What does transgender mean?

Transgender is a term used to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Gender identity is a person's internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman (or boy or girl.) For transgender people, the sex they were assigned at birth and their own internal gender identity do not match.

A person may decide to change their outward appearance or not. Most transgender people seek to bring their bodies into alignment with their gender identity. This is called transition. 

As part of the transition process, many transgender people are prescribed hormones by their doctors to change their bodies. Some undergo surgeries as well. But not all transgender people can or will take those steps, and it's important to know that being transgender is not dependent upon medical procedures.

How is sexual orientation different from gender identity?

Sexual orientation describes a person's enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to another person (for example: straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual), while gender identity describes a person's, internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman, or someone outside of the gender binary.

Simply put: sexual orientation is about who you are attracted to and fall in love with; gender identity is about who you are.

Like everyone else, transgender people have a sexual orientation. Transgender people may be straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer. For example, a person who transitions from male to female and is attracted solely to men would typically identify as a straight woman. A person who transitions from female to male and is attracted solely to men would typically identify as a gay man.

What does non-binary mean, and is it different from being transgender?

Everyone has a gender identity, an internal sense of self and perception of one’s own gender. For some people their gender identity is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth (cisgender) and for some people their gender identity is different than the sex they were assigned at birth (transgender).

There have always been transgender people who felt that their gender identity didn’t fall neatly into the two binary categories of “man” or “woman.” In the past, trans people who felt that way used the words genderqueer and genderfluid to describe that experience. While those words are still used today, it’s now more common for people to call themselves non-binary if they feel their gender identity is something other than “man” or “woman.” Non-binary can mean many different things to different people.  There is no one right or wrong way to be non-binary, just like there is no right or wrong way to be transgender.

The bottom line is: listen to how someone uses the word non-binary to describe themselves and try to understand how they are using it. Many of them will be telling you that they are a transgender person who is non-binary, while others will be using non-binary in a different way to describe their experience. Regardless, simply accept that they know best how to describe themselves.

What name and pronoun do I use?

For some transgender people, being associated with their birth name is a tremendous source of anxiety, or it is simply a part of their life they wish to leave behind. Respect the name a transgender person is currently using. 

If you're unsure which pronoun a person uses, listen first to the pronoun other people use when referring to that person. The easiest thing to do is ask a person which pronouns they use. If you accidently use the wrong pronoun for someone, apologize quickly and sincerely, then move forward with intention. The bigger deal you make out of the situation, the more uncomfortable it is for everyone.

What should I do if my child tells me that they may be transgender?

1: Is My Child Transgender?

At some point, nearly all children will engage in behavior associated with different genders – girls will play with trucks, boys will play with dolls, girls will hate wearing dresses and boys will insist on wearing them – and gender nonconforming behavior does not necessarily mean that a child is transgender. That said, sometimes these behaviors can clue us in to what a child may be feeling about their gender – with some children identifying as another gender than the one they were assigned by the time they are toddlers.

The general rule for determining whether a child is transgender or non-binary (rather than gender nonconforming or gender variant) is if the child is consistent, insistent, and persistent about their transgender identity. In other words, if your 4-year-old son wants to wear a dress or says he wants to be a girl once or twice, he probably is not transgender; but if your child who was assigned male at birth repeatedly insists over the course of several months--or years, that she is a girl, then she is probably transgender. Children who are gender non-binary---in other words, they do not feel that they are a boy or a girl, but perhaps a bit of both, or neither, may not have the words at a very young age to capture that feeling, but over time it may become more clear to them, and ultimately to you, that they are non-binary, versus a trans girl or a trans boy.

Naturally, there are endless variations in the ways that children express themselves, so the best option if you think your child might be transgender is to consult a gender therapist. 

2: What not to do.

Trying to change your child’s gender identity – either by denial, punishment, reparative therapy or any other tactic – is not only ineffective; it is dangerous and can do permanent damage to your child’s mental health. So-called “reparative” or “conversion” therapies, which are typically faith-based, have been uniformly condemned as psychologically harmful by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and numerous similar professional organizations.

3: Simple Ways to Start Supporting Your Transgender Child  

-Always use the name and pronouns that align with your child’s gender identity.

-Be your child’s advocate – call out transphobia when you see it and ask that others respect your child’s identity.

-Educate yourself about the concerns facing transgender youth and adults.

-Learn what schools can and should do to support and affirm your child.

-Encourage your child to stand up for themselves when it is safe to do so, and to set boundaries when necessary.

-Assure your child that they have your unconditional love and support.