Gender Identity 101: A guide to understanding transgender issues

Thanks to hit shows like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black, and the public, forthcoming nature of Caitlyn Jenner, the world is being exposed to the lives of transgender individuals. And while that’s a great thing, many people who have never met a trans individual might not know much about it or how to talk about it, despite wanting to be sensitive and supportive.

It’s important to understand why it matters to learn more about transgender vocabulary and how to be a respectful and supportive ally. There is so much more going on in the transgender sphere than what we see in scripted or reality television shows. For instance, transgender people face incredibly high rates of discrimination and violence. Transgender people are more likely to experience unemployment and live in poverty, and transgender women of color in particular face staggeringly high rates of incarceration, murder and homelessness.

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SheKnows spoke with Dani Heffernan, Senior Strategist of Transgender Media at GLAAD, who guided us through common pitfalls like terms used, information about pronouns and more. First, it’s helpful to have a better understanding of some of the vocabulary:

Transgender: An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. For instance, a transgender man may have been assigned female at birth, but identifies and lives as a man. According to GLAAD, “many transgender people are prescribed hormones by their doctors to change their bodies. Some undergo surgery as well. But not all transgender people can or will take those steps, and a transgender identity is not dependent upon medical procedures.”

Gender Identity: Your internal sense of your particular gender. While most people have a gender identity of a woman or a man, others identify more on a spectrum rather than a strict gender binary. For transgender people, their own internal gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. Gender identity is different than sexual identity (i.e. who you are sexually attracted to).

Gender Expression: While gender identity is how you feel about your gender and is not visible to the outside world, gender expression refers to the steps you take to portray your gender day to day. These can be things like your name, pronouns you use, clothes, hairdos, your voice or body characteristics. GLAAD notes that “typically, transgender people seek to make their gender expression align with their gender identity, rather than the sex they were assigned at birth.”

Cisgender: Someone who is not transgender. A term used to identify someone whose gender identity is the same as the one they were assigned at birth.

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Within the umbrella term of transgender, there are a host of other terms you might have heard and GLAAD’s transgender resource page does a great job of reviewing and defining this transgender-specific vocabulary.

When it comes to pronouns and figuring out how to address someone, Heffernan suggests being an active listener, rather than asking for pronoun preference right away, which could feel like you’re singling the person out. “If you’re not sure what pronoun to use for someone, first listen to what people who know that person are using to refer to that person,” explains Heffernan. “If you can’t figure it out, you can ask, but ask respectfully. You can start by offering your own first, like saying, ‘Hi, I’m Dani, I use she and her, what about you?'”

And, when it comes to wondering if you even know anyone who may be transgender, Heffernan says to err on the side of caution. “You can’t tell that someone is transgender just by looking at them, so you should assume there may be a trans person in any space you are in.” But the biggest takeaway, Heffernan shares, is to just treat anyone you come across like “a person.” Treat them with respect and you’ll most likely be fine. For more information and a helpful transgender information FAQ, please visit GLAAD.

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