When talking about transgender, it is essential to understand the concepts of gender and sex. In this sense, gender and sex are understood in two separate categories; the one refers to a male or female expression of self (gender), while the other refers to physical anatomy making you either male or female (sex).
Transgender is, thus, understood as someone whose gender expression or behaviour does not match with their sex. In other words a male who does not necessarily conform to the gender roles and expressions that males normally conform to. Or a female who does not align with traditional female gender roles. But bear in mind that not everyone who steps out of their conformed gender roles will agree to being transgender. The term is a good one to use when understanding some people who feel uncomfortable with their sex, believe that their sex is limiting to their identification and expression of self and wish to move beyond, or between, the lines of gender identification. Remember too, that transgender does not refer to sexual orientation either. In this sense, a transgendered person can be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, polysexual and even asexual.
The transgender umbrella
Transgender is really an umbrella term to cover a variety of identities including transsexual, cross-dressing, “drag queens”, genderqueer, mutigendered, gender non-conforming, third gender and androgynous.
Transsexual refers to those whose gender identity, the way in which they experience themselves, is different from their biologically assigned sex. Many transsexual people wish to alter their bodies to fit with their gender identities. Those who cross-dress will wear clothes typically associated with the other gender. They are most often comfortable with their assigned sex and do not wih to change it, but express themselves in a different gender by wearing the clothes normally assigned to that gender. With regards to the term “drag-queen” – this usually refers to men who dress as women, but more for the purpose of entertainment than for gender expression.
Genderqueer is a term used to describe those who believe their gender falls somewhere on the continuum between male and female. In other words, they do not associate completely with either gender, but fall somewhere in between, or define it in a completely different way. The other terms such as multigendered, gender non-conforming, third gendered and androgynous are terms used to describe those who have a send of blending, or alternating genders. They do not wish to define themselves by the limiting constraints of a particular gender and find their identities, and also their expressions of gender, to fall outside of any conventional understanding of gender.
Why are some people transgender?
There are a variety of contributing factors as to why someone is transgendered. Research shows that there is a blend of biological and genetic factors as well as environmental and experiential factors that lead to the development of a transgender identity.
People become aware of their transgender identity at any age and many can trace their transgender feelings back to their earliest memories. Most people developing a transgender identity will have a sense of ‘not fitting in; or ‘belonging’ within a particular gender group. They feel that they wish they were different, or feel more comfortable with the opposite gender. Other people may explore non-conforming gender attitudes during adolescence, or even later in life and find that they have a greater affinity with transgender identity.
Some people are able to embrace their transgender identity and feelings, while others may struggle with their new identity and experience feelings of shame and guilt.
Transgender is not viewed as a psychological illness or mental disorder. Remember that a psychological state is only viewed as a disorder if it is debilitating and causes significant distress or impairment in functioning. Most transgender people do not view their gender identity or expression as distressing or debilitating so the identity itself is not viewed as problematic. However, there are many factors that make the transition to transgender identity difficult, such as family and friends support (or lack thereof), and discrimination. In this sense, counselling is useful as a source of support and understanding providing a space in which the individual can explore their gender identity and expression in a safe and non-judgemental space. In other cases, as discussed above, some might have difficulty accepting and embracing their transgender identity.
Again, counselling is useful to help integrate and process this new identity and self-expression. Dealing with lack of acceptance, direct discrimination, and even assault are very distressing and can lead to depression and anxiety. If you are experiencing difficulty in this way, then counselling is also very beneficial.
Being supportive towards a loved one
If you have someone close to you that is transgendered, it is essential to provide support and understanding for that person.
- Educate yourself about the variety of transgender issues that exist. Read books on the tpic, attend conferences and consult with others who also identify themselves as transgendered. By educating yourself around these issues you will be able to generate more empathy and understanding for your loved one.
- Remember that, just as we have unique expressions of ourselves, transgender people also have unique ways of being and do not always fit into a stereotypic category. In this way you will learn to tolerate and support the variety of expressions of self your loved one has.
- Don’t make any assumptions about transgender people’s sexual orientation. While your loved one may identify with being transgender this does not mean that he/she is homosexual or bisexual. Rather have an open and supportive conversation about their orientation than make hasty assumptions.
- Always keep the lines of communication open with your loved one. Providing a supportive environment for them will go a long way in terms of preventing depression and anxiety related illnesses.
- Get some support for your own reactions and feelings. It may not be easy for you to accept and embrace your loved ones choice of identity so it is important that you process your feelings and reactions with someone supportive too.