Whether you’re questioning your gender or just want to have a better understanding of all things transgender, it can feel a little overwhelming at first. There are a lot of new terms you may have never heard before, and sometimes people are afraid of saying the wrong thing and causing unintended harm. In short, there’s a bit of a learning curve! We hope the information here will make things more clear.
What does it mean when someone is transgender?
The simplest explanation is that their gender (sense of self) does not match the gender typically associated with their assigned sex. Historically, “sex” and “gender” have been used synonymously, but it’s important to understand that they actually refer to different things.
Basically, sex refers to biological characteristics, which we then assign to a category: typically, male or female. Based on this categorization, we then expect people to be masculine or feminine, men or women, based on their assigned sex.
Most people are comfortable with the gender (such as man or woman) which typically is associated with their sex (such as male or female). People who fit this description are cisgender.
When someone’s gender (sense of self) differs from their assigned sex, they are transgender.For example: a person who is assigned female at birth, but knows themselves to be a man, is a transgender man.
However, not all people who are transgender identify as men or women! The person in this example could also be agender or nonbinary. If you’ve never heard those terms, they may be really confusing. Keep reading, though! We’ll discuss this more when we talk about social transition.
Framing things in terms of ‘assigned sex’ is really central to this discussion. Sometimes, folks refer to transgender people as being “born a woman/man;” however, this does not affirm their experiences. Using this language honors and recognizes the fact that assigned sex does not determine gender.
Remember these acronyms:
AMAB = assigned male at birth
AFAB = assigned female at birth
But wait a minute - isn’t it just science, that you’re either male or female? Actually, science has demonstrated time and time again that gender and sexuality are more way complicated than that! Not only has medical research shown that there may be a biological basis for people being transgender, research has also shown that being transgender is not pathological or a mental disorder.
Specifically, research using brain imaging scans suggest there’s a biological basis for being transgender, and researchers have found links in brain regions to all gender identities, regardless of assigned sex (1, 2, 3, 4). In other words, people who are transgender don’t just “identify” as their gender, they are their gender (whether that’s men, women, nonbinary, or more).
All of this is making sense to me. I think I might be transgender. What do I do?
If you think you might be transgender (or are supporting someone who might be) - don’t panic! Remember that there is nothing wrong with you, and that lots of people who are transgender lead very happy, fulfilling lives. Our Resource Page can point you in the right direction for support groups, local therapists who specialize in gender, and more.
It can be difficult coming out and being yourself, but many people go on to live happy and fulfilling lives. In fact, there’s even a hashtag circulated by trans folks to show support and solidarity for those who are just starting out. Check it out! #TransIsBeautiful
If you think you might be transgender, that means you’re probably thinking about what it would mean to transition. Whether you or someone you care about is considering transition, there’s a lot to learn. Let’s break it down! Please note, this is a general overview, and will not cover every person’s unique experience.
Usually when people talk about transitioning, the common thought is about surgeries or other medical procedures. But did you know that not all transgender people even want surgery? When we talk about transition, there are three main categories we could be referring to:
Social Transition: Imagine you just came out to your friends. Maybe you’re an AFAB person who is a transgender man, but all of your friends and family still know you by a feminine name and use feminine pronouns when thinking of or referring to you. A big part of transition for many people is the social transition, wherein someone begins going by a new name and often asserts new pronouns.
This can be challenging for friends or family. However, refusing to call someone by the correct name or use their correct pronouns can be deeply hurtful and invalidating. It can take time to adjust, but if you want to support someone, using their correct name and pronouns is an important starting point. Check out our page on being an ally for more on supporting someone in their social transition.
Social transition also refers to presentation - how you dress impacts how people read you, and altering one’s presentation can go a long way in feeling comfortable in one’s own skin.
In practice, this might look like:
An AMAB person known to you as Paul has come out and is going by the name Jennifer. She has changed her wardrobe to have a more feminine presentation, and has asked her friends and family to use ‘she/her/hers’ when referring to her. She is considering hormone replacement therapy, but isn’t sure yet.
An AFAB person known to you as Jacqueline has come out to you as nonbinary. Jacqueline will be going as ‘Jack’ from now on, and will be using gender-neutral ‘they/them’ pronouns. Jack has cut their hair and has already started dressing more androgynously. They have no intention of undergoing any medical transition.
Let’s talk more about pronouns! If you’ve known someone as a particular gender, switching your language can be tricky. Consider the first example: it may feel very unnatural to refer to your friend, Paul, by a new name (in this case, Jennifer) but also to refer to this person as she and her. The challenge this sometimes presents elucidates just how embedded gender is into our language and how we understand the people in our lives. When we talk about social transition, we aren’t just referring to the individual, but friends and family who transition socially alongside them.
What about gender neutral pronouns, such as the singular they/them, like our friend Jack in the second example? A common misperception is that using they/them to refer to a single person is grammatically incorrect, but that’s not actually true! This video from Everyday Feminism does a great job explaining:
Medical Transition: Many people who are transgender undergo hormone replacement therapy (HRT) as part of transition. HRT can be an important step for many people to feel comfortable in their own skin. It also helps with secondary sex characteristics (such as breasts, facial hair, fat distribution, or voice) so that your inner self is more accurately reflected by your physical body.
HRT is often prescribed and managed by an endocrinologist, but there are also outpatient clinics which specialize in providing these services. Check out our [Resource Page] for more information.
An important thing to know about HRT - hormones can give, but they can’t “take away.” For example, estrogen can make breasts grow, but once they’ve grown, taking testosterone won’t get rid of them. Similarly, testosterone can deepen someone’s voice, but taking estrogen won’t make your voice higher.
Still, HRT can make a huge difference, and not just in appearances! Research has shown that undergoing HRT improves the mental health of transgender people (source). On the outside, changes may just look physical or cosmetic, but it’s often more than that.
This link has a great breakdown on the differences between HRT for trans men / AFAB people vs trans women / AMAB people as well as the various methods it can be delivered.
The other main part of medical transition is possible surgeries. But again, not all people who transition want surgery, which is a common misperception. The reasons why people may or may not want surgery range from the very personal to the very practical. Its best not to assume these things, and asking about them can be invasive or rude.
The most common surgery for transgender men is “top surgery,” where a surgeon removes breast tissue. Prior to surgery, many AFAB transgender people will bind their breasts to have a flatter torso. But be careful! Doing this wrong can cause permanent damage to breast tissue. Here’s a helpful article about how to properly bind.
For trans women, the surgery most people think of is “bottom surgery,” where a surgeon uses existing genital tissue to craft a vagina.
For more on possible surgeries, this link is a good read.
(Source: Sylvia Rivera Law Project)
Legal Transition: The process of legal transition involves updating legal documents to a new name and sometimes a different gender. The requirements for changing either will vary by state and locality.
For legal gender change (from M to F, or F to M), the requirements also depend on which document is being updated. For example, in Virginia, the Department of Motor Vehicles used to require proof of surgery to change gender markers, but no longer does as of 2017.
What if you are a VCU student haven’t been able to change your legal name or gender? Good news, there’s a form for that which can be used to help notify instructors for students who use a different name than what is on the class roster.
For more information on legal transition, check out our Resources Page!