Trans 101

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The rules
Hello, and welcome to Trans 101. Here are the ground rules. Learn them, love them, live them, or else go to the "I Don't Care Enough To Be Respectful Of People Who Are Different From Me" room down the hall.

  1. Sex is between the legs, gender is between the ears. Sex is male, female, and intersex, and has to do with your chromosomes, genitalia, hormones, etc. Gender is man, woman, boy, girl, androgynous (gender-neutral), etc., etc., and has to do with your internal sense of self and how you express yourself.
  2. There are currently five sexes recognised by the American Medical Association - male, female, and three kinds of intersex. Gender is an infinite spectrum, and there are more ways to express one's gender than anyone supposes.
  3. When you have met one Trans person, you have met ONE Trans person. We are not cookie-cutter. We are, by and large, just like anyone else (as much as anyone is like anyone else, because of course we're all different). You've probably passed Trans people on the street without realising it. Trans people, just like anyone else, prefer to be treated as PEOPLE first. We are brains and hearts and souls who happen to have certain genitalia attached, not the other way around.

For more information about hormonal transition for Transmasculine folks (female-to-male), click here.
For more information about hormonal transition for Transfeminine folks (male-to-female), click here.

What exactly is Transgender?
Transgender people feel uncomfortable living and being perceived as the gender they were assigned at birth (when the doctor announces "It's a girl" or "It's a boy", based entirely on the shape of the baby's genitals). Many choose to socially transition, living their lives and interacting with the world as a gender that feels more comfortable to them. Many also choose to medically transition, using hormones (by prescription from a doctor) and/or certain surgeries to make their body feel more comfortable and a more accurate fit for their identified gender. Crossdressers, on the other hand, dress either for sexual arousal (this is known as fetishistic crossdressing), to express the more masculine or feminine side of themselves, or simply because they find those clothes more comfortable, but have no desire to transition socially or medically.

Now that I've thoroughly confused you, let me just add this. Probably the absolute simplest way to describe a transsexual, if not the rest of the Trans community, is to say that they are physically female and psychologically male, or physically male and psychologically female. Many Trans people don't fall under that designation, though. Most transsexuals and some Transgender people do, while most crossdressers and many Transgender people don't.

Transgender, transsexual, Trans ... what does all this stuff mean? What's the difference between them?
Okay. Here are a few basic definitions. (For more definitions, click here>.)
Important Note: Gender identity is separate from sexuality. Sexuality (Gay, Straight, Bisexual, Pansexual, Omnisexual, Asexual, Queer, etc.) is based on whom you are attracted to sexually. Gender identity is based on your personal gender identity. A Trans guy (born female, identifies as a guy) who is attracted to women is usually considered straight, as is a Trans woman (born male, identifies as a woman) who is attracted to men, because the gender with which they identify is the opposite of those whom they are attracted to.

Also, the term "straight" refers to sexuality and not to gender. The fact that you are not Trans does not make you straight, and vice versa. "Straight" means that if you identify as male, you are attracted to those who identify as female, or if you identify as female, you are attracted to those who identify as male. Those who identify as neither male nor female, as a mix of the two, or as something else altogether define for themselves what "straight" and "gay" are for them.

Gender identity, sex, sexual orientation ... I really don't get the difference here.
This is the fun part. Take out a piece of paper and turn it sideways, and make four parallel horizontal lines, one on top of the other. Leave some space in between them to write. Right under the top line, write Sex Assigned At Birth. Under the second line, write Gender Identity. Under the third line, write Gender Expression. Under the fourth line, write Sexual Orientation.

Find some colored pencils or pens. To use myself as an example: When I was born, I was assigned female. Mark the "Female" end of the Sex Assigned At Birth line. My gender identity is boy/guy/man. Mark the Gender Identity line at the Boy/Man end. My gender expression is masculine, but not 100% so. Mark the Gender Expression line very near Masculine, but not all the way at the end. And my sexual orientation is pansexual but I'm more attracted to men than women, so mark the Sexual Orientation line somewhere between the middle and the Attracted to Men side.

