Nature loves variety. Unfortunately, society hates it.
It is highly likely that you have passed a transgender person on the street, at the grocery store, in the bank, at the gym, and, yes, even in a public restroom, without even knowing that that person was transgender. A transgender person is not a clone of another transgender person. He or she is different and unique, just as is every other person. Transgender people are those who transgress gender norms of society by attempting to transition into the correct gender into which they should have been born. Transgender people are not the same as transvestites, cross-dressers, drag queens, or drag kings. Being transgender is about gender identity, whereas being a cross-dresser or drag queen or king is not.
Below are very basic terms and acronyms related to the transgender community. Sexual orientation varies because gender and sex are not the same (see my previous post for more on the differences between sex and gender).
- Transsexual (TS): describes people who elect to change their physical sex through hormones, SRS (sex reassignment surgery), and/or additional cosmetic surgeries, such as facial feminization and breast implants in the case of male-to-female (MTF) transsexuals, or facial masculinization and breast removal in the case of female-to-male (FTM) transsexuals. Sexual orientation varies.
(GLAAD calls this "an older term which originated in the medical and psychological communities. While some [transgender] people still prefer to use the term to describe themselves, many transgender people prefer the term 'transgender' to 'transsexual.' Unlike 'transgender,' 'transsexual' is not an umbrella term, as many transgender people do not identify as transsexual. It is best to ask which term an individual prefers.")
- Transgender (TG): describes people who begin the process of changing their gender appearance. These steps may be in the form of wearing clothing typically associated with the other sex, undergoing hormone treatments and/or surgical procedures, removing unwanted hair, etc., as with transsexuals. The difference is that transgender people wish to transition their gender but may not necessarily want to undergo SRS. Sexual orientation varies.
(GLAAD calls this "an umbrella term [adj.] for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. The term may include but is not limited to: transsexuals, cross-dressers and other gender-variant people. Transgender people may identify as female-to-male [FTM] or male-to-female [MTF]. Use the descriptive term ['transgender,' 'transsexual,' 'cross-dresser,' 'FTM' or 'MTF'] preferred by the individual. Transgender people may or may not decide to alter their bodies hormonally and/or surgically.")
- Cross-dresser (CD): a person who dresses in clothing typically associated with the other sex but does not undergo surgery or take hormones. Cross-dressing is typically the beginning phase as one progresses through the transgender and transexual process, but the term "cross-dresser" should not be applied to these people. Most cross-dressers care about the clothing and not about changing their sex. Sexual orientation varies.
(GLAAD defines cross-dressing as "occasionally [wearing] clothes traditionally associated with people of the other sex. Cross-dressers are usually comfortable with the sex they were assigned at birth and do not wish to change it. 'Cross-dresser' should not be used to describe someone who has transitioned to live full-time as the other sex or who intends to do so in the future. Cross-dressing is a form of gender expression and is not necessarily tied to erotic activity. Cross-dressing is not indicative of sexual orientation.")
- Transvestite (TV): is an outdated, derogatory term for cross-dressers, although many people erroneously equate it with being transsexual or transgender.
- Drag queen or drag king (DQ or DK): a man who dresses up as a woman (DQ), or a woman who dresses up as a man (DK), specifically for the sake of performance, usually very over-the-top and exaggerated. Drag is an art form about performance and not gender identity.
These are brief and simple definitions, but they serve as a good starting point for those venturing into this unfamiliar territory. Being transgender is just another characteristic of being human and does not define the person.
Many transgender people want to blend in or go stealth (that is, pass in public without drawing attention to themselves) throughout their daily routines of life. Stereotypical characters like Corporal Klinger of the M*A*S*H television series, Dr. Frank-N-Furter of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or RuPaul are not transgender but dramatizations of cross-dressing or drag; the popular misconception that these characters represent transgender people occurs due to the lack of a transgender role models and the perception that this less-understood group has comedic value.
During the past 30 years, a few positive transgender role models, such as Renée Richards, Caroline "Tula" Cossey, and, most recently, Chaz Bono, have opened their lives to the public in efforts to communicate the reality of being a transgender person. The more exposure real-life transgender people experience, the less inequality and discrimination society will subject us to out of fear.