What Does Transgender Mean?

As a therapist who specializes in mental health care for transgender people, I get a lot of questions from non transgender people. To some, the increasing visibility and awareness of and news about transgender people is surprising and confusing; so many new terms, ways of speaking to and about trans people, and seemingly awkward forms of address.

This article’s purpose is to give you a basic knowledge and understanding of transgender issues. It is not everything you need to know about transgender people, but it will give you the basics.

One of the reasons it is critical for there to be accurate information in the mainstream is that the lack of understanding about transgender people puts this population at a very high risk. Due to ignorance, fear of the unfamiliar, rigid religious beliefs, and transphobia, trans people, especially trans women, are assaulted and murdered at an alarming rate—22 in the US in 2016; 16 by July of 2017     

                                simply for trying to live authentically.

The suicide rate, especially among trans youth is equally alarming. In a 2015 study by Western University of London, Ontario, reported in the Toronto Sun, “35% of trans people seriously considered suicide over 12 months and 11% tried to kill themselves. What brought the risk down significantly was the support of parents. When they were most supportive, the percentage who seriously considered suicide dropped by more than half (57%)."The support was such a huge buffer," said researcher Ayden Scheim, who began his transition at 15. "They didn't lose their housing (because they could still live at home). They had food to eat and someone to talk to about the (difficulties they face).”

So here are the basics.

Cisgender/Cis: The Oxford Dictionary defines the word “cisgender” as “Denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex.”  In other words, if you’re comfortable and at home, in the body, you were born with, defined as your sex, then you are not transgender and therefore cisgender, or cis for short. It’s not an insult. It started out as an innocuous scientific word used by biologists in their research and means “on the same side of.” It was adopted by trans advocates, trans scholars and writers, and many in the trans community because there needed to be a neutral word to differentiate between trans people and those who are not trans. The one that was commonly used was “normal.” Trans people are not abnormal; they simply don’t fit into the sex they were born with. Defining trans people as “not the norm” or “not normal” is hurtful and inaccurate. And what’s “normal” mean anyway?

Your Sex vs. Your Gender Identity: Your sex is the body you were born into. As soon as you pop out, the doctor or midwife takes a look at what’s between your legs and assigns you as either male or female; that’s your sex. Gender identity is the gender—masculine, feminine, non binary, gender neutral gender fluid, etc.—that you know yourself to be. If you are cis person reading this, do you have any doubt about your gender? If you are happily female, and one morning you woke up in a male body, how comfortable would you be looking in a mirror? Multiply that by a gazillion and that’s how people born transgender feel Every. Single. Day unless they have the means to transition. Give this some serious thought.

Gender Dysphoria: This is a diagnosis given to transgender people by mental health professionals. It is not a mental illness, simply a descriptor. Transgender people who have discovered who they are but do not have access and support for transition suffer with depression, anxiety, and other stress related issues due to the incongruence between their inside and their outside. The pre-transition suicide rate for transgender people is markedly higher than the general population. As stated in the Western University article above, transgender people with a support network of family, friends, and their community are at far less risk.

The Critical Importance of Pronouns: Transgender people are literally fighting for their lives. Calling a trans person by the wrong pronoun is painful for them. Let me repeat that for emphasis: it is painful for them. Why? Because being called by the wrong pronoun—being misgendered—negates who they know themselves to be. Trans women usually use she/her. Trans men usually use he/him. Non-binary people usually use they/them. (Please do not give non-binary people grief about their chosen pronouns not being grammatical. The English language doesn’t have a good non-binary word yet. And frankly, quibbling over grammar makes you look like a jerk.)

Transition: Transition is a long, varied, difficult, and often very expensive process of altering one’s body to present the correct gender. Many trans people begin by wearing properly gendered or androgynous clothing and beginning hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Some go on to have gender confirmation surgery (also known as gender reassignment surgery) Trans men generally have “top surgery” in which most of the breast tissue is removed and the chest is contoured to conform to the male form. Some—not all—trans people have surgery that transforms their genitals to conform to their gender. Please note, it is extremely rude to ask a trans person if they have had surgery, or what’s in their jeans or under their skirt.

MtF/FtM: These are common terms you will encounter. MtF is male-to-female transition; FtM is female-to-male transition. But there are other options.  Read on.

Binary/Non-Binary:  Binary is an either or sort of word. In many people’s mind, you can only be male or female, but these are only two ends of a spectrum. Some trans people are binary: MtF or FtM. But quite a lot of trans people are non-binary, meaning they do not identify with either end of the spectrum but somewhere in the space between.  This is probably the hardest concept for cis people to get their heads around. Other terms include gender neutral and gender fluid. Each has a different shade of meaning. Transition for non-binary people may include HRT and surgeries, or it may not.

Transgender people are not the same as transvestites. Transvestites, or cross-dressers, are usually heterosexual people who enjoy wearing the clothes of the other gender binary. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is not the same as being transgender. Cross-dressers pretend. Transgender people exist.

And finally, one of my least favorite questions about trans gender people, and probably the one I get asked most often.

“Suddenly there’s transgender this and transgender that all over the place! Don’t you think it might just be a fad?” to which is added in the case of teens “How do teens know what they are anyway?”

There have been transgender people from the time humans evolved. They permeate our history. Here are a few books on the subject. It’s really interesting reading!

Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman, by Leslie Feinberg, and Transgender History: the Roots of Today’s Revolution by Susan Stryker.

Additionally, you can find more information on Tips For Allies by going to the GLADD by clicking here

Being transgender is not a fad, a mental illness, or cross dressing. It is a fellow human being’s lived reality. There are many ways of being in this world, and being trans gender is one of them. As a cis person you can be an ally by educating yourself, keeping an open mind and heart, and if given the chance, talk to transgender people themselves. They can tell you far more than I can about what it is to be trans.


Lynn Flewelling, MA, MFTI is a specialist in working with transgender individuals and women's issues. You can learn about Lynn click here You can contact Lynn via this website or by calling (951) 778-0230 or by texting (951) 323-2182. 




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