What is the difference between sex and gender? Sex is strictly biological – the physical body – while gender encompasses biological, cognitive, and social aspects of a human being, including identity, expression, and the expectations of others. Because gender and sex are not the same thing, it is possible for a person’s sex and gender to disagree. When this happens, it can be extremely problematic for the person dealing with this incongruity, and it can often be life-threatening, due to the potential for suicide. This sex/gender incongruity has been determined by many professional organizations and courts to be a medical condition.
What is gender identity? Gender identity is a primary aspect of gender. It is how a person sees and feels about him- or herself. For most people, gender identity corresponds with physical sex. For some, the two are not in alignment. People whose gender identity and physical sex do not agree are often called transgender (preferred) or transgendered (preferred by me, but considered offensive by some others), although each person has his or her own way of identifying.
Does this have anything to do with sexual orientation? Gender identity and sexual orientation are different concepts in Western culture. Sexual orientation refers to a person’s attractions. Gender identity refers to who a person believes him- or herself to be. Transgender and transsexual people can have any sexual orientation. It is also possible for sexual attraction to change after transition. It is better not to put too much importance on labels such as gay, lesbian, and straight. In many ways, trans people confound the “simple” expectations of sexual orientation that go with such labels.
What is the binary gender system? Western culture, and many other cultures, have a two-gender system that corresponds with two identified sexes – male and female. At birth, a person is identified as either male or female, based on the appearance of the body, and is assigned that sex and the cultural gender roles and expectations that go along with that sex. In a binary gender system, there is not much room for crossover or variation from that assigned sex and gender.
What is the difference between a transgender person and a transsexual person? The term transgender is often used to refer to anyone who deviates from the very strict gender norms of our binary gender system, either intentionally or unintentionally. Those who transgress gender norms often suffer repercussions, in the form of discrimination or even violence. A more narrow and specific definition of transgender would be a person whose gender identity is not in alignment with his or her physical body, either all or part of the time.
The term transsexual is generally used to refer to a person who has undergone medical treatments, such as hormones and/or surgery, to correct the physical body to match the gender identity. It can also refer to a person who lives full-time in the gender that matches his or her identity, whether or not that person has made any physical changes with hormones and/or surgery. Another definition is a person who is born with a medical condition that causes disagreement between the physical body and the gender identity. Like the term transgender, different people define the term transsexual in different ways.
Some transsexual people see themselves as transgender. Others do not. Many transsexual people, after they have undergone medical treatments to correct the body, do not see themselves as transsexual at all, but as men or women who have remedied a medical condition.
What is transition? Transition is a process that can involve any or all of the following: medical treatments, including hormones and/or surgery, in order to bring the body into alignment with the gender identity; legal procedures, such as name change and gender marker change on legal documents; and social adjustments, including adjusting to living in the gender that matches one’s identity. There are many terms used to describe this transition, including gender transition, gender reassignment, sex reassignment, and sex correction.
The simplest, and most appropriate, term is “transition,” but the most familiar term to many non-trans people is “sex change.” Most people in the transgender and transsexual communities see this term as derogatory. There are also many who do not like the terms “gender transition” or “gender reassignment,” because they have always been the gender that they are – they have always had the same gender identity – so they have not “reassigned” their gender. They have corrected their sex – their physical body – to match that gender.
What is gender diversity? Gender diversity encompasses all areas of gender. Gender diverse people are often considered those who do not conform to the specific gender norms set out by the culture. Some would consider all gender diverse people to be transgender. Those who use a narrower definition of transgender would not.
Why is it important to learn about gender identity, gender diversity, and transgender and transsexual people?
Gender diverse people are all around us. More and more transgender and transsexual people are going through transition or are expressing their gender in ways that might be confusing to some or that might not conform to the expectations of the binary gender system. In the past, people who transitioned quit their job and moved away to start over again. Now many are remaining in their neighborhood and in their employment situation. Understanding gender diversity can make it easier to interact with the public, to work with a gender diverse boss, employee, or coworker, or to handle a transition in the workplace.
Trans Etiquette for Non-Trans People
Working with, befriending, or otherwise interacting with trans people is not scary or difficult. We are like everyone else mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, interesting, boring — just about everything. We have various occupations, from doctor to ditch-digger. You meet us at parties, at the mall, at the grocery store, or at the local hockey game. In many cases, you might not even recognize us as trans. But if you do, or if you are the friend or co-worker of someone who is transitioning, there are some basic points of etiquette that you can keep in mind to help you interact respectfully with a trans person.
Treat trans people as you would treat anyone else. Don’t do things to call attention to a trans person, even if your goal is to let that person know that you accept him or her – no winking, smiling, little innuendos. If you wink at a person, he or she might think you want a date. If you do, then go for it.
Use the correct name and pronoun. The correct name is whatever the person has given you. The correct pronoun is whatever gender the person is presenting. Most cultures have clothing or other appearance markers that designate gender for that culture – that are considered masculine or feminine.
Names also give off clues, because most cultures have names that are considered masculine or feminine. If you ask the person’s name and he or she says “Pat,” then the joke’s on you.
If you are unsure of which pronoun to use, and you really need to know, just ask – most trans people won’t be offended and see this as a sign of respect. But don’t ask if the person is obviously expressing a female or male gender.
If you make a mistake with a pronoun or name, move on. Don’t make a big deal out of it. If you are alone with the person, apologize and drop it. If you are in a crowd, just move on. Don’t draw attention to your slip-up by making a face or groaning, falling all over yourself to apologize, or making excuses to others around you. It will just make things uncomfortable for everyone.
Let it go and make sure that you use the correct name and pronoun the next chance you get. But don’t stick in some hokey, off-topic phrase just so you can use the right name or pronoun – we are wise to that, and other people will just think you’re having a ’60s flashback.
(Keep in mind that, in some work settings where there are laws covering gender identity, intentionally using an incorrect name or pronoun because you don’t “approve” of the trans person or because you want to shame or out that person could be considered harassment and grounds for disciplinary action. Trans people know the difference between an accidental slip-up and intentional misuse.)
Don’t say, I’ll never get that pronoun (or name) right. When you say this, you are saying, “I don’t care enough to try.” One thing that helps is to see the person as an entirely new and different individual instead of a man who you now have to call “she” or a woman who you now have to call “he.” Try it – it really works.
Don’t say, You will always be a man (or woman) to me. Again, you are saying, “I don’t care enough or respect you enough to see who you really are,” “My feelings are more important than yours,” or “I don’t recognize you as a person.” This isn’t about you. It is about the person with whom you want to stay friends.
Don’t touch the person or ask personal questions unless you are invited to do so. Trans people are not public property. Touching something on a person to see if it is “real” or asking personal questions about a person’s body or sex life is inappropriate – unless the person has invited you to “ask me anything.” Otherwise, do not do or say anything that you would not do or say to anyone else.
Don’t OUT a trans person. If you see a person on the street that you know to be trans, it is a private matter and not appropriate to tell your friends that the person is trans. It is also not appropriate to mention anything that would “out” a trans person if you are with that person in a public setting – unless you want that person to tell everyone what you did at the office party last year.
Don’t make assumptions. Don’t assume that the trans person you are talking to is politically liberal (or conservative), straight (or gay), happy (or unhappy), poor (or rich), and so on. We are all very different.
And don’t assume that this person wants to educate you about trans issues or even discuss them. If the person wants to talk about trans issues, he or she will bring them up. For some of us, talking about trans stuff is like being at work all the time. If you’re stuck for conversation, the weather is always a good fallback position. Trans people get hot and cold, too.
Use common sense and respect.