These definitions and explanations of concepts are intended to provide an overview and are not a comprehensive discussion of the ideas involved. Many people’s experience will be different than what is given here, and acknowledgement of this is vital to effective education and discussion. As with all sociological concepts, there are no exact, clear-cut definitions of the terms here, and attempting to promote one conception of a notion like “gender” above another generally just involves back-and-forth argumentation. Rather, these descriptions try to reflect the broadest, currently accepted ideas of what it means to be trans.
What does ‘Transgender’ mean?
Transgender (often abbreviated to ‘trans’) is used as an inclusive umbrella term used to describe anyone who feels that the gender that was assigned to them at birth incompletely describes or fails to describe their relation to gender. This term includes people who:
Identify as members of the other binary gender than the one they were assigned. These people might describe themselves as binary transgender, or transsexual (though the latter is less popular among current students).
Identify as being outside of the western gender binary. These people might describe themselves as one or more of non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, pan-, bi- or agender, neutrois, demiguy, demigirl, or a multitude of other descriptions, or none at all.
Not all people who fit the above definition identify as trans. In particular some Indigenous people and people of colour feel that the western concept of transness only makes sense to apply within the western colonial narrative and therefore do not apply it to themselves.
It is always best to ask people how they identify, if this is relevant information you need to know, rather than making assumptions about the words they use to describe themselves.
‘By “Trans / Transgender” we are referring to all people who consider themselves to fall under the trans / transgender and gender variant umbrella. This includes, but is not limited to: Cross-dressing & transvestite people, trans women, trans men, transsexual men & transsexual women, people identifying as androgyne, polygender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, dual gendered, & non-gender identifying, gender questioning people, gender variant & gender diverse people, transgender people & intersex people and anyone who feels that the gender assigned to them at birth incompletely describes or does not at all describe their own personal gender or non-gender identity.’
– from the Transgender Resource and Empowerment Centre website (in Manchester, serving the North-West.)
Sex vs. Gender
The terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are distinct, with both referring to diffuse subject matter; however they are not necessarily fully separate, since they are historically used in an intrinsically linked sense, and sex terminology is gendered – that is to say that describing something as “male” is equivalent to associating the thing with men/manhood.
In a biomedical context, sex is often used to describe certain anatomical and genetic features of an individual such as X/Y chromosomal status, gonads, genitalia, hormonal levels, etc. It is worth noting that these are not always grouped as typically expected, in the case of intersex individuals.
Gender is a term used for a wider range of socially constructed ideas. Historically in the West it has described the social features (appearance and societal roles) typically attributed to one of the binary sexes; however, this idea has come under increased scrutiny over the past few decades.
Gender, or gender identity, describes the gender-related aspects of a person’s innate sense of identity, with or without reference to stereotypes associated with their sex assigned at birth. Terms to describe gender in this sense include female, non-binary, agender, male, genderqueer, genderfluid, and a whole host of other terms.
Broadly speaking, the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are used with varying degrees of sense and accuracy. You should always describe people using the terminology they use to describe themselves. When you do not know what sex terminology a person uses but you do know their gender, you should default to using the sex terminology associated with their gender, not with their assigned sex at birth.
Starting definitions of these terms can be found in the glossary, but there is a lot of confusion and misinformation around them and their distinctions, so don’t expect to get a grasp on either quickly. In the mean time, just remember to default to treating sex terminology as though it is gendered, and to always describe people using the terminology they use to describe themselves.
Am I Trans?
The short answer is if you want to identify as trans, you can – feeling that either there is something wrong with the gender identity you have been assigned, or that you are happier with a different gender identity, is all there is to it. There’s no right way to be trans; you don’t need to have dysphoria or to have known for a long time. Society’s powerful impetus of cisnormativity means that almost every trans person doubts their right to claim transness, often on a regular basis, so don’t worry!
If the question of whether you’re trans is not something you’ve ever put serious time and effort into, then it may be worth putting some time aside to think about it. Almost all trans people have spent a proportion of their adult lives either not connecting certain feelings they have with the concept of transness, or having suppressed feelings about gender to the point where they don’t notice them. So have a think!
Gender policing within the trans community
As a result of power dynamics within the trans community (i.e. white trans people and DFAB trans people having significant power over trans people of colour and DMAB trans people – and particularly over trans women of colour), as well as significant gatekeeping from both medical and legal institutions, there can often be a lot of gender policing directing at trans people (i.e. telling people what gender they can or can’t have or be or what they must do to qualify as their gender) that also comes from other trans people.
Gender policing is always wrong and always harmful. With the exception that you may not claim a culturally specific gender identity if you do not belong to the culture it is specific to, all that is required for you to have a particular gender is for you to want to have that gender identity. Whether or not you have dysphoria, have known for a long time, choose to having hormone therapy or surgery, etc. etc. your identity is valid.
It should be noted that transgender is a very broad term, and it encompasses many different constituents who face distinct (though often overlapping) sets of issues. Whether or not an individual subscribes to the term transgender is subject to self-definition. For example, many intersex people do not self-identify as transgender because they feel that this does not relate to gender but rather to physical sex.
There is no right way to be trans, and all trans identities are equally valid. Since there is such diversity of experience within the transgender umbrella it is important for groups within that umbrella to listen and defer to one another on particular aspects of trans experience – in particular when there are uni-directional power dynamics involved. One trans person can never claim to represent all trans people.
What does ‘Cisgender’ mean?
The term ‘cisgender’ (often abbreviated to ‘cis’) is used to describe people who are not transgender, i.e. who experience complete congruence between their gender identity and gender assigned at birth.
Language and Pronouns
Trans people should always be addressed and accommodated in the gender in which they present, unless they specify otherwise. This includes use of pronouns and titles, in notes, speech and correspondence. If in doubt, ask the person what they prefer; in general, trans people would much rather you asked which pronouns to use than be misgendered.
Most transgender people will use pronouns based on their identified gender. Trans women (people assigned male at birth who live as women) are ‘she’, trans men are ‘he’.
Some trans people will find a gender-neutral pronoun to be more appropriate. ‘They’ singular is widely used, and is a useful default if in doubt. Contrary to some people’s belief, a singular ‘they/them/their’ is a correct grammatical alternative when the gender of the subject is not known and it is seen as inclusive of all (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they). Furthermore, it is used by the English government as their preferred style (gov.uk/designprinciples/styleguide).
Some other commonly used sets of pronouns are (note that this list is in no way exhaustive):
A large source of information on these matters can be found at nonbinary.org/wiki/Gender_neutral_language, which provides a relatively extensive list of potential gender-neutral words.