.
But the words someone uses to comfortably and safely convey information about who they are aren’t a matter of preference, opinion, or debate.
They’re matters of respect, dignity, and human rights.
‘How were you born?’ is the wrong question
When it comes to understanding transgender identities, it’s important to recognize that affirming someone’s gender is about seeing and treating them as who they are.
It shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of the body parts they were born with.
Practically speaking, trans people are born the same way all other humans are born and have been a part of humanity throughout all of history.
Asking a trans person how they were born or what body parts they were born with is never appropriate. Doing so can cause that person to feel very unsafe and misunderstood.
If you’re unsure about how to refer to someone, it’s OK to ask the name they’d like you to use and how they’d like you to refer to them.
If you’re a medical professional seeking to understand aspects of a person’s anatomy or biology, ask yourself whether this info is truly relevant or necessary given the circumstance. Exercise sensitivity and intention around consent and the language used when addressing these topics.
Remember, you don’t have to fully understand or agree with someone’s gender in order to interact with them respectfully. And asking “how were you born” is never a respectful question to ask a trans person.
Then why are some people trans and not others?
Researchers haven’t yet identified exactly where in the brain gender identity lives and what “causes” a person to be transgender.
That said, many historical accounts and extensive literature demonstrate that trans and nonbinary people have been in existence for centuries, across many cultures.
The point in time and development when someone comes to know and understand their gender identity can vary from person to person. It’s dependent upon a number of different developmental, cultural, and social factors.
Generally speaking, some people know their gender at an early age, while others need more time to understand this aspect of their identity more fully.
This is true for both trans people and people who identify with their designated sex at birth (which is known as cisgender).
So it’s not a disorder?
Being transgender or having a gender that differs from the sex designated at birth is not considered a disorder.
Historically, medical and mental health professionals created labels — like “transsexualism,” “transvestism,” and “gender identity disorder” — to categorize people who have a gender identity that differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
Current medical and psychological guidelines have moved away from using these terms in order to more clearly convey that being trans, in and of itself, isn’t a mental illness or medical problem.
To be clear, trans identity isn’t a diagnosis.
It’s a label and umbrella term used to describe those who identify with a gender that differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
Gender dysphoria, on the other hand, is a current diagnosis. It’s used to describe the distress someone may experience as a result of having a gender that differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
How does someone know that they’re transgender?
Some people report simply knowing what gender they are, while others describe discovering it over time.
Historically, most people have been assigned a gender that correlates with the sex they were assigned at birth.
For example, an infant whose sex is designated male at birth is often referred to as a boy and expected to use he/him/his pronouns.
This is how gender is both presumed and assigned by society, medical professionals, and family members.
Someone may recognize that they’re transgender if they have experiences or feelings that facilitate a self-understanding of gender that’s different from the gender or sex that was assigned to them.
For example, someone who was assigned male at birth and referred to as a boy who used he/him/his pronouns may grow up to understand and experience gender as a girl or a nonbinary person.
Each individual person has a unique experience of gender. This can involve a number of different elements including:
- sense of self
- internal feelings
- aspects of biology
While none of these things, on their own, define someone’s gender, each is a puzzle piece that, when put together, reveals information about who someone knows themself to be.
Some people have a gender that stays the same from day to day or throughout their life, while others have a gender that changes or is fluid.
Although medical and mental health professionals can diagnose someone as having gender dysphoria and assist them in their gender exploration, self-understanding, and affirmation process, there isn’t a genetic, medical, or psychological test that can indisputably predict or determine if someone was, is, or will be trans.
Is this the same as being nonbinary, gender nonconforming, or genderqueer?
The definition of the word transgender is different from the definitions of the words nonbinary, gender nonconforming, and genderqueer.
Transgender refers to the relationship someone has with the sex they were designated at birth.
Nonbinary, gender nonconforming, and genderqueer are identity labels used to describe different aspects of one’s gender. They’re centered around the ways people experience and express themselves rather than their biological or anatomical characteristics.
People who are nonbinary, gender nonconforming, or genderqueer often experience and express their gender in a way that can’t be categorized as exclusively masculine or feminine, or described using binary language.
Some people who use the words nonbinary, gender nonconforming, or genderqueer to describe their gender also identify as trans, while others may not.
It’s also important to remember that the terms transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, and genderqueer can mean different things to different people.
Does being transgender have to do with who someone is attracted to?
Having a trans identity doesn’t indicate anything about who someone may be attracted to.
Being trans has to do with who a person is and how they experience gender.
Trans people can experience any type of attraction, just like cis people who identify with the sex they were designated at birth.
People who are trans can be straight (heterosexual), gay or lesbian (homosexual), bisexual, pansexual, asexual, queer, or a range of other terms used to describe sexual and romantic attraction.
What does ‘passing’ mean?
The term “passing” generally refers to a person’s ability to be correctly addressed and perceived as the gender they identify with.
This definition has shifted over time, and, when spoken about specifically, can mean different things to different people.
Historically, “passing” has been used to refer to one’s ability to move through the world without having their trans status known by others.
The term is rooted in a cisnormative and binary framework for understanding gender identity, gender expression, and body diversity.