Now choose another color and mark where you fall on each line.

Basically, the point here is that each of these things is completely independent of the others. Where you fall on any one line has no effect on where you will fall on any other line.

Have some other folks fill out your chart with different colors, and make a legend if you like to show what color represents which person. The more people who put themselves on the chart - don't do it for them, they should have the right to identify themselves - the more you will understand how varied everyone's identity is, and how each of those four parts of one's identity really have no bearing on each other at all.

Want another fun graphic to help you understand this? Check out the awesome Gender Unicorn.

Is Trans like a shemale?
Okay. First of all, "shemale" is a REALLY offensive term used in porn. (More about that here.) Secondly, no. "Shemale" refers to someone with breasts and a penis, which is true of some Trans people, but not a majority. It also totally excludes Transmasculine people, who (no matter what you hear or how it may seem) make up half of the Trans population. (MTFs are typically much easier to spot, and get WAY more press, because society tends to laugh at them, especially on talk shows and by degrading them in sitcoms, prime-time dramas, and mainstream film, as well as pornography. FTMs are much more threatening to masculinity and it's easier to ignore them than deal with them. They're seen as women who are aspiring to be men, which supports the whole notion of male superiority, whereas MTFs are seen as questioning the value of and discarding their male priviledge, and thus must be reduced to the status of "psycho" or "clown" or both, to avoid validating their standpoint.)

One more thing - people usually take "shemale" to mean someone with breasts and a FULLY FUNCTIONAL penis. MTFs who are taking oestrogen don't always have fully functional male genitalia, because the oestrogen can make it difficult to become and stay erect.

Are all Transgender people escorts?
No. The majority of us are not escorts, prostitutes, porn actors, or sex workers of any kind. Those of us who are sex workers are largely in that industry because no one else will hire them, and/or it's (unforunately) an easy way to make money if you can deal with being exploited and treated as an object rather than as a person. There are Trans people who are sex workers by choice and enjoy their work, but they're a minority. Trans people are no more likely to enjoy being a sex worker than non-Trans people are (and if you think most sex workers like their job, try actually talking to some).

So what causes someone to be Transgender?
There are a number of theories regarding what makes us trans, and despite scientific research there's no concrete evidence so far. (Bear in mind that this theory doesn't take intersexed people into account - this is only regarding fetuses whose chromosomes are XX or XY, although this situation may - and probably does - occur with some intersexed fetuses as well.) Remember, XX is the genotype for female and XY is the genotype for male. "Phenotype" refers to physical anatomy, whereas "genotype" refers to chromosomes and genetics.

From what I know, the most supported argument so far is that it occurs in utero, usually between 8-10 weeks after conception.

All fetuses, between 8-10 weeks, receive "hormonal showers" at this crucial developmental period. Usually, these hormonal showers lead to the formation of the testes and ovaries in XY and XX individuals respectively. Due to factors unknown, the "dose" and/or timing of these showers can sometimes be a little off-target. XY fetuses receiving too little androgens, yet while still having the XY genotype are thought to most probably eventuate as gay. If the hormonal shower is even more different or ill-timed - i.e., even less androgens are released or the timing is further off, the result will most probably be Trans - i.e., phenotypically and genotypically male with testes etc, yet, due to not being showered with enough androgens at the right time, the brain hasn't sufficiently masculinised and remains feminised (feminine is the base "template" for all organisms).

In the case of transmasculine people, it's thought that the development of the ovaries occurred ill-timed when in relation to the hormonal shower - i.e., when the hormonal shower occurred, the ovaries weren't yet developed enough to produce the estrogen that would balance out the androgen shower ... hence, phenotypically and genotypically female, but with masculined brain due to the androgen shower.

Like in the case with gay men, this fluctuation in hormonal shower timing, when occurring in XX individuals but to a lesser extent, is thought to be the cause of lesbianism.

