If you are unfamiliar with transgendered issues, there are many good sources of information. At the bottom of this post, I’ll provide links to the best of them. In this document, I’d like to lay out what seem to me to be the main issues and definitions that you may be wondering about.
The main thing that seems to help people is to disentangle related but different terms and categories around sex and gender. After all, any talk about transsexualism or transgenderism assumes that we know what we mean by sex and gender, and that’s an awfully big assumption sometimes.
Sex is biological and chromosomal, and has to do with bodies. On one end of the spectrum is male, and on the other end is female, and in-between are people who are called intersexed.
Gender refers to how people act and think of themselves in relation to their sex. Unlike sex, gender is not stable across time and across cultures. What society expects men to act like in 2007 in Texas may be very different from what the ancient Romans expected or what tribesmen in Borneo expect. Gender can be thought of as a set of behaviors and beliefs that society encourages and teaches via toys, role models, movies, popular songs, schools, etc. In other words, gender is something society creates and enforces, even though most of us think of it as something biological and natural. When we’re talking about gender we’re talking about a spectrum with feminine on one end, masculine on the other end, and everything in-between (sometimes called androgyny).
We can distinguish between Gender Identity and Gender Expression, and here’s where we’ll get more into transgender issues. Gender Identity refers to how a specific individual feels about his/her gender. You might feel very masculine, for example, and that’s really got nothing to do with how your body is designed. When Shania Twain sings “Man, I Feel Like a Woman,” she’s expressing how she feels about herself, not describing what her body is like, and this is a good example of gender identity. It doesn’t strike most people as weird because Shania is a biological woman, so the fact that a biological woman (sex) feels like a woman (gender identity) seems normal and natural. But if Harrison Ford sings, “Man, I Feel Like a Woman,” we probably see this as an expression of a disconnect between his biology (sex) and how he feels (gender identity). And that conflict between sex and gender is called Gender Identity Disorder (GID, sometimes called Gender Dysphoria), or the nasty feeling that how you feel doesn’t match with how you were made.
Gender Expression refers to the kinds of things you do, wear, and say that signal to others (and to yourself to a large extent) how you are inside. To continue our previous example, if Shania Twain talks in a sing-songy way, cries at a Hallmark commercial, carries a purse slung over her shoulder, and uses lots of eyeliner, we might say that she’s expressing her gender in more or less conventional ways (i.e. what society sort of expects from feminine women). However, if Harrison Ford does the same things, many people may see that as comic because of the mixed signals we’re getting from a man (sex) who does those cross-gendered actions (feminine gender). There’s nothing natural that would prevent Harrison Ford from doing those things — he’s physically capable of them, and they’ve got nothing to do with his body, but many people might react in unpredictable ways to those femininely-gendered actions because they expect to experience sex and gender in more or less similar tracks. If Gender Identity is how we feel, then Gender Expression is how we act, or how we perform masculinity, femininity, or any combination of the two.
Finally, we come to sexual attraction (sometimes called sexual orientation), or who you’re attracted to. On one end of the spectrum is heterosexual and on the other end is homosexual, with everything in-between, which is usually called bi-sexual or omni-sexual. Who you’re attracted to and fall in love with has nothing to do with sex, gender identity, or gender expression, and there are millions of examples of lovers, couples, and casual daters that illustrate this. Sexual attraction gets really tricky when you’re looking at transgendered people because of the “trans” part — they’ve “crossed” from one gender to another, so it’s natural to ask, “does this mean they’ve also switched their sexual orientation?” If someone who was a heterosexual man who always was attracted to women becomes a woman who still likes women, is she now a lesbian? Nothing changed except he turned into a she — in other words, her orientation did not change a bit. Labels become awfully tricky, and some have suggested that hetero- and homo-sexual is less useful for trans people than androphilic (falls in love with men) and gynophilic (falls in love with women), but I’m not really sure this is that helpful, either. I figure you are attracted to someone and fall in love — and how you feel about yourself and how you express your gender is really a separate issue.
So we have a much more complicated view of the world when you look at things this way than a simple man-woman binary.
Sex: Male ----------------------------- Female
Gender Identity: Masculine ---------------------- Feminine
Gender Expression: Masculine ---------------------- Feminine
Attracted to: Women ------------------------------- Men
You could put an ‘x’ on these scales to describe one’s sex/gender/attraction, and you can see that there are literally millions of combinations. Maybe you’re born with a penis, but also with ovaries (intersex) and you identify as masculine, express yourself as masculine, and fall in love with men. Or maybe you’re male, feel 75% feminine, express 50/50 androgyny, and fall in love with women. What makes trans so tricky is that it makes things that seem so straightforward, like male/female, into spectrums with lots of valid points in between, and for lots of people, it’s confusing (even for trans people).
Final point. What does transgender or transsexual mean? “Trans” means crossing, so what you can imagine is that there’s a landscape with feminine on one side and masculine on the other, or male on one side or female on the other, or dresses on one side and hardhats on the other. When someone is trans, they cross from the extreme end of that landscape partly, or wholly, to the other side. To be a transvestite means to cross-dress (vestire meaning “to dress” in Latin), or to move from wearing only pants and shirts to sometimes wearing dresses. To be transgendered means to move from feeling/expressing yourself only as masculine to sometimes or always feeling/expressing yourself as feminine. To be transsexual means to move from having a masculine body to having a feminine body.
There’s a really nice short film called “Transgender Basics,” by Rosa Juel Nordentoft and produced by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of New York produced that does a better job than I at explaining all of this. You can watch it at their website, or on Google Video.
Queens University (Canada) Human Rights Office has a page with lots of helpful definitions.
Laura’s Playground, a support site for Transgendered.
Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, dealing with definitions and policy recommendations. Especially useful for workplace and school issues.
Lynn Conway’s extremely thorough website on Gender Basics and Transgenderism.