According to Thomas J. Billard, a PhD candidate in the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, “those transgender people who show no clear signs of the gender they were assigned at birth ‘pass’ [as cisgender], while those who do show signs fail to ‘pass.’”
With laws policing gender conformity and the threat of criminalization or violence if discovered, passing was once — and for some, still is — a necessary or unavoidable aspect of being trans.
Growing legal protections, visibility, and acceptance of non-cis identities and gender nonconforming presentations have helped enable trans people to exist more openly and be affirmed as who they truly are.
Despite notable progress, the rates of discrimination, harassment, and violence towards trans and gender nonconforming people are still exceedingly high.
As a result, many — but not all — trans people still feel that passing is a vital part of both safety and gender affirmation.
It’s important to remember that passing is a personal topic, and not all trans people feel the same way about it.
Why doesn’t everyone want to ‘pass’?
Some, but not all, trans people have the desire to “pass” as cisgender — and there are countless reasons why.
For example, those who don’t want to pass might:
- be gender nonconforming
- not identify with the norms present in cis culture
- have a sense of gender that can’t be affirmed using reference points grounded in the cis experience
Why are trans people discriminated against?
Trans people may face discrimination for a variety of reasons, most of which are linked to lack of understanding and acceptance.
For example, people who are scared of or uncomfortable with non-cis and nonconforming gender presentations may treat trans people differently or disrespectfully.
The term “transphobia” refers to the fear, disbelief, or mistrust of those with a gender identity, presentation, or expression that doesn’t fit within the social norms or expectations.
Transphobia is often cited as a primary source of distress and discrimination for trans people.
It can contribute to the many challenges trans people face in:
- family life
- education and schools
- employment and housing
- government agencies
- criminal justice and legal systems
- society at large
How can someone be supportive of the trans people in their life?
The best way to be supportive of the trans people in your life is to learn, listen, and act as an advocate (when appropriate). This can begin by recognizing the difference between acceptance and support.
Acceptance, like tolerance, is often passive, while support requires taking action.
Making a commitment to personally take action in your interactions with others and in society more broadly is the first step.
Remember, trans people are human, too, and often have more in common with cis people than not.
Treat trans people with the same kindness and compassion you show others in your life and make an effort to get to know them as people, including and beyond their gender.
Learn about the things that are important to them and the experiences that have informed who they are.
Educate yourself about gender, as well as inappropriate questions and sensitive topics that could contribute to a trans person feeling ostracized, stigmatized, interrogated, or pressured to disclose personal and private information.
Use the name, pronoun, or language they tell you is affirming or appropriate given the setting, and ask if there are other ways they would like you to show support.
This could include politely correcting other people who refer to them incorrectly, challenging anti-transgender or gender essentialist comments, accompanying someone to the restroom, or providing a shoulder to lean on during challenging moments.
What feels right in terms of support and advocacy can vary from person to person. It’s important to always ask consent before taking action or speaking up on behalf of another person.
Is there anything that can be done to support the trans community as a whole?
Speaking with your family and community about gender diversity and inclusion and educating them on the topics and issues affecting trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming communities can help create greater acceptance and understanding in the world at large.
Stay informed about legislation that impacts the rights of trans people and exercise your right to vote or contact elected officials in favor of legal protections.
Consider the ways gender shows up in your personal and professional life, and look for opportunities to implement systems, establish norms, and create a culture that accounts for trans experiences and celebrates gender diversity.
Volunteering your time and donating to trans-led organizations and initiatives are other great ways to show your support to the trans community as a whole.
How can a parent or caregiver know if their child is trans?
There isn’t a test that indicates a child’s transgender status.
The best thing a parent can do is to stay attuned, create nonjudgmental space for identity and expression exploration, and keep the lines of communication open.
Observe and listen to your young person, taking note of how they engage with and navigate gender personally, with others, and in the larger world.
Be curious and supportive without showing bias or preference. Have developmentally appropriate conversations about gender identity and expression, body diversity, puberty, and building families.
If equipped with the right tools and support system, your child will develop the self-understanding to articulate their gender identity on their own personal timeline and in their own personal way.
Where can you learn more?
If you want to learn more about trans identities, check out these articles:
- Transgender Identities
- Transgender People, Gender Identity and Gender Expression
- Frequently Asked Questions about Transgender People
And check out these resources:
- How Can I Support Someone Who’s Trans?
- Supporting the Transgender People in Your Life: A Guide to Being a Good Ally
- Three Ways to Be an Informed Advocate to Transgender People
- Things You Can Do for Transgender Equality
Education about different gender labels can be an important part of exploration, self-discovery, and supporting loved ones.
Each person deserves the right to determine the label that’s used to describe them.
Mere Abrams is a researcher, writer, educator, consultant, and licensed clinical social worker who reaches a worldwide audience through public speaking, publications, social media (@meretheir), and gender therapy and support services practice onlinegendercare.com. Mere uses their personal experience and diverse professional background to support individuals exploring gender and help institutions, organizations, and businesses to increase gender literacy and identify opportunities to demonstrate gender inclusion in products, services, programs, projects, and content.