While LGBT rights seem to be gaining steam in our country, many people are still unsure about how to approach transgender peers. What should you call the person? How does he or she want to be treated?
Community Initiatives Associate Leigh Thompson from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) has answered some common questions.
What does transgender mean?
Transgender people are people whose gender identity is not aligned with the gender they were assigned at birth and/or whose gender doesn't conform with traditional or societal gender norms.
What about the words transvestite and transsexual?
In the United States, the word transvestite is considered by most to be derogatory. It’s best to not use it. Transsexual refers to a person’s medical status and their body, and all people have a right to privacy regarding their bodies. Unless you absolutely know that a person identifies as transsexual, it’s best to use the word transgender as an open and inclusive term.
This term is applicable to people regardless of any surgeries they may have had. Transgender is an adjective, so it describes a person, which is why we say “a transgender person” and not “a transgender.” And remember to affirm the identity of the individual: a transgender person who identifies as a man is a man; a transgender person who identifies as a woman is a woman.
What is the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation?
It’s important to note that there is a difference between a person’s gender identity and their sexual orientation. As mentioned above, gender identity is the gender we identify as, like saying “I am a boy,” or “I am female.” Sexual orientation is about who we’re attracted to, like saying “I like males,” or “I like girls.” Every person has both a gender identity AND a sexual orientation. Transgender people can be straight, gay or bisexual just like anyone else.
At what age do people usually come out as transgender?
People continue to come out as transgender at all different ages. Some people assert their gender before kindergarten. Others may not come out until they are much older.
How can I reach out and befriend someone who is transgender?
The most important thing to remember about befriending a transgender person is that, above anything else, they are a person. Like befriending anyone, focus on what you have in common. And always be respectful of a person’s identity.
How can friends and family help someone who comes out as transgender?
Use the pronouns—words like he/him/his and she/her/hers—that the person feels represents them best.
While it’s good to be supportive of the transgender people in your life, be careful not to ask too many personal or invasive questions. By respecting boundaries, your friend will not feel like they have to explain or justify who they are.
What challenges do transgender teens face?
Transgender and gender-nonconforming teens are much more likely to feel unsafe in school.
Many transgender teens also face problems at home. If their parents don’t approve of their gender identity or expression, a transgender teen could face consequences in the home or, worse, be kicked out for who they are. As a result, there is a high percentage of transgender teens who are homeless.
What is your advice to teens that want to take action on this issue?
Intervene, if you safely can, when you see gender-based or anti-transgender bullying. When you hear language that is meant to hurt your transgender friends, step up. It’s important to report incidents of bullying to the proper methods at your school.
Make sure your school’s anti-bullying policy includes protections based on gender identity and gender expression. If it doesn’t, advocate for an inclusive policy!
Advocate for transgender-inclusive spaces in your school. Does your school have all-gender or single-stall bathrooms? What is the policy on locker rooms or team sports? Rules that restrict gender expression can make life for transgender students very difficult.
Is there any precedent for what happens when a member of a sports team changes his or her gender identity?
Some transgender athletes will remain on the team they were on before identifying as transgender. Others will ask to change teams. Schools and teams should determine what is best for the transgender athlete, not for the comfort of others on the team, while maintaining the privacy of the individual. And by teaching all team supports all its athletes.
What is transitioning?
Transition—or the process of publicly presenting as the gender you identify with—can include a lot of different things, like
- coming out
- wearing gender-affirming clothing
- changing your name
- hormonal treatment
Many parts of transition can happen at any age, although if the person is not yet 18 they must get parental permission before they can access medical treatments. And everyone is different; not all transgender people want to have surgery or hormone treatment.
What kind of medical needs do transgender people face?
Some transgender people can face a host of medical needs, others none at all. Since not every transgender person seeks any medical alteration they may not have medical needs that are much different from a non-transgender person.
However, many transgender people do seek hormone replacement therapy and/or surgeries to align their physical appearance with their gender identity. Young people under 18 cannot access these medical treatments without a parent’s permission. And many of these treatments are not covered by most insurance carriers, so many people have trouble paying for the medical treatments they need. Above all, there is a lack of educated physicians, meaning that transgender people have difficulty locating a doctor who is knowledgeable about transgender people.