Understanding Transgender People: The Basics

See other materials like this at our About Transgender People resource hub!

"I'm a transgender woman. That means my birth certificate said 'male,' but I always knew I was a girl. I was so relieved when I told my mom about how I felt – and instead of being mad, she was supportive." - Grace

"Though my birth certificate said female, I have always felt like a boy. I kept it inside for many years, spending countless sleepless nights being terrified of what my family and friends would think and worrying about being rejected at school. I finally transitioned to the man I am today when I was 20 years old. Though I have faced discrimination by many people since then, I have also received invaluable support. That is what keeps me going." - Alex

Understanding what it is like to be transgender can be hard, especially if you have never met a transgender person.

Transgender is a broad term that can be used to describe people whose gender identity is different from the gender they were thought to be when they were born. “Trans” is often used as shorthand for transgender.

To treat a transgender person with respect, you treat them according to their gender identity, not their sex at birth. So, someone who lives as a woman today is called a transgender woman and should be referred to as “she” and “her.” A transgender man lives as a man today and should be referred to as “he” and “him.”

(Note: NCTE uses both the adjectives “male” and “female” and the nouns “man” and “woman” to refer to a person’s gender identity.)

Gender identity is your internal knowledge of your gender – for example, your knowledge that you’re a man, a woman, or another gender. Gender expression is how a person presents their gender on the outside.That might include behavior, clothing, hairstyle, voice or body characteristics. Everyone has a gender identity, including cisgender – or non-transgender – people. If someone’s gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth, then they are cisgender, or “cis" for short.

Sex is often used in a medical or scientific contexts. Sex is a label — male or female — that you’re assigned by a doctor at birth based on the appearance of the genitals you’re born with. It doesn’t define who you are, or what your gender identity might turn out to be.

When a person begins to live according to their gender identity, rather than the gender they were thought to be when they were born, this time period is called gender transition. Deciding to transition can take a lot of reflection. Many transgender people risk social stigma, discrimination, and harassment when they tell other people who they really are. Despite those risks, being open about one’s gender identity can be life-affirming and even life-saving.

Possible steps in a gender transition may or may not include changing your clothing, appearance, name, or the pronoun people use to refer to you (like “she,” “he,” or “they”). If they can, some people change their identification documents, like their driver’s license or passport, to better reflect their gender. And some people undergo hormone therapy or other medical procedures to change their physical characteristics and make their body match the gender they know themselves to be. All transgender people are entitled to the same dignity and respect, regardless of whether or not they have been able to take any legal or medical steps.

Some transgender people identify as neither a man nor a woman, or as a combination of male and female, and may use terms like nonbinary or genderqueer to describe their gender identity. Those who are nonbinary often prefer to be referred to as “they” and “them.”

It is important to use respectful terminology, and treat transgender people as you would treat any other person. This includes using the name the person has asked you to call them (not their old name) as well as the pronouns they want you to use. If you aren’t sure what pronouns a person uses, just ask politely.

Visit our About Transgender People resource hub for more information! Some suggestions:

For more information about transgender people generally, see Frequently Asked Questions about Transgender People.

For more information about non-binary people, see Understanding Non-Binary People.

For more information about how to be supportive of the transgender people in your life, see Supporting the Transgender People in Your Life.

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