I've heard the term "gender dysphoria" ... what the hell is that?
Nancy Nangeroni, of GenderVision and formerly of IFGE, said once that gender dysphoria is a healthy disrespect for the cultural gender norm. I am a big fan of that definition.

"Dysphoria," according to the dictionary, means "a state of feeling unwell or unhappy" (it comes from the Greek dysphoros hard to bear, from dys- + pherein to bear). So "gender dysphoria" is basically a profound discomfort or unhappiness with your assigned gender. Sounds about right to me.

Then there's the clinical definition. Gender dysphoria is listed in the DSM-V. (Diagnostic and Statistiscal Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, fifth edition - the HUGE book used to diagnose mental disorders. Your local library may have a copy.) There are separate diagnostic criteria for children, adolescents, and adults.

A lot of people have a big problem with gender dysphoria being in the DSM at all, because this isn't a mental disorder. People have been trying to cure us psychologically for decades and probably centuries, with a variety of different kinds of drugs, shock treatment, forced gender conformity, isolation, intensive therapy, and a number of other methods. There is no documented case of anyone who we today would consider a transsexual actually being cured.

It should be noted, also, that the DSM-III didn't have GID (gender identity disorder, which is how it was listed in the DSM-IV) in it but did have homosexuality in it. Due to the fact that homosexuality and gender-nonconformity are so often seen as being almost synonymous, it is not at ALL farfetched to suggest (and this is not something I came up with, but I completely agree with it) that GID was put into the DSM-IV as a replacement for homosexuality and an underhanded way to continue diagnosing homosexuality as a mental disorder. The DSM-V was published in 2013, and changing the name from gender identity disorder to gender dysphoria was considered a huge step in the right direction. After all, being Trans isn't the problem. Dysphoria is the problem, and the only proven way to get rid of dysphoria is to let us access hormones and/or surgery.

If Trans people hate their bodies so much, how do they have sex?
Very well, thank you.

There are as many ways to achieve erotic pleasure as there are people on this Earth. People who are very uncomfortable with a certain part of their bodies will often simply ignore that part of their body during sex, as they do the rest of the time. Communication, of course, is key - if you don't want something touched, say so. Any decent partner will be 100% respectful and will do everything s/he can to make sure that it's a good experience for both of you.

If it helps you, you can liken it to the situation an amputee might face. If someone has had to have their arm amputated at the elbow and is really uncomfortable with that part of their body, particularly in an erotic sense, that doesn't mean they can't have good sex. It just makes for an obstacle. But if the person and hir partner work around it, there's no reason it should be a major issue.

For some people, certain parts of their body ARE a major issue no matter what they do. That's when people can become impatient for surgery and/or hormones to alter their bodies so they feel more comfortable. While waiting for these changes to take place, some people simply abstain from sex, and others try different methods to make sex pleasurable despite the issues they have with whatever body parts they have issues with. (It's not as simple as saying that genitals are the problem or that the whole body is the problem. The term "man trapped in a woman's body" or "woman trapped in a man's body" is really a misnomer. Most Trans people don't really want a new body - they just want some parts of their own body altered a bit.)

For another perspective (and quite an entertaining read), check out Raven Kaldera's Renaming and Reframing: Sex and the Third Gender, Sex in Cyborgland, and How to Suck a Strap On.

Why don't Trans guys just be butch lesbians? Why don't Trans women just be femmy gay men?
Well, first of all, you're confusing sex and gender with sexual orientation. Plenty of Trans guys aren't attracted to women, and plenty of Trans women aren't attracted to men.

Secondly, Trans people aren't just frustrated homosexuals. Gay people would no more welcome sex reassignment than they would welcome a frontal lobotomy. They're fine with their bodies, by and large, and just happen to be gay. Trans people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are NOT fine with their bodies, or at least with the heaps and heaps of gender norms that re enforced upon them as a result of their bodies. Their gender identity (their internal sense of self) and/or gender expression (clothes, mannerisms, makeup or lack thereof, hairstyle, etc.) is significantly outside the norm, to a degree that doesn't really fall within even the norm for feminine gay men or masculine gay women.

