What Is Transgender? - A Gender Agenda
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What Is Transgender?

Transgender – or trans* for short – is an umbrella term for those whose gender differs from that which they were assigned at birth. This includes binary trans people (trans men and trans women) and non-binary trans people, who may use descriptors like gender-queer, bi-gender, a-gender, or gender-fluid (though not all non-binary people use trans as a descriptor – refer to our gender diversity pages for more information).

Trans people may express their gender in a variety of ways and that may vary in certain contexts and at certain times. Therefore it is important to remember that there is no one way to ‘be’ trans as it can mean many different things to different people. Transition for some people may mean changing their name and choosing a pronoun that feels more appropriate – a process that is often referred to as ‘social transition’. For others, transition may involve gender affirming medical treatments, such as hormones and surgical interventions – processes referred to as ‘medical transition’.

Many trans people experience a feeling of distress which is clinically termed ‘dysphoria’. Dysphoria is experienced differently by different people and it can be both fixed (experienced consistently) and fluid (experienced partially or periodically). Some trans people report that their dysphoria is triggered when their gender is not affirmed by others (sometimes called ‘misgendering’), whilst others report that certain contexts, clothing types or body parts trigger their dysphoria. It is important to acknowledge that not all distress trans people feel may be dysphoria: trans people often bear a load of systemic discrimination which can lead to poorer mental health outcomes.

We still do not know what makes some people trans, just as we do not know what makes some people cis or lesbian or even interested in sports or arts. Some academic fields are interested in debating how variations in gender diversity came to be, but the only thing that is clear is that transgender people are safer and happier when allowed to express themselves in a manner consistent with their gender identity. The best way to support transgender people is to let them lead their process of transition, which may include a need for others to respect their choice of name and pronouns, and reinforce their right to affirm their gender.

Transition is a deeply personal journey that is often limited by circumstances and access to resources. Medical transition, for instance, is tightly controlled and might be geographically or financially inaccessible for some people. Sometimes other health issues can prevent a transgender person from doing all the things they wish to do to reinforce their gender identity. The process of medically transitioning can also be a very gradual one and differs from person to person. This may include choosing some treatments for a period of time and then choosing to stop (for example, using hormone therapy for a year, and then ceasing). It is important not to force expectations on transgender people but to allow them autonomy over their own lives and treat them with respect. If medically transitioning for example, is not something a person would like to pursue, this does not make them any ‘less’ trans, but simply means their transition may look different from what is often expected of transgender people.

Many statistics show alarmingly high rates of depression, anxiety and suicidality within the transgender community. Mental illness is often not associated directly with being transgender, but with the stigma and discrimination that transgender people face in daily life. These same statistics also show better mental health outcomes for those who are able to transition, as well as those who engage with transgender communities.


Key Points

  • Being transgender is not about being deceptive or “tricking” people, but presenting authentically to live a happier life

  • How transgender people decide to affirm their gender is a personal choice. This may be a gradual process and may be limited by personal circumstances.
  • Trans people may choose diverse ways of expressing their gender, which can be influenced by particular circumstances. It may take someone a while to find the most comfortable way of expressing their gender. Be respectful of where a transgender person is at, and be sensitive to how they are choosing to express themselves at a given time.
  • It is very important to respect the names and pronouns trans people choose for themselves, especially if they do not fit societal views of male or female.
  • Transition and gender affirmation are positive processes that are beneficial to the mental health of trans people. Mental illness in the trans community is rooted in discrimination and the inaccessibility of transition procedures that many trans people face.