Advice / Identity / Life

So someone you know is transitioning. Maybe it’s someone you know closely, or maybe it’s someone you’ve never heard of, but who is famous even though you’ve never heard of them until people started freaking out about their possible transition.

What does it all mean?

First, let’s get some language down. When babies are born, the midwife/nurse/doctor checks the baby out and decides based on the child’s external genitalia whether male or female is going to be put on the child’s birth certificate. That’s sex assigned at birth, the anatomy that you are born with. While we like to think that sex exists in a binary of male and female, it’s really more of a spectrum and there is plenty of variation. So while there is an assumption that people either have a penis or a vagina, XX or XY chromosomes, this isn’t always true. Intersex is a general term that may be used to describe when someone’s reproductive or sexual anatomy doesn’t seem to fit the stereotypical definitions of male or female.

Aside from sex, there is also gender expression, which is the external characteristics and behaviors that are socially defined as masculine, feminine, androgynous, etc. Breasts are considered feminine, for example, but many men have breasts too, albeit a different shape. Because breasts are considered so feminine, many men look into breast procedures for men to have their breasts removed as a way to feel more masculine. Women may also enhance their breasts as a way to enhance their femininity, either through surgery or clothing. These gender expectations change and shift over time, and across culture and language. For example, high heel shoes have been fashionable for both men and women and different points in time, and with different social meaning attached to wearing the same style of shoe. We all have gender expressions, how we portray our sense of self. This includes our gender identity. Gender identity is a person’s innate sense of their own gender — man, woman, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, androgynous, agender — there are many ways people identify and this may be constant or may change over time.


Louis XIV of France

So what does it mean to be transgender? The word transgender is frequently used as an umbrella term for people whose gender identities do not match what sex they were assigned at birth. A transgender man is someone who was assigned female at birth, and identifies as a man. A transgender woman is someone who was assigned male at birth, and identities as a woman. Someone whose gender identity and sex assigned at birth do match can be called cisgender. Some trans people chose to undergo hormonal and/or surgical treatment to ease the incongruence or dysphoria between their identity and their physical body. This is sometimes described as transitioning. There are many, many ways to be transgender, and not all trans people experience their gender in a binary, or describe themselves as transitioning from one thing to another.

Some transgender people transition medically, and some do not. And there is a whole gamut of ways a person may medically transition. That’s a little beyond the scope of this article–and honestly, media tends to over-emphasize the medical aspects of transition. Medical transition is only part of what a transgender person may experience in life.

So your co-worker, aunt, favorite celebrity, or daughter’s BFF is transitioning. How do you deal?

DOs and DON’Ts

Don’t make assumptions about a person’s health or trans status. If someone is transitioning, give that person some space to figure out how to talk about their experience.

Don’t ask what surgeries or procedures a person has had or is planning on having.

Do ask what pronouns and names people want to use, and then use them. If you mess up, apologize BRIEFLY, correct yourself and try not to mess up again.

Don’t engage in “are they/aren’t they” talk about who may or may not be trans. People get to name their own experiences and identities.

Don’t out anyone. While you may be privy to a friend’s transgender status, they may not be comfortable having it discussed. Ask first!

Do your own research if you are curious about process of transitioning. There are lots of great resources online that walk through the physical, emotional, and mental aspects of transitioning.
– The Sylvia Rivera Law Project is a fantastic resource.
GLAAD has a lot of introductory stuff.
– If you are ready to dig deep, T-Vox has fantastic resources.

Don’t equate a person’s gender and their sexuality–a transgender person may or may not be interested in the same people they were before transitioning. Unless you’re in a romantic or sexual relationship with them, that’s not your business.

Do ask how you can support your friends or family as they are transitioning. Be sure to convey your love and respect–they will appreciate it!

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