More Americans than ever know someone who is transgender. In a new survey by the Human Rights Campaign, 22 percent of survey respondents said they know or work with someone who is transgender, an increase from 17 percent last year. Those people also showed a much more positive outlook on the transgender community, with 66 percent expressing “favorable feelings” toward transgender people, as opposed to 13 percent of people who do not know a transgender person.
But transgender identity is still widely misunderstood. We spoke with experts and activists within the transgender community to address some common misconceptions.
1. “Transgender” is an umbrella term that encompasses many identities
The transgender community is large, varied and includes people who have a diverse set of relationships to their gender. People throughout history have explored a wide range of gender identities, according to Susan Maasch, director of Trans Youth Equality.
“There’s a transgender movement to get people to really understand that the spectrum exists. It always has been there. The difference is good and rich and we just need to honor it,” Maasch said.
The word “transgender” gained popularity in the 1990s as an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and expression did not necessarily match the gender they were assigned at birth, according to Susan Stryker, an associate professor of gender studies at the University of Arizona. “It became a catch-all term for anybody who differed in any way from conventional expectations of gender,” she said.
In contrast, to be “cisgender” means that a person’s gender identity does align with the gender they were assigned at birth, according to Morgan Darby, director of professional development and partnerships at Gender Spectrum, a group that advocates and educates on gender issues.
Being cisgender awards certain privileges, Darby said. “Cisgender privilege is the recognition that you have the ability to move through the world or through a community in daily interactions without ever having to be interrupted by an obstacle that suggests your gender is not right,” she said.
2. Sex and gender are different
The difference between sex and gender is frequently misunderstood, according to Nancy Nangeroni, former chair of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition. “A lot of people have no clue that these are not the same thing,” she said.
A person’s “sex” refers to their anatomy and biological characteristics, including reproductive organs, hormones and chromosomes. These traits distinguish them as male-sexed, female-sexed or intersex, which refers to people whose biological traits are a combination of male and female sex characteristics. “Human bodies come into the world in all kinds of diverse ways, including not being easily classified as male or female,” Stryker said.
Gender, on the other hand, refers to traditional societal roles, behaviors and activities that men and women are expected to perform, according to Jay Brown, Director of Program Strategies at the Human Rights Campaign.
Some transgender people may choose to pursue sex reassignment surgery or hormone therapy, but transition is multi-layered, Brown said. Transition can include social transitioning, legal transitioning and medical transitioning.
Medically transitioning is a highly individual choice and it is offensive to ask someone if they have done so, Darby said. “It is so invasive,” she said. “Why does that matter to us, to know what someone is choosing to do with their own body?”
3. Sexuality and gender are different
A person’s gender does not determine their sexuality, and just because someone transitions their gender does not mean that their attractions necessarily change, Maasch said. “Gender is … this deeply felt thing about who you are and how you identify. That’s a separate issue from who you want to be romantically involved with and who you’re sexually attracted to,” she said.
For some transgender people, their gender and sexuality are related, but one does not always decide the other, Stryker said. “Sexual orientation is a sense of, who are you attracted to, what kind of person are you attracted to? Gender identity is a question of, who do I think I am? And so those are just not the same things,” she said.
4. There are more than two genders
The list of gender identities is vast and diverse, and cultures throughout history have commonly recognized genders other than male and female. When most people think about gender, they think of a binary that includes only the male and female genders, but many people identify outside of those two genders or as a mix between the two, Brown said.
“Some people think of gender as a spectrum between male and female and there’s room between,” he said. “And some people feel like a spectrum is not a good metaphor for their identities. They may identify as genderfluid or genderqueer.”
Other transgender people do identify with the binary and identify as male or female, Stryker said.
5. There are more pronouns than “he” and “she”
Some people in the transgender community may choose to use pronouns other than “he” or “she” to refer to themselves, according to Kylar Broadus, executive director of the Trans People of Color Coalition. Dozens of options exist, including zhe, ze, zed and they.
The English language does not always reflect an existing gender spectrum, Darby said. “Our understanding of language has been situated on a binary model that [only] recognizes male and female identities,” she said. In response, people commonly use non-binary pronouns “to challenge the existing norm as well as to affirm their actual identity [and] who they know themselves to be,” she said.
The best way to determine what pronouns to use is to ask the person you’re referring to what they prefer, Darby said.
6. The phrase “born a man” or “born a woman” is not necessarily correct
Doctors typically assign babies a gender at birth based on their anatomy and biological characteristics, but people may realize that their gender differs from their assigned label, Maasch said. Transgender people describe their experiences in many different ways, and some prefer to use the term “assigned at birth” to describe the gender society placed on them.
The most important way to honor a person’s gender identity is to respect their description of it, Darby said. “They always have known who they are. They are their best spokespeople for their own experience.”