What Being Transgender *Is Not*
Hey, you! Thank you for being here. Thank you for tapping on this title and deciding to read just one more line. And another. If you’re willing to be here and you’ve come out of genuine curiosity, I applaud you for being an open-minded person. Maybe you’re attempting to learn and understand something you don’t already. Or maybe you’re an expert on this topic. Either way, I welcome you.
That said, I want to make it clear up front that I am not transgender; I’m only the mom of a trans teen. I’m cisgender — the opposite of transgender. But being the parent of a child who’s in a gender identity minority (trans non-binary) has led to my writing about, involvement with, and advocacy for the trans community in general.
I can’t speak to what it’s like being trans in today’s world. I can only observe, listen, and learn. And then try to share all that with my readers — who tend to mostly be cisgender and heterosexual (and often White) folks, just like myself. Because most assumptions about trans people seem to revolve around faulty perceptions, let’s first identify what being transgender is not.
1. ‘Transgender’ is not a sexual orientation
I know this one can be super confusing, but I believe that’s because we’ve inadvertently made it so. By incorporating the ‘T’ into the LGBT acronym (and its variations), we’ve lumped together being transgender — a person’s gender identity — with being lesbian, gay, and bisexual — a person’s sexual orientation. For those without any frame of reference for trans people, it’s natural to assume “trans” must be a sexual orientation as well.
Moreover, many cis people seem to think that being trans is some kind of sexual kink or fetish, that trans people “cross-dress” for arousal and sexual gratification. While there certainly are people who cross-dress or role play for sexual gratification, that does not make them trans. Trans people have sexual identities completely separate from their “trans-ness.” A trans woman, for example, can be straight, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, or other — just as cis people can be.
2. Being trans is not a choice
Every one of us has a gender journey. But most of us don’t even think about it. Being male, female, neither, both, or another gender altogether is something everyone feels to some extent, all the way down to their innermost core.
The only choice trans people make regarding their trans identity is whether to come out or not. Whether to socially or physically transition. Whether to tell others their new name and pronouns or not. But no one chooses who they are at their core being.
3. Being trans is not a lifestyle or agenda
A lifestyle is an active choice that a person makes about the way they live their life, often having to do with their personal philosophy, values, and/or culture. Examples of lifestyles would be: patriarchal, sedentary, active, vegan, feminist, evangelical, and so on. Gender identity (along with sexual orientation) seem to be deeply ingrained aspects of our being — not choices — and are typically (but not always) fixed and finite.
Let’s say you have a trans male friend. Saying something like, “I love and respect him, but I don’t agree with his lifestyle choices” would be considered transphobic, because being trans is neither a lifestyle nor a choice. Imagine — if you’re cis and hetero — what it might feel like if the world was judging your “straightness,” boiling it and all of its complexities down to a lifestyle or choice. That sort of delegitimizes and stigmatizes it; it certainly separates it from any sense of being “the norm,” or the standard default setting.
Maybe you did choose your partner, but you didn’t wake up one day and decide to be straight. If you’re a hetero female like me, you just instinctively began feeling sexually and/or romantically attracted to males at a certain age. You couldn’t explain why (beyond maybe, “he’s hot!”); it was simply about who you happened to find attractive in a romantic and/or sexual way.
It’s the same with your gender identity. If you’re cis female like me, you know that you didn’t wake up one day and decide to become a girl and to take on society’s expectations for that gender role. No one had to sit you down and tell you that you were a girl; you somehow just knew it, even if you didn’t conform to the expectations for gender in our society.
Take me (again), for example. I’ve always felt 100% female, I’ve never experienced gender dysphoria. I may not like the way women are often treated unfairly or unequal in society, but I enjoy being a female. As for my gender expression, I don’t go out of my way to appear stereotypical female. (Besides, the boobs tend to give it away). I dress for comfort, and that includes keeping my hair in a short “boy” cut. But I’m still female through and through.
