What does it mean if someone is transgender?

BY Anna Walker

1st Jan 2015 Life

What does it mean if someone is transgender?
The transgender community has entered the media consciousness at an unprecedented rate in the last ten years. Here are some of the most common questions about what it means to be transgender answered. 

What does transgender mean?

Transgender is a word used to describe people whose internal sense of their gender differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
This could include, for example, somebody who was born male but identifies as a woman. The sex they were physically born with and the gender they feel inside do not match. Transgender people often (though not always) report feeling that they were born into the wrong body.
A wide variety of terms are used by the transgender community to describe themselves, including but not limited to, transsexual, gender fluid, gender-queer or gender non-conforming.
transgender march
A Home Office study conducted between 2013 and 2015 estimated that there are between 300,000 and 500,00 transgender people living in the UK.
A person who identifies as transgender may or may not:
  • Receive hormone therapy
  • Have gender-related surgical procedures
  • Receive legal recognition of their gender
It is no longer a legal requirement to have surgery or hormones in order for the government and society to recognise people as the gender of their choice.
The medical term used to describe what transgender people go through is gender dysphoria. This is a medical condition for which people can access NHS treatment. Importantly, it is not deemed a mental illness.
Many experts believe that the hormone levels that a baby is exposed to while developing in the womb may contribute to the development of gender dysphoria, but this has not been proved.
Being transgender is by no means a modern phenomenon. Trans people are well documented throughout history and across the world and cultures. It is only recently, however, that Western cultures have developed the language to describe being transgender.

How do people know if they’re transgender?

The first signs of gender dysphoria often present themselves from a very young age. Children may refuse to wear clothes that are typically for boys or girls, for example.
For some, the realisation may not have happened so early on, though they may always remember feeling different to their peers, or like they didn’t fit in.
Because Western societies have only recently developed the terminology to describe being transgender, many transgender people are only recently discovering their identities and may have spent many years hiding the gender they felt inside.

How do I refer to someone if I’m not sure of their gender identity?

Always use the pronouns that the person uses to describe themselves. If you still aren’t sure then it’s better to just ask. The awkwardness of asking is far preferable to the problems that could arise by using the wrong pronouns.
Misgendering, a term used to describe the phenomenon of calling someone by a gendered pronoun they don’t identify with, is seen as an insult by many transgender people because it characterises them in a way they don’t relate to.
Some opponents of trans rights deliberately misgender trans people to express their disapproval. This acts as a constant reminder to trans people that large sections of the population still don’t understand or approve of their personal identity, which can be very upsetting.

What are the particular challenges of being transgender in Britain today?

  • In the United Kingdom transgender people are extremely likely to become the victim of a hate crime at some time in their lives. In a 2013 survey of 215 transgender people, over 40% reported experiencing hate crime in the past 12 months alone. 70% of these crimes included verbal abuse, 5.6% reported physical assault and over 7% reported sexual assault. Over 67% never felt comfortable reporting the crime, suggesting that the vast majority of trans hate crime is underreported.
  • The process of gaining official status as your preferred gender in the UK is a long one. First, you must pick between male and female, which complicates matters further for those who identify as gender fluid or non-binary. Then you must provide evidence including a birth certificate, medical report and proof that you have lived as your desired gender for at least two years (such as bills or a passport). This rises to six if you’re married or in a civil partnership. There is also an initial £140 admin fee before handing in any documentation.
  • When transgender people are finally referred to a gender identity clinic, the waiting time for an initial appointment can be frustratingly long. The average time period is currently 18 months in the UK. For those people who find living as the sex they were assigned at birth highly traumatic, this can mean opting for private treatment, which is hugely costly and can often drive them into extreme debt.
  • Transgender people are at a far higher risk of suicide than the rest of the population. A 2014 UK survey found that 48% of transgender people under the age of 26 had attempted suicide, while 59% had considered doing so. 
These are just a few of the many issues reported by Britain’s transgender population, and each individual will experience their own unique set of challenges.
Image of a placard saying I love my transgender child

What does the government say?

The current Minister for Women and Equalities, Nicky Morgan told us that the current government is “committed to ensuring that everyone has the freedom to fulfil their potential and be true to who they are, regardless of their gender identity. Over the past few years, we have come a long way in raising awareness and increasing support for transgender individuals. We must continue to tackle discrimination, harassment and victimisation of all LGB&T people.”
“While we should be proud of the progress we have made, we must do more to support older transgender people and make sure they feel able to speak out and make their voices heard.”
“Transgender equality has powerfully entered public debate in the last few years and I have seen first-hand some of the fantastic work that is being done to raise awareness and support transgender people here in the UK. We must continue to work together to build a more tolerant and inclusive society where people can live their lives free from fear and able to fulfil their potential.”
Animated image of a group of people holding up flags celebrating being transgender

How can I be supportive of a transgender person in my life?

  • Try to educate yourself about transgender issues by reading articles like this and resources released by helpful charities such as The Gender TrustMermaids and Press for Change. It’s most useful, however, to hear about what life is like as a transgender person from transgender people themselves. The YouTube project My Genderation, an independent documentary series exploring gender variance, is a great place to start. 
  • Know that every transgender person has a different journey, and will identify slightly differently. Being transgender is not their defining feature.
  • Use the names or pronouns that they have told you they prefer. If you’re not sure, it’s always better to ask.
  • Don’t make any assumptions about the person just because they are transgender. It’s important to remember that being trans has nothing to do with a person’s sexual orientation and that not every trans person will necessarily be seeking hormonal or surgical treatments. If you have a reason to know these details, ask. Otherwise, try to appreciate that it’s really not your business.
  • Keep lines of communication open with the transgender person in your life, and let them know that you are there to listen, without judgement, whenever they need to talk.
  • Get some support for yourself. Finding out that somebody you are close to is transgender or transitioning can be a big adjustment and you are not alone in the way you feel. Support groups and counselling can be found through most transgender charities, including Gendered Intelligence for parents and family and The Beaumont Society for partners.
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