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.")
(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.")
(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.")
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.