What Does “Transgender” Mean?


Carmen Carrera, transgender actress, drag performer and activist. She was also a contestant on Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Photo Wenn

June is LGBT pride month and while many people support LBGT rights, how many really understand what the T stands for? Of course, they’ll likely know that it stands for transgender, but would they know what it really means to be transgender?

Transgender is an umbrella term that refers to people whose gender identity differs from their assigned sex at birth. Some may identify as either male or female, while others don’t identify with any particular gender. However, there are people whose gender identity differs from their assigned sex at birth who may refer to themselves as trans, transsexual, gender queer, etc instead.

Before I go on, let’s get something straight: Sex and gender are two different things. Sex refers to one’s biological status as a male or female, based on specifications like chromosomes, hormones, and external/internal anatomy. Gender is a social construct and refers to the standards, practices and roles assigned and considered appropriate for girls/boys and men/women. Basically, gender is a created concept and it differs in every society. If you’re still a little lost, look at it this way: Girls/women don’t have some sort of biological  inclination to wear skirts and clean kitchens in mop commercials. The magic of western society has determined that those are things that girls/women should be interested in.

Anyway, moving on.

While transgender is included in the LBGT acronym, gender identity and sexual orientation are very different things. While sexual orientation involves one’s sexual, romantic, and emotional attraction to another person, gender identity is about one’s personal concept of being a man or a woman. Transgender individuals can be straight, gay, bisexual, etc just like people who aren’t trans. By the way, for future reference, non-trans people are generally referred to cisgender individuals. Cisgender men and women have gender identities that align with the sex they were assigned at birth.

It is always respectful to refer to transgender individuals by their preferred pronouns. Just because someone was born biologically male, that does not mean that you should refer to them by he/his/him if they identify as a woman. If you don’t know what they prefer to be called, simply ask! It’s better to ask than to guess and potentially come across as offensive, ignorant, or dismissive of their gender identity.

There are so many misconceptions about transgender people out there, especially in the media. Most representations of transgender individuals in television and film are very static; they’re usually portrayed as sassy sex workers, especially in crime dramas. This stereotype breeds more misconceptions about transgender people in general. For example, one common misconception about transgender individuals is that they are all interested in sex-reassignment surgery or hormone treatments to “become” a man or a woman. Well, some do that, but plenty don’t. Being trans is about gender identity, and the lengths that a transgender individual goes to feel the most comfortable as that identity is up to them. The same can be said for outside appearance and clothing: some wear clothing that is generally geared towards their gender identity, some don’t.


Trans rights activists hold up a poster with the names of transgender women who were killed in early 2012. All were women of color. | Shutterstock

While generalizations about transgender people are viewed as absolute truths, real facts are ignored. Discrimination, bullying, and violence against transgender individuals is rampant. According to The Anti-Violence Project, transgender women accounted for 40% anti-LGBT murders in 2011. Of this 40%, a majority were women of color. Transgender individuals of color are more likely to be victims of violence because of their trans identity. The National Transgender Discrimination survey concluded that 45% of transgender youths (aged 18-24) have attempted suicide.

There are people out there who are willing to accept the L, the G and the B, but don’t understand the T. This lack of understanding leads to denial of trans identities and, ultimately, perpetuates violence. Even among progressive feminist circles, trans-women are neglected and not considered “real women.”

Well what is a real woman anyway? If someone asked the average cisgender woman if being a woman is all about buying tampons and producing breast milk, they’d likely say no. I know I would. Of course, those things are part of being a woman for women who have to deal with that, but accepting trans-identities also means accepting the fact that not all women have periods, and not all people with periods identify as women.

As a cisgender woman, I know that I can’t expect to support transgender individuals without actually listening to transgender people and learn about important issues within transgender communities. Support isn’t just about saying that you’re an ally of transgender people, it is about actually caring and being aware of what you can do to be more inclusive of transgender identities.

Is there enough acknowledgement of transgender identities within the LGBT community? Do you identify as trans* and have other important facts or a personal story to share? Tell us in the comments!

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  • Taurean

    I’m 14, and I’ve considered myself male for a little while now. I even call myself Taurean in my head instead of my birth name. I’ve only said anything about this to my mom so far, and even then she doesn’t know that I’m resolute on being male. I already have very short hair and I wear men’s clothes daily. Praise the Allspark, I’m 5’11” and I strongly resemble my dad, down to my hands and feet. However, I’m still exclusively attracted to guys. I plan to wait at least a few months before telling my parents the full extent of my situation. I’m worried that, especially to my dad, I’ll always be their little girl. Then there’s my 10yo sister and 2yo brother. They’ll take quite a bit of adjustment. And then there’s still everyone else I know. My family and I aren’t religious, but plenty of my friends are. I can’t wait until the day I can get hormone treatment and surgeries, but I’m still worried about how everyone else will react and accept me. And to top off my ranting and rambling, I notice that trans women get a bit more attention than trans men. It’s great for those women, but I feel that people like me are underrepresented.
    In conclusion, thank you for reading. Live long and prosper.

  • Lauren

    thank you so much for this. i’m a transgirl and it’s so good to know i’m loved here! :3

  • Dragon Chi

    Great article. Also if you ever mess up pronouns just stop, replete what you said with the right one and continue on with life apologizing profusely is a bit annoying. It never SHOULD be a big deal.