There is no “trans agenda.” There is no social currency in being trans. There’s nothing fun about experiencing a daily constellation of microaggressions, like being misgendered by strangers — or even loved ones — or being asked intrusive and overtly personal questions about your private parts and whether you’ve had “the surgery” or not. (And just for the record, there is no one surgery that makes a trans person whole. Many trans people don’t have any medical intervention, procedures, or surgeries, for any number of valid reasons. None of this makes a trans person any more or any less trans.)
There’s nothing fun about being on the receiving end of “compliments” said in ignorance, like, “I never would’ve known you were trans!” or awkward questions like, “Are you a boy or a girl?! What are you?!” There’s nothing fun about living in fear, having to constantly size up your surroundings and read the room to determine which public bathroom — men’s room or ladies’ room — would be safest for you on that particular day in that particular moment.
There’s nothing fun about living under a microscope, worrying about disclosure, or having to weigh the pros and cons: should you live authentically yourself for your own mental health, but run the risk of ruining everything you have, from family to friends to career? Or should you hide who you really are to keep everyone around you happy and comfortable? And there’s certainly nothing fun about the fact that trans people — black trans women, in particular — are extremely vulnerable to becoming victims of violence, assault, and even murder, just for trying to live their lives.
4. Biological sex and gender identity are not the same thing
Even though we tend to assume penis = boy and vagina = girl, biological sex is not always binary. Scientists know this well, and an entire population of people exist in various intersex categories, many of whom aren’t biological male or female. Some may have testicles and a uterus, as just one example of many different variations. Gender identity is not about what genitals you have.
“Gender 101,” in brief…
A very short guide
First, I want to say that I’m always happy to address a few fair-game questions. Because, let’s face it, most people in the U.S. have no frame of reference, nor do they have any urgent need to understand trans-related issues. That is, until they feel the issue is up close and personal. Like, when your kid comes out as trans and you never saw it coming and you don’t know where to turn for help.
Parents often contact me in this stage, in a panic. Because by then, it’s almost too late. Odds are, that trans youth has been bursting at the seams to reveal this part of themself forever, so by the time they’re finally able to verbalize that out loud, they’re ready to transition. Like, yesterday. And you’re still on square one, trying to understand what this word even means or whether this is a phase.
Gender Spectrum is wonderful. It’s the leading national organization focused on children, youth, and gender. They provide resources, trainings, workshops, online support/chat groups, and much more. A few years ago, my area was fortunate enough to have Lisa Kenney, Gender Spectrum’s Executive Director, and published author, come out and provide a one-day workshop for parents.
The way Kenney summed up “gender 101” was something like this:
Gender identity is different from gender expression and biology… gender identity is what you know internally (in your heart and mind); gender expression is how you present that identity externally (to the world — through clothing, hair, makeup, the roles you take on in society); and biology means your physical attributes, which have always been used as a proxy for gender. And all of those are different, still, from sexual orientation.
Of course, sexual orientation refers to your sexual identity (or lack of) in relation to the gender or genders to which you find yourself naturally attracted — emotionally, romantically, and/or physically. Like gender identity, sexual orientation is both innate and instinctive. Also like gender identity, sexual orientation typically remains permanent and unchanging.
This isn’t to say that gender fluid or pansexual people aren’t valid. It has more to do with the fact that we can’t change the innate and instinctive nature of who a person is regarding these identities. It’s why “conversion therapy” has become banned in several places, including my state. Because it’s unethical, and it doesn’t work.
Excerpt from “North Carolina governor moves to block conversion therapy funds,” PBS.org:
“The governor’s order defines conversion therapy as practices meant to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including efforts to stifle certain behaviors or reduce romantic feelings toward the same sex.
‘Conversion therapy has been shown to pose serious health risks, and we should be protecting all of our children, including those who identify as LGBTQ, instead of subjecting them to a dangerous practice,’ the governor’s office said in a tweet.”
Although gender identity is somewhat public (often the first thing we notice about others), gender identity is also personal because it’s how each of us sees ourselves at our innermost core. Conversely, sexual orientation is interpersonal, because it’s about other people — especially, to whom we’re attracted.
