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Transgender people are more visible than ever before. That's great, but it leaves many of us confused. We've seen and heard, often, just enough to get the wrong end of the stick. When actors like Laverne Cox or celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner come onto our screens we don't get the chance to ask them the questions that come to mind (which may sometimes be for the best!).
What Does "Transgender" Actually Mean?
Transgender means someone whose gender identity, their sense of who they are, is different from their biological sex. Most people's gender identity is close enough to their biological sex that they're "cisgender." Trans people often feel about their bodies the way you would feel if you woke up one day as the opposite gender, a feeling that extends to the rest of their lives and leads to crippling depression and a feeling called "gender dysphoria," a sense of being deeply uncomfortable or unhappy in your own body.
While the most visible transgender people are MtF (Male to Female) trans people, or trans women, there are trans men and nonbinary trans people who don't identify as either men or women. What all trans people share is deep emotional dissatisfaction with the gender they were assigned at birth. If you don't want to come across as a jerk, don't refer to someone as "a transgender"; it's an adjective, not a noun. Don't "misgender" a trans person: refer to them as their target or identified gender. Not sure? It happens. Ask politely. No-one is an "it," though some genderqueer people prefer "they/them."
1: Trans People Have Crazy Lives
About as much as gay people do. There are trans sex workers, their number increased by the lack of affordable medical care and the difficulty many trans people face in finding employment rather than by an intrinsic desire for sex work on the part of trans people as a whole. And there are trans people who spend their lives in feather boas. Why not? The vast majority of trans people, like the vast majority of gay, bisexual and lesbian people, are ordinary people. There's a strong statistical likelihood that you've seen them in your daily life and not noticed!
2: Transgender People Are So Gay They Went Over To The Other Side
Hmmm. This one only really makes sense if you think being non-gender conforming is the same thing as being gay, and also the same thing as actually being another gender. Plenty of swishy gay men and butch lesbians could put you right about that one. You might also notice that there are some very masculine, very gay, gay men around. Sexuality isn't someone's whole identity and it doesn't determine gender identity. This one also breaks on the fact that about a third of trans women, for instance, identify as lesbians. Unless you think they were so gay they became women so they could then become gay all over again, because the gay was just that strong with them, I think we can lay this one to rest.
3: Transgender People Are Mentally Ill
A high proportion of transgender people are mentally ill, with depression, anxiety and other issues resulting from the way they're treated. Is being transgender associated with being mentally ill if your identity is respected and your family is supportive? I don't know. Ask Kim Petras. Most of the time when people say this they mean "being transgender is a mental illness." In some places it's officially classified as a mental illness. Some trans activists have hit back by saying that being trans is biological, based in a different "male" or "female" brain. It seems likely that the consensus view will eventually be one that mirrors the Kinsey Scale-based "spectrum of human sexuality," and the evidence for the idea that being trans is a mental illness in and of itself seems to rest on either the fact that it's unusual, or that it implies a difference between the body and the mind, or finally from the "argument from personal incredulity": "It can't be true, I don't believe it!"