What is gender?
Gender refers to the personal identity of an individual, regardless of the person’s biological sex. This is your gender identity. How people define masculinity and femininity varies based on the individual’s background and culture and there are different expectations from society in each culture which establishes the behavioral, psychological and physical attributes associated with one gender or another.
What does transgender mean?
(Other terms such as Gender variance/ gender dysphoria/ gender identity disorder may be used – please see our Terminology Section for full description)
At its simplest, to be transgender is to feel inside a different gender to that which we are physically; i.e. I have the body of a male, but feel inside that I am a woman and vice versa. Naturally it is a bit more complex than that, because it is not just about how we feel, it is about how we wish to behave, to act, how we want to live our lives, how we want to love others and be loved by others.
Two factors determine our characteristics as people: sex and gender. Many confuse the two but they are very separate components of what makes us who we are. ‘Sex’ – this refers to our physical build, our external appearance, internal organs and our brain. These differ between men and women, and telling someone’s sex is usually medically very simple.
‘Gender’, however is very different. A person’s gender (or gender identity) is what we feel inside, our inner knowledge that we are male or female. We can feel this identity from a very early age.
As we grow, we then begin to fulfil what can be called, ‘gender roles’. This describes how we behave in society, for example, boys and girls are expected to like different types of games, different colours, and react to situations differently. These ‘roles’ are conditioned by the norms expected by society in general, and our behaviour as people is expected to fulfil the gender role determined by our physical sex, i.e. you are physically a girl therefore you should behave like a girl (or vice versa).
Usually sex, gender identity and gender role are happily consistent with each other. And it is assumed at birth that that baby’s gender identity will match their physical sex. Imagine though, what it is like when a mismatch occurs. A body physically male or female, yet the person feels inside a different gender to that physically assigned to them. Yet despite this, they are expected to fulfil and live the gender role appropriate to their physical sex despite how they feel inside. Despite their own gender identity.
This causes specific distress to the person involved and is described as ‘gender dysphoria’. The condition is increasingly believed to develop prior to birth; that a small part of the brain develops in opposition to the sex of the rest of the body. This condition is not a choice and it is no one’s fault. It is very important that the transgender person and their family and friends understand this.
As the baby grows and develops as a child, the distress and unhappiness owing to the discrepancy between their body and their own gender identity can intensify and become life-threatening. It is estimated that approximately 40% of transgender individuals have attempted suicide at least once. Despite this unhappiness, many of these individuals will continue to try living and ‘fit in’ with the gender role expected of them because of their physical sex. Some seek medical help to transition, which includes hormone treatment and surgery. These people are transmen (female to male) or transwomen (male to female) and the treatment is usually successful.
When undergoing hormones or surgery, we refer to the transitioning as gender reassignment. No-one is having a ‘sex change’ as it is often referred to by the media. The individual is already male or female according to how they feel inside (their gender identity), the surgery etc is simply reassigning their physical body to match their real ‘core’ gender.
The rights of trans people are now recognised by the law, but owing to the lack of understanding of the condition in society as a whole, and the sensationalist and irresponsible manner in which it is often portrayed by the media, trans people suffer a great deal from discrimination and rejection. They often suffer at work, and the decision to transition is one of bravery.
You will come across these acronyms in any research into gender dysphoria. Briefly, FtM relates to trans individuals who are transitioning from female to male and who you can also see be referred to as transmen. MtF relates to trans individuals who are transitioning from male to female, and who you can also see being referred to as transwomen. Please refer to our Terminology section for a more extensive list and description of some of the terminology used in the transgender field.
Names, labels, and initials aside, each and every one of us is an individual person.
Many people confuse the issues of sexuality and gender. Trans people, just like everyone else, may be orientated towards men, women, both, or neither. Therefore the sexual orientation of trans people can be straight, gay, lesbian, bi or asexual.
Some examples may best illustrate this. A woman who is attracted to other women may identify as gay/lesbian; a transman (that is a female to male) who is attracted to women identifies as a straight man. If that transman was attracted to men, he would identify as a gay man. And of course, vice versa; a transwoman (male to female) who is attracted to men identifies as a straight woman, whereas if she is attracted to other women, she may identify as a gay woman.
This is a simple concept once understood, and the message to go out to the world in general is clear. Sexuality and gender are NOT related, they are two totally separate concepts. This is why the LGB and T communities are genuinely different. It is also important to recognise that many trans individuals are unsure as to their orientation until after gender reassignment, as they have often attempted unsuccessfully to live in the gender role assigned by their physical sex at birth before transitioning.
Again, many misunderstand the differences between being transgender and being a transvestite.
A transvestite is someone who cross-dresses, dressing in the clothes of the opposite sex. Cross-dressers in general do not identify with, or want to actually be the opposite gender. They may want to ‘pass’ as the opposite sex but do not wish to change their lives, their bodies, or their gender role. They maintain a gender identity consistent with their biological sex, mostly cross-dressing for sexual gratification or fetishistic purposes.
Whereas transgender people, before transition are living a life where their physical sex and their gender identity are completely different.