Additionally, we cannot presume to know someone’s sexual orientation by just knowing their gender identity, because those are two totally separate, unrelated components of every individual. Put simply, sometimes they’re “in alignment” with societal expectations, and sometimes they aren’t.
4 gender myths that won’t go away…
Here are just a few of the gender-based myths that need to be challenged whenever they’re seen or heard — as often as needed — until society on the whole understands that they are myths and not facts.
Myth 1: Kids are too young to understand gender
Contrary to popular belief, children are not “too young” to understand concepts of gender, or even to know their gender identity. They may be unable to verbalize what that is, but they can certainly understand the nuances of gender roles, and how they either fit in or don’t fit in with those roles.
Gender identity has been studied by leading psychologists and hospitals for decades, like Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), Gender Spectrum, the Child and Adolescent Gender Center of UCSF Benioff, etc. All leaders in the field have determined that most people’s internal sense of gender is “set” by the age of three or four.
Some have argued that as young as 18–24 months a child can know something doesn’t feel right, even when they lack the terminology or ability to communicate what that is.
It’s around this time that they also start to pick up on the subtle (and not-so-subtle) gender expectations coming from all around them — within their family, their daycare/preschool, their church, and their community.
Some trans kids will show early signs which in-tune-with-parents will pick up on, or, that make a lot more sense in hindsight. That said, not all trans kids will show signs that they are trans, and for others who do, not all parents will recognize those signs for what they are (case in point: myself).
Gender dysphoria presents in so many different ways, ways that we often mistake for something else, like depression or anxiety. And even still, not all trans people experience gender dysphoria (or they don’t recognize it), or perhaps only experience it mildly, or in short, fleeting bouts. And of course, not every child who shows signs of gender non-conformity will end up being transgender or non-binary. But many will.
Christina Olson, a psychology professor at the University of Washington says that in her TransYouth project, they’ve heard reports from parents “as early as when their kids start talking, as soon as they could say words like girl and boy,” and therefore, “a lot of parents say 18 months, 2 years.”
My own child first communicated this at age 20 months, just shy of age two. And thereafter, our child continued showing us with persistent, consistent, and insistent behaviors that they were definitely not male, as they’d been assigned at birth.
Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D. is one of the nation’s leading gender specialists, widely known among parents of trans kids for her work in the field. Dr. Ehrensaft is also a prominent developmental and clinical psychologist, professor, author, and founding member of the Child and Adolescent Gender Center of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. She has famously said this quote, which I love:
“When kids whose gender matches the sex on their birth certificates say, ‘I know my gender,’ nobody questions that. They say, ‘Oh, of course. You should.’ But if a kid says, ‘I know my gender,’ but it’s not the sex on their birth certificate, people ask, ‘Oh, how could you possibly know that?’ How can we have both at the same time?”
In my advocacy, I’ve spoken to hundreds of trans and non-binary adults, some who didn’t fully realize or find the courage to transition until over 60 years old. Nothing — no scientific data or research — has compelled me more than simply listening to the firsthand accounts of trans people: they know their gender, and on some level, they’ve always known it. It may take them a lifetime to figure it all out, they may even transition, de-transition, and then ultimately transition back (as a friend of mine did). But, this isn’t because they’re “flip flopping” or confused. When trans people reverse course, it’s almost always because of the mistreatment they received during and after transitioning — by family, friends, coworkers, and even strangers.
It doesn’t matter what state they live in, how old they are, what their occupation or life experience is; they all tell versions of the exact same story. They express sentiments like, “I always knew; I just didn’t know there was a word for it,” or “I grew up knowing exactly who I was, but the whole world was telling me I was wrong,” and even, “I first came out as gay, because I figured that would be the easier pill for my parents to swallow than if I’d come out as trans.”
Kids are not too young to understand gender. They certainly aren’t too young to hear, understand, and internalize the gendered messages we send them all the time, especially after a certain age. Little girls aren’t too young to understand messages like “that’s not very lady-like,” and little boys aren’t too young to internalize messages like, “you don’t want that — that’s a girly color.”
