I'm paid by the federal government to fly around the country training people on LGBTQ health issues. Most of my time isn't spent in the coast states or big cities. Last week, I was in West Virginia. Before that, I was in Indiana and Mississippi.
At every LGBTQ training I give, people are the most interested in one thing: trans people. Considering I've spent years hearing the most common questions audiences ask about trans people, I thought I'd write up some of my answers in honor of the Jenner interview.
What is transgender?
It's a persistent feeling that your gender does not match the sex you were assigned at birth. Transgender is one type of gender identity. The opposite of transgender is cisgender. So most people are cisgender but I'm transgender. Evidence leads us to believe we are about .5 percent of the population, or one in every 200 people.
How is gender identity different than sexual orientation?
Sexual orientation indicates who you partner with. Gender identity indicates who you are inside. Everyone has a sexual orientation (lesbian, gay, bisexual, straight, etc.) and a gender identity (cisgender, transgender, etc).
What's the difference between transgender and transexual?
Transexual has traditionally meant people who fit in the gender binary of male or female, they just identify with the exact opposite category than they were assigned at birth.
Transgender has two meanings. Sometimes it's used as an umbrella term to gather together a variety of gender variant terminology, like apple is an umbrella term for Granny Smith, Cortland and my current favorite, Empire. Other times it can mean someone who doesn't fit male or female perfectly. Perhaps they feel like they're in the middle, or maybe they feel like a third gender. That said, these are all relatively new words and their exact meanings are still fluid, so just take this as a general guideline.
What if someone hasn't had any surgeries, is he or she still transgender/transexual?
Any idea how much the surgeries cost? For a trans woman, it's easily $100,000. Can you imagine if people wouldn't call you by your name until you paid $100,000? Now maybe it's easier to understand that we respect who people say they are, regardless of surgery, hormones or the information on their drivers license.
So what's trans*?
This is a newer way to indicate any of the many types of identities that could fall under the transgender umbrella. Trans (no asterisk) is also used in a similar style.
What does genderqueer mean?
It's usually a way to indicate someone falls outside the gender binary. So male or female isn't a good fit for them. Genderqueer people often blend traits of male and female together, or can again consider themselves on a totally different gender spectrum. Often used by younger people.
What are all those other identity names I need to know?
Don't worry about memorizing different terminology. If you want to respect a trans person, then echo back the terminology they use. If it's something that makes you uncomfortable, like queer, ask first to confirm it's what they prefer. While queer has a negative history, these days it is so accepted that if you can't say it when someone appears to prefer it, you're showing your discomfort instead of acceptance.
What are some important things to know about trans people?
We encounter levels of stigma and hostility that can sincerely jeopardize our lives. Those among us who cannot easily pass (this happens more frequently for trans women) get the largest brunt of that hostility. Those who are dually stigmatized, such as trans women of color, get the lion's share.
Here's a few stats: Forty-seven percent of trans adults report being suicidal; one-fifth of trans adults have been turned away from doctors; one-quarter of trans women of color are HIV-positive. Trans youth are at sincere risk of becoming suicidal.
If you have a trans youth in your life, do not be silent. Reach out to support them aggressively. You may be a lifeline for them. A great resource in that circumstance is to hook them up with a support group. Find a list of local LGBT community centers at LGBT CenterLink. The Trans Lifeline is (877) 565-8860.
What's this about using "they" as a pronoun?
If male or female doesn't fit you well, then he or she probably won't either. Some people prefer to use the singular they as their preferred pronoun (use it whenever you'd say he or her), some choose ze/zir as their pronoun (use it like he/her).
I'm not sure what pronoun to use with someone, how do you figure it out?
We just ask casually. And if we mess it up, we apologize and just move on. No need to go into a guilt fit -- just try harder.
A know a trans person but I keep getting the pronoun wrong, any hints?
Here's a good one: Have a bunch of imaginary conversations with that person in your mind, slowly getting the new pronoun right each time. Other hints: Don't avoid using a pronoun, it makes you look unwelcoming. One trick for being extra welcoming is to find reasons to use the correct pronoun/name a few extra times.
Any things I should avoid doing with a trans person?
Please don't ask me about my genitalia and I promise I won't ask about yours. Try not to write transgenders or transwomen/transmen; we're not a new breed of animal, just a type of human. Instead write transgender people, trans women/trans men (see that space?) Similarly we have not been transgendered, that sounds like we've been sunburned. Again, we are trans people.
What should I do?
Welcome us ferociously. Don't be silent. Stand up for our rights whenever you can. Educate yourself on whether your state/school/hospital protects trans rights -- fight for it if it does not. If you serve people, put out some sign you're welcoming, like a rainbow flag. Learn more if you need to. Love those trans youth especially hard.