5 Things You DON'T Know About Transgender People But Should

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things you don't know about transgender people

Today, transgender politics suddenly seems to be everywhere. Transgender characters show up in award-winning movies and transphobic portrayals are denounced and picketed; controversial policies about transgender service members are debated at the Pentagon; fights over transgender students’ access to proper bathrooms convulse several states, not to mention the NBA and even the NCAA.

But even as trans politics have become more visible, the confusion and myths around trans people and their rights continues. My new book, TRANS/gressive,  tries to unpack some of these, while explaining how the new transgender politics and activism originated.

Many people hear “transgender” and think “transsexual” — that is, people who want to change from one sex to another. In part, that’s because most shows and movies that use trans characters focus on changing sexes to amp up the drama. But that’s just part of what being trans can mean.

For those who want to avoid some of the more common misconceptions, here are a few things you don't know about transgender people to make you more trans-aware.

1. Transgender people come in all sorts of identities.

In the early days, “transgender” was an umbrella term that referred mainly to transsexuals, people who felt a discontinuity between their inner gender identity and outer birth sex with crossdressers (mostly straight, white males) and drag queens (mostly gay men who perform in female attire for entertainment) and drag kings (get your vice versa, but with lesbians) thrown in for good measure.

But now that is changing. Young people are stretching the trans umbrella, identifying as nonbinary, meaning not male or female, woman or man and simply “genderqueer” connoting any number of combinations of feminine, masculine, and/or androgynous qualities.

Sure, some of us take hormones and get surgery to have our real gender recognized. But many of us don’t, and especially for young people today, there can be other alternatives.

2. More transgender people are deciding not to transition from one sex to the other.

The sine qua non of being transgender, especially if you were transsexual, was declaring and/or consummating a transition from one sex to another. Often this included hormones (estrogen for transwomen, testosterone for transmen), “top” surgery (breast enlargement or reduction), and “bottom” surgery (vaginal construction for transwomen, penile construction for transmen).

But more transpeople are deciding to have minimal medical intervention, or none at all. For transmen, bottom surgery might be too expensive, or they’re not satisfied with the results. Other transpeople are lacking the funds. Still, others want to break down social boundaries around their cross-sex identification, but have little or no interest in body modification.

Some transpeople are crossdressers or drag queens or kings, and have no interest in changing their bodies at all. And some of us are now coming out as nonbinary or genderqueer, so there really is no “opposite sex” for us to transition to.

We all think in terms of binary genders: male/female, girl/boy. Even categories like gay and straight, transmen and transwomen, drag kings and queens, all depend on some underlying boy/girl dynamic. Now, the rise of a whole group of people (most of them young) who define as “nonbinary” — as neither male or female, girl nor boy — is making us reconsider all of that.

3. Nonbinary transpeople are going to make us rethink everything about sex.

We are born and grow up in a world of binary sexes: uncle and aunt, brother and sister, ladies' room and men’s room, mother and father. So riddle me this: what do you call the nonbinary parent? If they marry, is that a same-sex marriage, a heterosexual marriage, or something else entirely?

We all want safe and appropriate bathroom access for transgender youth, but which bathroom do we want to make sure nonbinary kids can use: Both? Neither? You can see where this goes pretty quickly. The rise of a whole class of people who are “off the binary,” who identify as neither one, is going to make us rethink everything. Not to mention change a LOT of bathroom signs.

Before transactivism, genitals and gender were the same. If you had the “disco stick,” you were a boy, and vice versa. But transgender made people realize we all have something called a “gender identity” inside us that is about what is between our ears, not between our legs. And with that has come a new recognition of gender as separate from sex — whether it’s birth sex or transitioned-to sex.

4. Gender transition is no longer about genitals.

It used to be that transgender people transitioning from one sex to another weren’t recognized in their correct sex until they’d had some kind of medical intervention, plus some kind of psychiatric evaluation. Now, all that is changing.

First of all, psychiatry no longer views being transgender as de facto evidence of a mental diagnosis and increasingly views even transsexuality as a physical, not psychological, disorder. Second, increasing numbers of transpeople either aren’t transitioning, or identify as genderqueer or nonbinary so there is no “opposite” sex for them to transition to. But most of all, transpeople got tired of having their gender identification, which many have known since they were two or three years old, judged by non-transgender (e.g., “cisgender”) people who kept gesticulating (metaphorially) at their genitals and asserting that this was all that mattered.

So, transactivists devoted years to pushing public agencies to finally realize that one’s gender has and should have nothing to do with genitals, and that private medical procedures should remain just that: private!

More and more parents are refusing to force their transkids to wait until they are adults, and their bodies have been “poisoned” by the wrong hormones in ways that are very difficult, expensive, and traumatic to undo. And one day this is going to change parenting too.

5. It’s going to be illegal to withhold treatment from transgender kids.

Today, a minority of parents of transgender kids who want to transition to their correct gender are compassionately already providing their children with hormone blockers to delay puberty and spare them the immense trauma of having to watch helplessly as their bodies grow into the wrong gender. As these children age, they are eventually given the correct hormones for their correct sex under medical supervision so they can have a more or less normal puberty. Some will eventually have gender recognition surgery as well.

This hasn’t yet been properly recognized as the standard of care, but in twenty or thirty years, it will. Once it is, it will become illegal to withhold treatment from a transgender child. It will probably be established first in a Scandinavian country, where they’re already more progressive than the United States on pretty much everything related to sex or gender.

In fact, there is already precedent in the United States in other areas. A parent who fails to provide medical treatment to children who are medically ill are already being charged for child neglect or child endangerment. Conservative Christian parents in Pennsylvania who avoided medical care and instead chose prayer for a two-year-old deadly ill with pneumonia were charged with involuntary manslaughter.

In the early 1990s, no one talked about transgender people, and no one knew one. We were not on TV or in movies. Mainstream society mostly ignored us, and to the degree that it didn’t, it mostly considered us freaks and weirdos, someone to keep away from your kids. But all that is about to change.


For even more facts about being transgender, check out the video below:


Riki Wilchins has been a leading advocate for gender rights and gender justice for 20 years, one of the founders of modern transgender political activism in the 1990s as well as one of its first theorists and chroniclers. Riki’s writing and research on gender norms have been published in periodicals like the Village Voice, GLQ, Research on Adolescence and Social Text as well as anthologies like Contemporary Debates in the Sociology of Education, Gender Violence, Feminist Frontiers, Language Awareness, Negotiating Ethical Challenges in Youth Research, Out at Work, Women on Women and The Encyclopedia of Identity.



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