In fact, the younger they are, the more likely they are to be open-minded and understanding of gender beyond the binary. And the more likely they are to adopt messages like “toys and colors don’t have a gender,” and “anyone is welcome to play.”
Myth 2: Trans people are just confused/they’ll regret it later in life
This one is really widespread, and tailgating on the “confused” label. It’s the notion that trans people are intentionally being devious or deceptive, or are out to “trick” or mislead others, especially for nefarious reasons. (Like the notorious but largely non-existent ‘public bathroom predator.’)
It’s this myth that gets embedded in the minds of people and underscores much of the discrimination and violence that trans people face. And it’s this myth that’s responsible for the deluge of transphobic “bathroom bills,” like North Carolina’s HB2.
Furthermore, if trans people were confused, we’d expect to see that reflected somehow in the data. If, for example, a group of trans people in a study ended up medically transitioning, but later admitted they were merely “confused,” we’d probably expect to see high rates of regret over such a transition.
But studies have been conducted on this, and data simply doesn’t support the confused/regretful-trans-person-who-transitioned narrative. Of course there are always a few outliers, but multiple studies show that almost no trans people (at most, 1–2%) report regret after transitioning medically. And again, to account for this small percentage, we have to consider it’s largely due to how trans people are viewed and treated by others after transition that makes them want to “go back.” Back to comfort, safety, and acceptance with the outside world.
It takes unimaginable courage to transition. Not to mention, time. There are specific steps that a person has to undergo in order to receive trans affirming care, like going on hormones. It typically involves the individual having an established history with a therapist, one who specializes in LGBTQ and gender issues, who can provide evidence and documentation that this person has some degree of gender dysphoria. Transitions don’t happen overnight. Or even in a year.
Myth 3: Parents of trans kids are forcing a trans identity on them
Speaking from experience, nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, most of us unwitting parents of trans kids may have some kind of hunch, but fight it tooth and nail, strictly out of a need to protect — for fear of their physical safety and emotional well-being.
But when we’re at that naive stage, what we don’t understand yet is that by denying our children the chance to express themselves authentically, we’re actually making things worse. We’re setting them up for a lifetime of shame and guilt, along with the impossible-to-shake sense that something is wrong with them at their very core, something they’re expected to hide from the world. Ultimately, what we don’t realize in this naive stage is that by living in fear and denying their truth, we’re actually pushing them over that thin line between living and dying.
It’s exactly these trans youth — the ones who aren’t supported at home — who end up committing suicide. Leelah Alcorn is just one example. But there are so many more.
Research has consistently shown that trans kids whose gender identity is affirmed by their parents are as happy and healthy as their cisgender peers. Having an incredibly supportive family is great and it’s necessary. But unfortunately, it’s not enough, because there’s still the outside world to contend with, and it can be ugly sometimes.
Myth 4: Trans people are attention-seeking/trying to be edgy/jumping on the bandwagon
There’s literally no advantage to transitioning genders if you are not actually transgender. That can’t be stated enough. In most states, trans people don’t even have basic legal protections. Like, laws that would protect a person’s access to housing, public accommodations, and employment opportunities. In a culture like ours that effortlessly showcases cisgender people, trans people (especially trans non-binary people) are often seen as the absolute bottom of the LGBTQ barrel.
After exploring what being transgender is not, how do we define what being transgender is? That’s a question that would make a whole separate article. In short, just know that ‘transgender’ is an umbrella term that encompasses anyone who’s not cisgender. There’s no singular, definitive way to be trans, just as there’s no singular, definitive way to be cis.
For those who really want to understand what being transgender is, the best way to learn would be seeking out and reading the firsthand accounts of those who actually are trans individuals. And to always keep the perspective that gender identity is part of everyone’s self-concept. This identity is personal and internal to each one of us. We’ve all had a gender journey whether we realize it or not. What’s yours?