A couple of years ago, when my friend Hillary asked me to start calling him Andrew, I didn't know the world I was about to find myself in. I never had thought much about transgender people before. I don't think I exactly knew what transgender meant. What I had in my head was a mix of stereotypes and half-truths; well-meaning misconceptions. What follows are some vocabulary lessons I've learned.
Transgender is sort of umbrella term, but I suppose it boils down to referring to someone whose gender identity isn't the same as their physical sex. Some people who are transgender live as women but were born with male genitals, live as men but were born with female genitals, or do not identify with either gender, regardless of their genitals.
Before I met Andrew, I never realized just how many people fit under the transgender umbrella, nor did I have the slightest understanding, really, of what transgender looked like, in real life. I think the first thing I had to learn was the vocabulary, and so now I'll share some with you.
First, if you're referring to a trans man or trans guy, you're referring to someone who was born with female parts but identifies, dresses, and/or lives as a guy. Trans guys can also be known as female-to-male or F2M. If you're referring to a trans woman or trans girl, you're talking about a person who was born with male parts but identifies, dresses, and/or lives as a girl. Trans girls can also be known as male-to-female or F2M.
A trans woman is not generally the same thing as a drag queen. A drag queen is someone who was born with boy parts and dresses as a woman - usually as a caricature of a woman, for the sake of performance or entertainment. Drag queens don't usually consider themselves or live as women. There is a certain amount of contention between drag queens and other sorts of trans women because the visibility of drag queens causes a lot of people, like I did, to think that most or all trans women wear sequins, absurd makeup, and massive wigs. Most trans women dress in regular old girl clothes. I also always thought trans women were young for some reason, whereas many of the trans ladies I know are middle aged or older and dress just like any other mom or grandma.
Cross-dresser is a general term for people who wear clothes that are not considered appropriate for the gender they were born to. This word has largely replaced transvestite.
Cross-dressers and other folks who identify with a gender other than their own aren't necessarily attracted to people of the gender opposite to the one with which they identify. Which is to say, it's perfectly common for a trans woman to be attracted to and have relationships with other women, or a trans man to be attracted to and have relationships with other men.
So pronouns. This is a tough one, and people under the transgender umbrella have all sorts of different notions about pronoun usage. The best way to select a gender pronoun for a trans person is to ask him or her what he or she prefers. Most trans people I've met are pretty patient with the pronoun thing, but most prefer that they be referred to by the gender with which they identify - so you'd call a trans woman she and a trans man he. There are also gender-neutral pronouns, ghe and gher or ze and zer, but they aren't all that commonly used. They're awkward to say and hard to remember.
Some trans people say that they were born in the wrong body. However, many others think that this is the wrong way of looking at it - that it emphasizes the idea of the trans person as a victim or an accident. Those people are not saying that being trans is a choice, rather that using born in the wrong body language frames the experience in a negative light. I guess that makes sense; most people change their body to bring it more in line with how they see themselves. That doesn't mean their bodies were wrong in the first place, just that they needed to see themselves on the outside as they see themselves on the inside.
There are lots of reasons for transgenderism. It's more common than you'd think for a trans woman, for instance, to have been born with the outdoor plumbing of a guy, but the indoor plumbing of a girl - for example, sometimes it turns out that a trans woman, who externally looks like a guy, has a uterus and an ovary or two. Sometimes, the hormones are to blame - folks with boy plumbing can be born with the hormones of a woman and vice versa. Chromosomal abnormalities can also be a factor. The DSM currently says that transgender folks have gender identity disorder, but many trans folks argue that being transgender isn't a disorder. However, in a lot of places, a psychiatrist must diagnose a person with gender identity disorder before a doctor is allowed to begin gender reassignment therapy.
Gender reassignment therapy does not just refer to the sex change operation. In fact, many trans people never have the full surgery (usually called bottom surgery, as opposed to top surgery, which refers to mastectomy or breast implants) - it's insanely expensive and hard to procure, not to mention physically traumatic. Gender reassignment therapy can include the use of hormone replacement therapy, or hrt.
So that's kind of a nutshell. There's a ton I didn't get to. I guess what I want people to carry away from this is that transgenderism isn't a rarity or a freak-show. I also want people to understand that it's not easy. My trans friends go through hell and back just to be allowed to be who they are. Some trans folks have insults or threats of hell thrown at them every day. Some are afraid to leave their own homes dressed the way they feel comfortable dressing. The process of transitioning is frightening, difficult, and sometimes dehumanizing, and it takes incredible courage. Being trans gender isn't about trying to be different, it's about trying to be oneself. I think what it would feel like to have society shrieking at me that the way I choose to look is bad or wrong. Hundreds of trans people are murdered every year, many here in America, just for dressing in the "wrong" clothing. Just last month, Marcal Camero Tye was shot and then drug behind a car in the early morning hours in Arkansas. My Andrew does this particular topic a lot more justice than I:
Catalyst (in memoriam)
By: Andrew Line
8 APR 11
Marcal was 25.
On the mornign of March 8th,
between the hours of 2 and 5 a.m.,
they shot her... twice,
dragged her down the highway
and dumped her on the side of the road.
And, even in her death,
the media could not grant her the last dignity
of using the correct pronouns.
"A man wearing women's clothing was found dead,"
they said, as if she had it comming
for daring to be different in a way
that made people so uncomfortable.
I watched the sheriff hold her at arm's length
between phobic fingertips.
His face said
that the rancid stench of her sunrise-rotted flesh
was the epitome of everything wrong with the world.
And as I cried for my sister,
this bitch had the ignorance to tell me not to take it personally;
after all, "People are murdered every day."
That's easy for you to say!
Sometimes, I swear, no one but us gives a fuck!
Maybe if she were murdered for being a mundane,
whitewashed suburbanite, people would pay attention.
Every time we lose another,
I can't fathom why we're not rioting!
I used to know a girl who named all the lobsters in the tank
so I couldn't eat them.
Would it help if I brought you a list of the victims?!
Dino Huansi was 28.
She was stabbed to death and left
in a road-side dump.
Amanda Gonzalaz was strangled.
An unidentified trans-woman who's body was never claimed
was dismembered and mutilated.
Another was beheaded.
Branda was burned to death,
Selma was drowned
and 16-month-old Roy Antonio Jones III
of Southampton, New York
was beaten to death
by his mother's boyfriend,
who told the cops he was “trying to make him act like a boy
instead of a little girl.”
How many more have to die before we wake up?!
Well, I am here to tell you, that I HAVE HAD ENOUGH!
Yes, I will continue to jump down your throats
every time you you utter the words
or "that's so gay,"
because that is where it starts, and this is where it will end!
It feels like the blood in my veins has been replaced
and that's the Righteous Indignation that we need to take to the streets!
If ever there was a time to take a stand...
it was on the morning of March 8th,
between the hours of 2 and 5 a.m.
Let's not let it happen again.