Thirdly, not all Trans guys are terribly masculine and not all Trans women are terribly feminine. That's another common misconception. Trans people aren't all striving to be nice, normal, heterosexual, pretend-you're-not-Trans people with 2.3 children and a white picket fence. There are transmasculine drag queens and transfeminine butch lesbians, for the same reason that Trans guys aren't butch lesbians and Trans women aren't femme gay men or drag queens - butch lesbians are women, and femme gay men and drag queens are men. It just goes to show all the more that gender really is infinite, and WAY more complicated than we have language for. But we're doing our best.

Is it okay to ask a Trans person questions about it?
Depends on the person. In general, if you want to ask a personal question, first ask if it's okay to do so. Personal questions include anything to do with one's sex life, anatomy (not just genitalia), and relationship status - past, present or future. Be warned that some people may even consider questions like "are you on hormones?" personal. When in doubt, ask if you may ask them a personal question before going ahead. Respect people's boundaries.

I heard once a good general rule regarding this, which is as follows: If you wouldn't ask a non-Trans male his penis size, don't ask a Trans person about hir anatomy. In other words, if the person were not Trans and you wouldn't feel comfortable asking, there's no reason for you to feel more comfortable or more entitled to know just because the person is Trans. (This goes for more than just anatomy, of course.)

What the hell is "hir?"
It's a gender-neutral pronoun, pronounced "here." Others include s/he and sie (both pronounced "see"), and ze or zie (pronounced "zee"). All four of these replace "he" and "she," while hir or zir (rhymes with "here") replaces "him" and "her." A lot of people who don't feel comfortable using either masculine or feminine pronouns use these, and ask others to do the same for them. It's respectful (this really should go without saying) to do as they ask, even though it feels weird at first.

A lot of people who aren't comfortable with either masculine or feminine pronouns, but who also don't really like any of the gender-neutral pronouns, just alternate the masculine and feminine as they see fit, and tell people to use whichever they want. This can be a lot of fun. :-) Again, it's all about each person's own comfort level and what they want to be called. And it's important to always respect other people's personal identities over your comfort level with a new word - it's far more important to honour someone's identity than it is to worry about the fact that you feel a little funny. Especially since that goes away after a while, and people's identities usually don't.

Remember, a lot of Trans people are perfectly comfortable using either masculine or feminine pronouns. When in doubt, though, use gender-neutral ones. (This also totally applies to when you're speaking about a generic person whose gender doesn't matter, i.e., "when a person goes shopping, s/he often brings a shopping list." We tend to use "they" for that purpose, which is bad grammar, and which more people are trying to get away from these days.)

Do Trans people have the best of both worlds, or are they the best of both worlds?
I think "best of both worlds" is a fun little catchphrase that some of us use, probably stolen from sketchy guys who jerk off to fantasies of "shemales" who have tits like a woman and will bang them like a man; I joke about it sometimes but I don't really consider myself to be the best of both worlds, because I don't think there are two worlds. That's just propaganda. And I'm just me, and I'm one complete person, not some weird hybrid. Some people do consider themselves to be the "best of both worlds," and that's their prerogative, but it's not something you should assume. Let a Trans person tell you first that ze thinks of hirself that way; if you just come up with it on your own, you're liable to offend hir.
I want to date a Trans person. Can you help?
Start off by reading How to Get Your Hands on a Trans Man and/or The Trans Woman's Boudoir, and How to Get Into It, both by Intersex/Trans activist Raven Kaldera.

What does it feel like to be Trans?
What an interesting question. Here is some info on just that.
Remember, everyone's experience and perspective on this is different. When you've heard from one Trans person, you've heard from one Trans person. Don't make sweeping judgments.
Your best bet, honestly, is to ask this question on Trans forums like Reddit's Ask Transgender subreddit and other forums, including Facebook groups. Many Trans vloggers also discuss this in their YouTube videos.


This page was last updated on Sunday 26 January 2014.

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