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Transgender 101

Transgender visibility is at an all-time high in the media. Television shows like Orange is the New Black, Glee, and Transparent have brought transgender characters to the forefront. Recently, ABC's 20/20 ran a two-hour special interview of Bruce Jenner, who came out as a transgender woman.

This news may spark many questions from those who don't know much about this subject. In fact, some terminology around transgender issues may be a bit confusing as well. Here is a quick look at some terms to be familiar with:

Transgender is an umbrella term that is used to describe people whose sex assigned at birth does not match their gender identity. Some people fit on the gender binary of male or female, while others do not. These folks may identify as gender non-conforming, gender variant, genderbending, or genderqueer.

Transsexual is more of a technical term to reference someone who has undergone sexual reassignment surgery. This term is largely outdated and, for transgender people who do not elect to have surgery, this term does not fit.

Sex refers to a person's anatomy and biology, basically what parts they are born with.

Sexual orientation is a term used to describe a person's sexual and romantic attraction to others. Sexual orientation is unrelated to gender identity. 

When someone comes out as transgender, they may change their name and use different pronouns. It is very important to use the person's preferred name and pronouns. Some people prefer he/him or she/her, while others use the preferred pronouns, they/them, which can be used as a singular gender neutral pronoun.

If you do not know which pronouns to use, it is appropriate to quietly and respectfully ask the person about their preference. For instance, Bruce Jenner stated that he would continue to use the male pronouns, he/him, until he presents in public as female, at which time it would be appropriate to refer to Jenner as she/her. Using someone's preferred pronouns is very meaningful and can help you to be a good ally.

If you know someone who is transgender, you may have many questions about this. Here are some general tips for dos and don'ts of what to say, and what not to say.

Dos:

  • Do ask about a person's preferred name and pronouns.
  • Do let the person know that you support them and care about them.
  • Do keep it confidential if someone comes out to you as transgender, unless told otherwise.

Don'ts:

  • Don't ask about their body parts or if they've had surgery.
  • Don't call them by the wrong pronouns or name (and if you do, simply correct your error and move on).
  • Don't say things like, "So you used to be a man (or woman)?" or "So you want to be a woman (or man)?" 
  • Don't ask about their sex life or make assumptions about their sexual orientation.

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