Transgender People: An Introduction

Who are transgender people?

Transgender people come from every part of the United States and around the world, from every racial and ethnic background, and from every religious community. Transgender people are our coworkers, our neighbors, and possibly even our friends or family.

It can be hard to understand what it means to be transgender, especially if you’ve never met a transgender person. This guide provides an introduction to some key ideas and terms that can help build familiarity with transgender people and the issues they face.

What does it mean to be transgender?

Transgender is a term used to describe people whose internal sense of gender is different from their sex at birth.  When we’re born, a doctor usually says that we’re male or female based on our body. For most people, the gender on their birth certificate matches their feelings about who they are growing up. However, for a transgender person, they feel that there is a mismatch between their own inner sense of gender and how everyone else sees them. That internal sense of gender–of being male or female–is called gender identity.

If you aren’t transgender, you might never have given any thought to your gender identity, because for most people, the gender on their birth certificate matches their internal sense of being male or female. Like a lot of other aspects of who people are, like race or religion, there’s no one way to be transgender, and no one way for transgender people to look or feel about themselves. The best way to understand what being transgender is like is to talk with transgender people and listen to their stories.

For example, while most people know from a very young age that they are either male or female, that is not true for everyone. And while most transgender people live as men or women, some identify as neither male nor female, or as both male and female. This may feel like a new idea to many people in the U.S., but many cultures have recognized for centuries that not everyone fits neatly into categories of male or female.

Finally, being transgender (or a person’s gender identity) is different from being gay, lesbian or bisexual (a person’s sexual orientation). Being transgender is about a person’s gender, while sexual orientation refers to who a person is attracted to.

A transgender person is someone who grows up knowing that their body doesn’t match the gender they know they are on the inside–so they transition to live every day as the gender they’ve always known themselves to be.

Gender transition is the process where a transgender person goes from living as one gender to another.Usually this involves a person asking others to call them by a different first name and different pronouns. For some, transitioning can include hormones or medical procedures, though not all people want or need those, and many people cannot afford them if they aren’t covered by insurance. Transitioning can also include updating the name and gender on their ID and other legal documents, though only 21% of transgender people have been able to update all of their IDs and records.

What pronoun and name should I use?

Treating a transgender person with respect means interacting with them based on their gender identity, not their sex at birth. A transgender woman, someone who was considered male at birth but now lives her life every day as a woman, should be referred to with female pronouns (for example, “she” and “her”). A transgender man, someone who was considered female at birth but now lives his life every day as a man, should be referred to with male pronouns (for example, “he” and “him”).

Names and pronouns are deeply important to people who are transgender. For some transgender people, being associated with their birth name can be a source of deep anxiety. Instead, when talking or referring to a transgender person, use the name that they are currently using. If you happen to know a transgender person’s birth name (the name given to them when they were born, but which they no longer use), please don’t use or share it without that person’s explicit permission; doing so can be very hurtful.

If a transgender friend or loved one says that they prefer to be called by a certain name and/or with certain pronouns – for example, she, he, or they –it is respectful to use that name or pronoun. Often that pronoun will be suggested by the person’s name. If you’re unsure which pronoun a person prefers, listen first to the pronoun other people use when referring to that person; someone who knows the person well will probably use the correct pronoun. Otherwise, simply and respectfully ask what pronoun the person uses.

What are some of the challenges facing transgender people?

Transgender people face overwhelmingly high levels of discrimination and violence. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, a report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and The National LGBTQ Task Force:

  • Transgender people are four times more likely to live in poverty
  • Transgender people experience unemployment at twice the rate of the general population, with rates for people of color up to four times the national unemployment rate
  • 90% of transgender people report experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job, or hid who they were to avoid it
  • 78% report being harassed in school by students or teachers, and 35% report being physically assaulted because they were transgender
  • 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide, compared to 1.6% of the general population
  • 22% of respondents who have interacted with police reported harassment by police, with much higher rates reported by people of color.  Almost half of the respondents (46%) reported being uncomfortable seeking police assistance.

More Resources

To learn more about transgender people, go to: www.transequality.org/about-transgender

For videos of transgender people talking about their lives: http://fairnessusa.org/videos

To learn more about the wide range of issues facing transgender people, go to: http://fairnessusa.org/issues

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